How to Stop Holding onto 'Stuff' – Part 2

by | 24 Feb 2015 | Change

In my last post I was talking about my sense of overwhelm as I work to clear out my Mum’s bungalow and at the same time reduce the clutter that threatens to take over my own house. It’s forced me to look at why I, and others, hold onto material possessions and can find it hard to let it go.

Here are the main reasons I sometimes find it hard to let go:

1. Guilt because it feels like a waste.

This is a biggie for me. If something is still serviceable, or having some form of value, it feels wasteful, selfish or somehow irresponsible to just throw it away.

It’s something obviously hardwired into me from a young age, growing up as a third child in a happy family but without any spare resources – lots of hand-me-downs, second hand clothes, toys and bikes and being taught to appreciate how lucky we were to have what we had.

Because we benefited from other people’s cast-offs, it feels much better if it can be recycled or re-used in some way by donating it, giving it to charity, advertising it, or at the very least putting it into recyclable waste, but finding the ‘best’ way to dispose of it can feel daunting, particularly if there’s a high volume of stuff all needing to be disposed of in different ways. Finding the time and energy to get lots of items to the place they can be made best use of often means that I end up procrastinating, with guilty stockpiles of stuff filling the loft and garage waiting for my attention.

The guilt is threefold – that we have so much stuff in the first place (wasteful use of resources); that we’ve ‘failed’ to get full value out of, or appreciate this stuff; and that I’m now ‘burdening’ somebody else with my unwanted stuff – passing the buck for my own failure, so to speak.

How I’m dealing with this:

Well once I shine a light on the guilt, I see there is truth in some of what I’m saying to myself, but a whole lot of made up story too!

Yes, we would be wise to think twice, or three times about whether we really want or need an item in the first place, but much of our accumulated possessions have come from the journey of life. Our needs change, especially as the children grow up, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s very, very little we have that we haven’t used, loved or needed at some point.

Life flows on, experiences come and go and I can allow possessions to do the same without guilt. In themselves, they mean nothing at the end of the day – it’s only me that’s creating the meaning and representation.

2. I might need it.

Oh, I struggle with this one! I pride myself on being resourceful, creative, being able to pull the rabbit out of the hat for some unexpected problem that arises, whether it’s a last minute fancy dress costume, an unusual screw needed, a particular electrical cable, a book on the very topic or any number of imagined ‘one day, you never know’ scenarios.

And to make it work I can find the evidence to support this particular belief pattern – a number of occasions when I’ve finally cleared something out after 15 years of it accumulating dust, only to find a use for it the very next week, or the praise and admiration I received at my ‘organisation and resourcefulness’.

How I’m dealing with this:

Again, just shining the torch on what’s really going on here helps – to see how my subconscious holds onto stuff and justifies by pulling out these “see, I told you so” examples.

There is truth there, but it’s not the whole truth.

It’s me that’s creative and resourceful – not the stuff! I have the opportunity to be even more resourceful by finding what I need even if it’s not in the house!

3. It represents a fantasy for my future self.

Hmm, lots of gym equipment and self-help books here. Breadmakers, juicers, dusty musical instruments and language tapes are other likely candidates!

So you have the intention for a fitter, healthier self. Or perhaps there’s a new skill you’d love to learn. And in a fit of enthusiasm you move that intention from ‘maybe one day’ to just a little bit closer by buying something you ‘need’ to make it a reality and we kid ourselves that it’s progress.

We may even use the ‘thing’ for a week or so, before it becomes relegated to something better associated with item 1 on the list (guilt). The problem arises because we place too much significance and attention on the item, not on the associated change in behaviour.

‘Things’ can’t make you change – it takes a change in mindset and habits.

How I’m dealing with this:

This is a very live example for me (juicer and rebounder are the current items), and I’m actively using the steps in my How to Change and Make it stick e-course – sign up here to find out what they are, if you haven’t already!

4. It has sentimental value.

Obviously this has been a particularly relevant reason for me holding onto stuff as I’ve been clearing out my Mum’s property after her death last October.

There are items I know mean a lot to her, and therefore I feel a responsibility to care for them on her behalf. There are things that bring back memories and associations of her, of my Dad (who died nearly 17 years ago), and of our happy childhood. There are items that have been handed down through a number of generations and are laden with meaning. There are things that bring a sense of the legacy of those that came before.

What to hold onto, what to let go?

How I’m dealing with this:

This is hard, live, raw for me. So I’m being gentle and taking it a step at a time. It’s also not just down to me – my brother and sister and others close to Mum will all have particular items they would treasure or that have particular meaning.

But what I’m trying to remember, is that it isn’t the ‘thing’ that has the meaning. It’s the memory.

The ‘thing’ just evokes the memory, the story, the emotion. And I know that the last thing Mum would want is for our lives to become burdened and hampered by an accumulation and over-attachment to things, which of themselves are not important.

So for each item that’s evoking something for me, I’m asking – what does this represent? How else can I access or preserve that memory? How does it feel to just let this thing go – lighter, better, joyful, free, or guilty, sad, regretful? How does it feel to keep it?

It’s not a good reason to keep something because I ‘should’, only because I ‘want’.

5. It might be worth something someday.

Even writing this makes me aware and smile at my thinking about it is, and really it’s just a sub reason of item 1, 2 and 3!

I hold onto something of little or no value now, because it might have value in the future – as some kind of investment. After-all, people do sometime make money that way, and isn’t that the nature of investment?

But again I’m putting ‘future self’ above ‘present self’.

How I’m dealing with this:

I’m working on staying with my needs in the present, part of my mindfulness practice and being fully in the present; without over- attachment to either the past or the future. Why should I burden my present self with something that may never happen? What’s the real cost of holding onto it, and how would it feel to let it go?


For each of these reasons above, when I stop and fully notice my thinking and emotions, without judgement and instead using my curiosity, it allows me to make different choices.

It allows me to see a balanced truth, rather than partial truths. And in nearly every instance when I ask myself how it would feel to just let the item go, I know the answer is ‘lighter, relieved, unburdened, set free’ and even ‘joyful’.

Suddenly I have more possibility and clarity.

Yes, there may be other actions I need to take before I can fully let go of the attachment, but I see it for what it is – just ‘stuff’, whatever meaning it has is purely of my own making.




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