What happens when you’ve got an enormous amount of stuff that you don’t use, barely touch, forget your even have but your emotional attachment to it is for real.
Take for example, a wispy little kerchief I run across from time to time. I don’t use kerchiefs (images of Mary and Edith from Downton Abbey come to mind) but I get how they were useful before good ‘ol disposable Kleenexes.
Every so often though, I open the bottom drawer to my nightstand and catch a glance of my kerchief and a chain of memories start to fall into place. Almost twenty years prior to my wedding, my family took a once in a lifetime epic vacation, all five of us, to Italy. One of the most memorable days of the trip was a day long boat excursion where we stopped off at a tiny fishing island called Burano. The local folk on Burano specialized in fresh fish, lace and embroidered items. My Mom secretly bought a kerchief and then tucked it away, waiting until I got married to give it to me.
When I see it, I take a long pause as the memories come whooshing back in and my heart fills with longing for my Mom, who has since passed. I also feel happiness and gratitude, the kerchief brings back that fun day with my family and woven into its fabric is nostalgia to infinity and beyond (as Buzz Lightyear would say).
We all have sentimental items. We are heart-centered creatures by nature. We form attachments and many of our belongings become objects and symbols that remind and hold a place for us to revisit an experience: “that time,” “that moment,” “that trip.”
But what about when our sentimental items start to get overwhelming in numbers and you know something’s got to give? We all know we can’t keep everything but when it’s meaningful, sacred even, how do you figure out what to do with it?
This isn’t an easy task but here are a few road lamps to help you navigate this twisty part of the organizing journey.
- This is an opportunity to apply one of my all time favorite rules: You get to keep whatever you want! Don’t pressure yourself to have to get rid of anything. When you open the drawer or dig into that box, do it with curiosity and wonder for what’s there, not with the agenda for tossing, purging or making more space—that mindset can often lead to regret and hasty decision making. With sentimental items, especially in the beginning of the process, you’ll get farther if you lead with curiosity and exploration.
- Expect sentimental items to take more time than the Tupperware drawer or your pile of old t-shirts. This is because precious items usually hold a lot of memories that bring up emotions! Items that have meaning for us often need more unwinding and more thought.
- Anticipate that emotions will surface and bracket your time so that you’re working with precious items in shorter time segments. If you’ve had some experience clutter clearing/organizing and you know you’re usually good for a few hours, try half that amount of time when it comes to sentimental items. We often tire out more quickly when we’re dealing with our history.
- Something I’ve noticed over decades of organizing is that the process starts to speed up and take less time. At the start of a session for example, it can feel all sludgy and heavy but then a flow and groove starts to kick in and the process gets smoother and goes quicker.
Uh-Oh! Bad news. This is not the case when it comes to working with sentimental items. (Sorry!) I can’t stress enough that the nature of our sentimental items seems to go hand in hand with emotions, memories and history and that takes a bit more energy and yes, time, to get through.
For example: You probably won’t want to just toss out a whole file of papers marked “Dad-Genealogy” while on the other hand, you truly may not be all that thrilled to have to go through it, item by item. More times that I can count, however, clients have found gems, a missing piece, a clipping or an article that blew their minds or contained something they didn’t know that they were elated to discover!
For those reasons, again, take your time, journey with what’s there and anticipate a range of emotions surfacing.
Sentimental items are the marathon of clutter clearing/organizing, not the 5k. Given decades of experience in this arena, I’ve also seen it yield a unique opportunity to heal, release old emotions and provide immense peace and relief for having gone through it with awareness and love.