I don’t own a lot of sentimental items, but the largest by far is the upright piano in our family room. My dad gave it to my mom when I was a baby, and when my mom played I was instantly calm. It was the piano she taught me to play on many years ago. Occasionally I will play it now and my muscle memory is reactivated as my fingertips move across the keys. I hope one day to teach my boys how to play as well.
Sentimental is defined as “of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.” Sentimental items evoke memories of our past: places we’ve been, people we’ve loved, specific moments in time.
Over the course of my minimalist journey, I have read many articles about sentimental items. The Minimalists’ quote seems to sum up the popular advice: “Our memories are not in our things. Our memories are inside us.” To make sure we don’t drown in sentimental clutter, we are told to “keep the best of the best and declutter the rest” by taking a photo to preserve the memory of the item.
Intellectually, I agree with this approach. I know the piano itself does not hold the memory of my mom and I playing duets. I know a photo or video of me playing the piano would make me smile and help me remember the experience with fondness. But a photo and video are not the same as the feel of the keys under my fingertips.
What has been missing from the conversation around sentimental items is an inclusion of our senses and the interplay between our senses, our memories, and our emotions. A sensory approach allows us to 1) understand why we want to hold onto a physical sentimental item because of how we experience it and 2) be able to more easily let go of sentimental items that aren’t as meaningful to us because of this awareness.
Looking to our Senses for Answers
Think about a sentimental item that is important to you. From a sensory perspective, what about the item evokes memories of the past? The way it looks? Sounds? Smells? Feels? Tastes? A combination? It is important to understand the interplay of our senses when it comes to the items we cherish, as well as how to determine what items to declutter based upon how our sensory memory works.
Sight: Photographs, old letters, journals, souvenirs- I would argue that most sentimental items are kept because our memories are triggered when we look at them, and it is the dominant sense for determining what sentimental items we keep. But sentimental items kept for purely visual reasons are also the easiest to digitize by scanning or taking a photo, and it has been shown that taking photos can help us remember the object and the experience surrounding that object.
Sound: An instrument, vinyl record, a music box, or even voicemail messages from a deceased loved one- sometimes we keep something because of the richness and meaning behind its sound. Although there may be a loss of quality when recording a sound, keeping a video or audio recording is the best option if we want to declutter the physical item. In addition, since visual memory is stronger than auditory memory, linking the two through video is more effective than an audio recording alone to help you recall your experience with an item.
Touch: A friend told me she still has her karate outfit her mother made for her from when she was nine. While looking at it brings back memories of her mother’s handiwork, she keeps it because of how it feels. In her words, “Some things are meant to be touched.”
Tactile memory (also called haptic memory) can be as strong as visual memory. In fact, a recent study proved that “contrary to the view that it is only useful in real time, touch leaves a memory trace that persists long after the physical sensation is gone.” Blindfolded participants who were asked to memorize the feel of 168 items could recognize the item with 85% accuracy after one week. This is important when we consider whether to keep a sentimental object because of how it feels–its size, weight, and texture–and the memories the feeling of the object evokes. We may be able to remember how something felt even if we don’t have it, as long as we intentionally memorize how it felt.
Smell and Taste: Smell and taste are linked together, in fact, approximately 80 percent of what we taste is actually qualified by our sense of smell. Both smell and taste are connected to the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and episodic memory, and can bring you right back to a certain place and time. I remember a green pea soup I ate at Café Boulud in New York ten years ago. A friend of mine keeps an empty talcum powder container because it reminds her of her mom’s smell. She also keeps a 50+-year-old spice container because it reminds her of the cake her grandmother baked years ago.
When deciding to keep something because of smell, storage is the most important consideration. While the scent on a deceased loved one’s T-shirt may fade over time, perfume and other items in sealed containers will maintain the scent most accurately. Also, if you want to remember how your grandmother’s cookies tasted, you can approximate it by baking her special recipe yourself.
How to Declutter Sentimental Items: A 5-Step Sensory Approach
The decision to keep a sentimental item is largely in part to whether we believe that the memory attached to that item can be adequately preserved without keeping the item itself. Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you declutter sentimental items with your senses in mind. I also created a free worksheet to help you through the process.
1. Ask yourself, “Is this actually a sentimental item? Why am I holding onto it?”
Sometimes we assume something is sentimental just because it’s from the past. But a sentimental item should evoke a sentiment, and if we are choosing to keep it, a positive sentiment such as tenderness or nostalgia. Pick up your sentimental item. Hold it, look at it, listen, smell it, experience it. What do you feel specifically? What memories does it evoke? The Minimalists like to use the “spontaneous combustion” rule here. If the item were to blow up right now, would you feel relief or pain?
If you feel relief, are you:
– Holding onto it just because you think you should? I held onto my yearbook for twenty years because I thought that was what people were “supposed” to do. Then I realized it reminded me of a part of my past that wasn’t particularly happy. So I let it go.
– Holding onto it out of guilt because someone else gave it to you?
– Holding onto it just because it’s from the past, even though it’s a part of your past that is a burden to you?
If you answer “yes” to any of the above, get rid of the item and let go of the emotional burden you’ve been carrying.
2. Recognize what you will lose if you part with the item, based upon how your sensory memory works.
Now that we are left with the sentimental items that evoke specific positive memories of tenderness, joy, and nostalgia, the question is whether we need to keep the physical item itself to evoke these memories.
It is important to understand what will be lost if you decide to part with the item. Keeping a photo or video for something you are keeping for how it looks or sounds may closely approximate the item, but it is not the same as having the item in real life. As for touch, smell, and taste, you can write a description and a story about the item, but words will not replicate the experience of the item itself. The question is, how important is this to you?
Write down the memories that the item evokes and what you think will be lost if you get rid of it. Parting with anything we are emotionally attached to will cause us to grieve, and it’s important that we allow ourselves to feel that fully.
3. Recognize what you will gain if you part with the item.
Knowing that a copy isn’t the same as the original is NOT a reason to keep all of your sentimental items. An excess of anything you do not use, want, or need is clutter, plain and simple. As we know, clutter causes a whole host of issues such as sensory overload, anxiety, and stress to name a few.
What will you gain if you get rid of the item? Space in your home. Time and energy from not maintaining the item. Also, your loved ones will not be burdened with going through excess sentimental items they may feel guilty about getting rid of after you die. Write down all your ideas and notice whether you feel lighter as you do.
4. Understanding what you have to lose and gain, decide whether you want to keep the sentimental item.
Now it’s time to make a decision. Ask yourself whether you can live without the physical item, using a combination of digital photographs, videos, and stories. Remember that you have the capacity to recall the feel, smell, and taste of items without the item itself, and these will be augmented by descriptive stories. (Also, I’ll be the first to tell you whether someone invents the Smell-O-Vision for smell memories).
If you’re still on the fence, I recommend taking a photo/video and writing a story about the item anyway. Once you’ve fully captured the significance of the item and the memories surrounding it, you may find that you don’t need the physical item after all.
5. Repeat the process at least once a year for the items you have decided to keep.
Don’t assume that something that is meaningful to you today will be as meaningful to you in the future. Commit to using the sensory approach to revisit the sentimental items you’ve kept, using the worksheet I’ve created for you.
I hope these ideas will help you look at your sentimental items in a new way, giving you the space to tell the stories of your most cherished items, enjoying them fully with your senses, and realizing where your memories may be enough and you can let them go.
About the Author: Emily McDermott is a wife, mother, and simplicity seeker, chronicling her journey at Simple by Emmy. She loves to dance, write poetry, and spend time with her husband and two young sons.