How to Get Rid of Things: Understanding The Sentimental Mind

When I was quite young, probably around 8, I climbed up into our house's attic and came across piles of my old toys. I felt washed over in happy memories and if I hadn't been a sentimental guy before then, I certainly was after. Ever since, I've loved coming across objects that allow me to relive experiences and hated getting rid of things.

Unfortunately, this is a habit that is keeping me from more important things I want in my life like flexibility, organization, a kickass work environment, reduced mental burden and a focus on what actually matters.

I've wanted to pare down for awhile, but struggled with it. I finally took my recent move as an opportunity to figure out how to overcome this pestering obstacle. By the end, I cleared out all but a few books, 6 bags of clothing (that spanned at least 10 years!) and endless other gizmos, gadgets and souvenirs. Great success!

What I discovered is that although clearing out junk is a physical act, the barriers to doing it are predominantly mental.

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Why Get Rid of Things?

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As you know if you've read about what I learned when I fell in love with piano scales, I think figuring out the whys is the first step to success in any endeavor. For years, I had no reason why when it came to getting rid of things - and I didn't. So, why did I now?

People like myself live in the their memory's clutter for years upon years and become numb to the drag it adds to their life. It slows you down, cramps you up. It makes it hard to move and hard to work. It means you're stuck where you are because transplanting yourself to a better environment would just be much too much hassle.

It means your brain is trying to track all of the objects floating through your life but, unable to do so, it just wastes energy on empty brain loops as it tries to mentally collect and connect all the various pieces.

It means incorporating new, important objects into your life is more difficult because space has to be found or made for it.

Why should it be difficult to add important things into our life just because it's hard to rid ourselves of old things? Why should we hesitate to purchase a new, genuinely useful book simply because our old, stagnating ones are consuming all the space?

All of these issues are solved simply by cutting ties with the stuff weighing me down. These are my reasons why, you'll no doubt find many of your own.

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Why Save Things?

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What about the other side of the issue? Could understanding why we save things help us get rid of things?

Most of the time I don't keep things because I use them - after all, we really only use so much in our lives at a given time. There are two main reasons we save things:

1. We're worried that, no matter how unlikely, we might want to use them someday.

This makes sense evolutionarily speaking. Resources are limited. Saving potentially valuable tools and items is critical for survival in a world of scarcity.

From the moment I could walk I gathered up any piece of metal I found on the street, hoarding them all to build with later. It was essentially instinct for me to do this, but as I grew older I became more aware of how quickly my mind could rationalize saving these random pieces of junk - and I know I'm not the only one.

Though it may not be the case forever, most reading this currently live in a world of incomprehensible abundance. The amount of freedom a barely-useful object takes away,  no matter how small, is not worth the baggage. If it becomes useful later, it will likely be available again, at least in essence.

2. Things have sentimental value - they are an anchor to a memory of a past event.

This is predominantly what saving things is about to me. Not being able to let go. Fear of losing the past completely.

But fear is never the right guide. When I realize I'm being lead by fear, I try to replace it with curiosity and trust.

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New Mentality #1: Trust in Yourself

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Justifying keeping things on these terms has very rarely served me well. It seems to stem from a lack of trust in my memory and, in a greater sense, myself and the world.

Realizing that my memories exist solely on their own helped me realize that I can trust myself to conjure them up when they need to be and made it easier to detach from the things themselves.

Even more important than my memories is what I'm actually doing now - to trust in my ability to live each day to its fullest and be making new great memories. No surprise here: getting rid of things makes that a lot easier.

A final aspect is trusting that the world will always have what I need and that I will always be capable of doing what I need to get it. This can mean many things but ultimately comes down to letting go of hoarding tons of stuff just because it might be useful someday.

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New Mentality #2: Things Want to Be Used

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I personify all of my objects. On our first trip to Lebanon as a family when I was 9, our camera got stolen. I cried and cried. Why would losing an object have such an emotional impact on me?

Because I imagined it lonely, away from it's family, in the hands of some undeserving impostor, mistreating it. I don't quite go that extreme anymore, but it is still part of what I have to deal with when I get rid of things:

  • "Man, this has served me so well for so many years, does it really deserve to be thrown away?"
  • Or the other end of the spectrum "I never really put this to use the way it deserved, shouldn't I hang on to it a bit more?"
  • "Is someone else going to care about this the way I did?"
  • "Can I really go my whole life without seeing this ever again?!"

All of these thoughts ran through my head when I was recently selling my pick-up truck. I loved that truck. It served me well but lately I hadn't been using it much. For awhile I was thinking about storing it somewhere and then I realized:

If my truck really were a living creature, it's purpose would be to be used. Not to weigh me down. I realized I am disrespecting my things by leaving them laying around, dormant, trapped merely to serve my memories. They have a purpose that I'm holding them back from.

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Not everyone needs to get rid of stuff, but some people want to and just can't seem to do it. Some people would want to if they realized it was possible at all. Most start by just digging in, but I think it's worthwhile to think about what's going on in your mind that's making it so difficult. Figuring out the Whys and working out from there is usually a pretty good way to start.

That being said, once you've got that figured out, the next step is to devise methods that side-step those barriers. In my next article, I'll talk about a few I've used.

Some things we'd all love to hear about:

  • Would your life be better of if you had less stuff? Why?
  • Why do you have the things you have?
  • If you're good at getting rid of crap you don't need, what is the fundamental mentality that drives your behavior? What runs through your head as you throw something into the trashcan?

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