I have a confession.
Decluttering makes me feel lonely.
Even when I want to downsize extra stuff, it’s hard. I find myself putting dusty keepsakes back into the same boxes where they have lived for years and walking around in an emotional funk for the rest of the week.
But recently I’ve been forced to reexamine those feelings. Our family is going to be moving out of state after spending over a decade living in a sprawling house on rural acreage. Moving everything I’ve accumulated is a logistical impossibility.
Stuff has to go. Lots of stuff.
In finally working through my feelings around letting go of things, I’ve come to 3 realizations that have helped me to feel less lonely in downsizing.
If you also struggle with sentimental attachments to outdated belongings, I think they will help you too.
Realization #1: Stuff Functions Differently in My World Than in My Grandparents’ World
I was raised to value keepsakes. My grandmother kept and filed every letter written to her by loved ones during her entire life. My mother saved all of my art and schoolwork from preschool through high school.
Doing the same thing makes me feel like I’m connected to my family heritage, not only through the specific items I save, but through the process of saving them itself.
Except it doesn’t work for me.
Sure, I enjoy going through those old mementos once in a while—at least when they are stored in someone else’s attic. But the truth is, trying to hold onto that much stuff in my own space overwhelms me.
The realization that has helped me is that I can honor my family’s intent while changing the way I implement it.
My grandparents wanted to create a connection to family. So do I. But in the span of a few decades, the best way to do that has changed dramatically.
Think about this. Your great grandparents may have only had a few pictures taken of them during their entire lives. Film and camera equipment were once expensive and hard to come by, so photos were carefully saved.
Today you could take hundreds of pictures in a single hour with the phone in your back pocket. The challenge isn’t obtaining a keepsake photo, it’s figuring out what to do with thousands of them.
Your great grandmother, like mine, may have carefully kept a box of letters from loved ones. Those written communications were valuable because they were rare.
Today most of us delete more written communication from our devices in a single morning than our ancestors could have collected in a year.
Having a few special keepsakes can make life feel more connected and fulfilling. But when keepsakes multiply faster than time to enjoy the relationships and experiences they represent, having stuff becomes overwhelming and exhausting.
Families used to not have many pictures. Now they don’t have much time together.
What could you use more of?
Realization #2: You Can’t Forget What You Have Become
I recently confided to my oldest daughter how I’ve been struggling with downsizing in anticipation of our move.
“There were so many hopes and dreams attached to this house, and to the things we did here as a family. Every item I look at reminds me of something I wanted for you kids.”
She responded, “And you gave us that. These are just the tools you are finished with.”
You don’t have to hold onto stuff to help you remember, because you can’t forget who you have become.
The value of your experience isn’t in watching it on continual mental repeat. It’s in the kind of person who you have become through it. Life is constantly moving and changing, and so are we.
I asked my children to work in our backyard orchard in order to teach them life lessons. Regardless of how many garden tools we leave behind, the lessons they internalized will come with them.
And the lessons that they have yet to learn won’t be discovered from a dusty box in the garage. They will come from the next round of life experiences that we create the space to embrace.
Realization #3: Sometimes Holding on is About Letting Go
Loneliness comes from a lack of connection. Keepsakes can feel like a form of connection to distant loved ones, which is what makes it hard to let go of them. But here’s the thing: not all connections are created equal.
Looking at old mementos in dusty boxes can also create loneliness if you don’t have strong connections in the present. And overdoing the amount of sentimental stuff in your life can limit the time and resources you are able to focus on relationships now.
Are you missing out on time with people you love because of time spent organizing and reorganizing more stuff than your space can reasonably accommodate?
Are you missing out on time and experiences with loved ones because of the expense that comes with housing stuff?
If so, those keepsakes are making you lonely.
When you get clear about your underlying goal: to build a life filled with meaningful human connections, taking the steps to get you there feels less like a loss.
When Letting Go Feels Joyful
The version of yourself and your loved ones that you most need to connect to now is here, at the edge of becoming.
Do you find yourself wanting to have less stuff, and yet at the same time fighting the urge to let go?
Has stuff become your source of connection to those who are distant?
If so, picture yourself spending your energy building deeper connections in the present.
Imagine weekends spent on activities with friends and family instead of cleaning and organizing.
Imagine redirecting expenses that come with storing excessive stuff into fantastic new experiences.
If possessions are stealing your time and energy, it’s time to reclaim your own life.
Go ahead, let go. And hold on.
About the Author: Angie Schultz helps people transform emotional pain into meaning, joy, and growth at The Becoming Place. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.