The real reason why decluttering is so exhausting

About five years ago, my husband was binge watching Hoarders. Halfway through the third episode, he got up, went to the study, where I could then hear him muttering to himself “I can’t go on living this way.”

"That show, it made me realise just how much stuff I hold on to that I really don’t need. I don’t want to end up like those people – it must start somewhere,”  he said. Fast forward five years and a lot less of my husband’s treasures are clogging the house, but I've realised I have a few problems areas of my own when it comes to letting go of stuff.

While I don’t stockpile meaningless tatt for the sake of it, there are some things I just can't part with. I still have my wedding dress, my year 12 ball dress (I am 42!) and a pair of designer jeans that fit me for about six months when I was running around after two toddlers. I also have a drawer of paperwork, which contains everything from tax statements from 20-something years ago and telephone bills of a similar vintage.

 

Why it's hard to let go

It turns out I’m not alone. Melissa Sleegers, professional organiser and owner of Allsorts Organising says the five most common areas people struggle with are sentimental items, paperwork, clothing, children’s toys, artwork and books.

Why? “Clothes are often associated with our memories and aspirations. We feel that by throwing an item away we are also throwing away the memory - clothing may be representative of specific times in our lives (good or bad) and sometimes also reflective of the person that we would like to be,” she says.  This could be in the form of a style of clothing that we feel represents who we are, or how we want to be seen by others.

While the ball gown reminds me of being a teenager, holding on to the tiny jeans is likely down to a more basic cause. “So many people also have what I call aspirational clothing, which is often a size or two smaller, but ‘I am going to get into (or back into) that one day!’” says Seegers.

The paperwork pile may be more about being overwhelmed and simply not knowing what to do with all. Seegers explains we are also often fearful of tossing something just in case we need it again or we make the wrong decision and there are repercussions.  It is also a task that never seems to end and not many of us enjoy it.
 

 

What can I do about it?

When it comes to the paperwork, the answer is easy, if time-consuming. I simply have to put aside the time and commit to doing it. For me, the best way to make sure this happens is to empty the drawer onto my dining room table to sort through into keep and shred piles. By putting it in a space I need to keep clear, rather than tucked away in a drawer, the job has to be completed (and I must resist the urge to swish them into a handy plastic storage box to ‘finish later’.)

But for sentimental items, there is a trick to steering a path from keeping meaningful things, to keeping a manageable amount of meaningful things. Here’s what Seeger suggests:

• Everything needs to have a home – this is a non-negotiable.  If you don’t have somewhere to put it, it may not be as valuable as you think.  There is nothing wrong with keeping stuff as long as it doesn’t interfere with the functionality of your home.

• To assist you in making an informed decision when it comes to generally decluttering, you can ask yourself the following questions:

• Do I still like it?
• Does it make me feel good? (we don’t want to keep anything in our homes that makes us feel bad!)
• Do I still need it, want it and use it?
• How many do I need/use?
• Does it fulfil a function in my life?
• Do I have something else that could serve the same purpose?
• Does it have a place in my future?

And at the end of the day, if you think there may be deeper issues at play, I’m an enthusiastic advocate of seeing a psychologist. And for me? The ball dress is under serious review, and the jeans have gone to the Salvos so someone else can create some wonderful memories.

 

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