The Stickiest Reason We Keep Stuff We Don’t Want

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.”

- William Morris

Just as we can fill our days with a whole lot of nothing — splattering our attention on things that don’t really matter to us — we can fill our houses with heaps of crap we don’t really want.

Just as we can cram plates and plates of empty calories into our mouths — not really nourishing ourselves, but most certainly filling ourselves — we can also cram our garages, attics and rooms with stuff that fills the empty spaces but doesn’t actually feed or fuel us.

So, why do we do this?

In part, it’s lazy thinking. Or lazy non-deciding. We allow others to decide for us. Then, we don’t ever have to be responsible for our own surroundings. (And risk being perceived as a “bitch.”) Being a victim to incoming stuff is more comfortable than clearly asking ourselves what we want to have (or not have) in our environment. “But the Lancome lady gave me this little zippy cosmetic bag I’ll never use! It was free!”

When someone has decided to step out of the role of “nice girl” or “martyr” or “victim,” one of the first things she changes is her surroundings. I’ve gone through this exact shift myself. It’s liberating. It’s fun. And it’s scary.

Why is it scary?

Because the number one stickiest reason we hang onto stuff we don’t really want is the most insidious emotion of all:

Guilt.

Guilt is sticky. Guilt is thick. It keeps us stuck in old patterns and beliefs. We feel safe and comfortable in those old patterns and beliefs.

—————

After my grandma died, my mom came to visit me. She brought a bunch of stuff that had been my grandma’s. She said, “I knew you’d want this.” (You did? How’d you know that?) She left it all sitting in my living room without saying any more about it.

What she brought me was stuff she felt too guilty about throwing out. I, then, would have to be the one to carry the guilt around with me.

Or not.

Guilt is the stickiest clutter issue for people. Not just women. So many people are riddled with family guilt about holding onto things – most of which they don’t like or need – because it’s the family stuff.

“It was Aunt Rita’s! She crocheted these doilies! I can’t part with them! That would make me a bad person!”

“This is a box of my grandpa’s ties! If I give them away, it will mean I no longer love him!”

Then, when your kids are old enough, you can pass those damn doilies and ties (and all that gooey sticky guilt) onto your kids. This pattern can go on for generations. All the while, Aunt Rita and your grandpa are out in the ethers shouting, “Oh for Pete’s sake, toss the damn things! They’re stained and old!”

I held onto that pile of my grandma’s things for a long time. Then, I recognized that I could choose to love my family and my friends in my own way. I didn’t have to bring sentimentality or guilt into it. Guilt is not love. Neither is sentiment. We’re taught to believe that both of those things equal love. And we might believe that keeping things around will also keep us safe and loved.

—————–

Remember this: Things – all things – have energy. If you’re not using something, or if you don’t love having it around, then it isn’t serving its purpose or its usefulness in this world. That’s not helping anybody. This idea alone has inspired me to let go of so much stuff that I didn’t want. Someone out there will happily use Aunt Rita’s doilies. (Or my grandma’s silver serving spoons!)

And, as of this writing, my grandma has never appeared to me in the dark of the night shrieking, “You wretched bitch!”

The next post will dive into other reasons we hang onto things we don’t really want.

But for today, can you think of anything in your life that don’t want, but you keep because you would feel guilty if you let it go?

Then, can you give yourself permission to let it go?

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Comments

  1. says

    when i moved into my new townhouse, i needed a dining table. my grandmother didn’t need hers anymore, so it was offered to me. honestly, i didn’t want it. i don’t like how it looks, how big it is, or how low down parts of the bottom reach. but, i took it because i would feel guilty if i didn’t. it’s the table my dad grew up with and i didn’t want to insult him or my grandmother by saying, “uhh, thanks but no thanks for your absolutely free table, but i’m gonna go buy my own.”

    of course, i have to wonder if my dad would actually want it if i were to get rid of it. maybe that’s why he encouraged me to take it.

    other than that item, i am pretty good about not attaching too much sentimentality to objects. i’m a bit of a minimalist.

  2. says

    hi jer – my brother went through a similar thing with chests of drawers from my uncle. eventually, he just let them go – and got some at IKEA. (he loves them. all hail IKEA!)

  3. says

    just to add support to those who want to let go of stuff but have that GUILT. Having attended some of ck’s retreats, i decided I needed to clean house. I had a bureau full of hand knit sweaters from my mom. I didn’t wear a third of them. based on the idea that some one could benefit from the sweaters, I kept the ones I wear and donated the others to a local thrift store. it was hard, hard, hard. I don’t buy t-shirts from my travels anymore (well okay I did get one from the Galapgos), I can only wear one at a time. I get those hat pins and stick them on the map. I see them all the time and it makes me feel good about my travels. so take heart, especially all those folks whose moms’ don’t read blogs,:) clean it out. barb b

  4. says

    maybe the next time i can get my dad and his truck over to my house i will guilt him into taking it home with him. :)

    in the meantime, i’m off to ikea.com…

  5. says

    This is so true. I had an organizer over last year (it took several visits to go through every room). I chucked or donated so much stuff and I noticed that 90% of it was stuff that people had given to me. Now I am very clear and try to be diplomatic when people want to give me things.
    I know a woman who is a millionaire from having invented something. Her house is beautiful, not because of all the fine art and furnishings, though they are lovely. It’s the energy – you can tell that every single thing was placed with intention, grace and love. I strive to have that level of clarity in my home.
    Thanks for writing about the sticky thing that has us hold onto stuff.

  6. says

    Have you read Jon King’s blog “The Effective Life?” (a WordPress blog) He wrote a post on August 3rd about letting go. The closing line is “…maybe keeping all of grandpa’s books is not as important as keeping the two that he actually read to you.”

    He writes some really cool stuff…I think you’re kindred spirits.

  7. Erki says

    This is not a biggie but keeps cluttering my environment nevertheless – birthday cards. And old birthday presents. And Christmas gifts and cards and really all sorts of gifts. My birthday was nearly 2 months ago but I still have all the cards lying around somewhere. And I’d feel weird about throwing them away… so I wait until they get old enough so I can kinda forget them..

  8. says

    I can relate to this! I heard somewhere (probably Oprah) that instead of keeping all those old clothes in your closet, every time you buy a new shirt, give one away, new pants—out with one pair of old pants. I am GUILTY of having things in my closet with the promise of “Oh–if I lose 5 more pounds I can fit into this again–so I’ll keep it.” (yeah–right!)

    Michelle Kane, author of CONFESSIONS OF A CATHOLIC SCHOOLGIRL

  9. says

    Your blog on this comes at a time when we are moving into a rental house so ours can be renovated. I have already thrown a big bag of stuff out but there’s much more to do. I’ve got guilt issues with keeping stuff others gave me in spades….as you describe above. But it’s time – long past time – to deal with it, understand that no one will come back from the grave to yell at me for throwing something out or giving it away, to admit that if I haven’t worn that trunk full of sweaters, purses or shoes since my last move, they are not needed….and worse they are adversely affecting the energy in my space! Thanks for the pep talk right when I needed it.

  10. Caren says

    I know it’s on your list of recommended books, but I have to mention Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. I *love* that book, it inspires me every time I pick it up.

    Luckily, I have a sister who is a member of CoDependents Anonymous… she was the first in our family to point out that keeping something someone gave you, just because they gave it to you, might not be in your best interest. It’s like her work there gave us all permission to be honest about what we wanted, or didn’t want. I’ve seen that effect when I de-clutter, too. Without calling anyone or letting anyone know what I’m doing, invariably a friend will call and say, “I’ve been decluttering!” It’s like the action goes out in waves.

    I feel guilt, though, for *not* keeping things. What if my boys want their baby clothes for their kids? What if they wish I had kept their birthday cards? Sure, they say they don’t want it now, but…. See, I can always find some way to make myself wrong! :)

  11. says

    hey barb – thanks for adding to the conversation! great example, too.

    jer – even better is ligne-roset.com! (okay, so it’s a few thousand dollars more expensive than ikea – but why not?)

    thanks cynthia – it’s always fascinating to see how much stuff we can accumulate. and how great it feels to let it go. (and then you notice spaces – like your friend’s house – that are spacious and intentional.

    hi g’s — no, i haven’t read that one. i’ll find it though. there’s lots of good blogs out there!

    erki – well, start with that awareness. and then, toss them out. (especially the ones that don’t even have a handwritten note!) i have a box (one small box!) of those special cards that come in. I put them into that box so that i know there’s a spot for them. otherwise – out they go! i loved getting them – but i don’t need to hold onto them!

  12. says

    hello michelle! i’m happy to meet you and can’t wait to read that free first chapter from your book — and yea – I’ll be writing a little more about the clothing thing in the next post!

    hi kathy – maybe – since you haven’t opened some of those boxes since the LAST move — you don’t even need to look in them again! you can just take them off to goodwill?

    caren – i, too, love that book. i especially love what she writes about music and songs, and how you might need to fill up on the energy of a certain song for a while. but then you no longer need that energy. how cool! it sounds like your kids are probably going to be fine with not having that stuff. maybe they’ll be more zen!

  13. says

    just today, i was just thinking about an item that fits this description (something I don’t want, but i keep out of guilt…i just noticed that i used a capital “i” for the first part of that sentence and a small one for the second…seems very fitting). thanks for this great post. i do feel that sticky guilt just thinking about getting rid of this item that I don’t want. Thanks for the inspiration and gentle nudge to get rid of it. :-)

  14. Caren says

    It had been a while since I visited Karen Kingston’s site, so after I posted the link to her book, I browsed a bit, and came across this entry:

    Feng Shui for Websites

    I think you followed her principles in your new design!

  15. says

    hi leah – any time!

    hi caren – wow. i had no idea you could use feng shui on websites – but no, i didn’t follow any principles. i just wanted lots of space and order! most musician’s websites are too bogged down with “look how cool this website is!” design. i just went for user-friendly.

  16. says

    This post is so accurate, it’s scary. This happened to me with, get this, a lid from one of my great-grandmother’s cooking pots. It had roses on it; her name was Rose. My mom successfully guilt-tripped me into keeping it for YEARS until my dh talked me into seeing reason, and tossing it out. Phew!

  17. Michelle says

    Tooo funny. I laughed out loud.

    And was inspired to do a little tossing out of my own.

    Away with grandma’s china, service for 12.

    Looking forward to all the extra storage space.

  18. says

    Great post Christine,

    It took for me to have to move out of my house at the last minute and only be able to take what I could pretty much carry in a duffle bag to realize that getting rid of all the useless clutter and crap in my physical environment did wonders for clearing my mind. It was a very liberating moment and made me feel so much more free.

  19. elaine1 says

    I just love your thinking on this…what a great description of guilt!! – ‘sticky’ and ‘thick’. I can really connect to that with loads of things in my home. My mom died 12years ago and I still have several boxes of her things to sort in my attic.

    Eckhart Tolle in his book: ‘A New Earth’ says that “Many people don’t realize until they are on their deathbed and everything external falls away that NO THING ever had anything to do with who they are” and the concept of ownership stands revealed as ultimately meaningless… It’s about ‘being, love and who we are and the memories of the experiences we shared I guess.

    Look out wardrobe… here I come!!!

  20. says

    angie – that’s a great one! a LID! yikes!

    michelle – yes, it took a LOT of reckoning (internal and external) to come to terms with the fact that i will never in my life need “good china” – especially a service for 12! i love hand-crafted pottery and that’s all i’ll ever use. so when the offers of “the good silver” and “the good china” started trickling down after relatives moved on – i had to let other siblings and cousins take over! (and yes, it does allow for more space…)

    hi life — moving helps with these things. (espcially moving into a duffel bag) thanks!

    thanks for the additional insights elaine1 – i love how eckart talks about this stuff. he just strips it all away until all that’s left is the core truth. now, go get that wardrobe!

  21. kathyla says

    I still have a card that someone I love =) gave me years ago which says: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

  22. says

    Ok – it’s a conspiracy! Look at my Yahoo horoscope for the day! Pisces (2/19-3/20)
    “It’s not spring, but your urge to clean will definitely be strong today! It’s out with the old and in with the new for you right now, and that applies to more than just what’s in your closet. After you’ve gotten rid of the garbage you don’t need in your life anymore, think about ridding yourself of the negative people you don’t need in your life anymore. Stop going to that cranky cashier. Say ‘no thanks’ when that catty coworker asks you to lunch. Stick with newer, brighter attitudes.” Hmmmmmm, she says, as she heads over to the pile of clothes in the corner….

  23. says

    I avoid guilt clutter by choosing carefully what “gift” from each person I really love and will allow me to remember them when I use it. I have my grandmother’s Franciscan Starburst dinnerware that she used everyday and even though it is quite collectable, I use it every day because it reminds me of her and I LOVE the pattern. I happily passed on all her pictures–she loved Remington’s style and that is just not me. I would have remembered her; but I did not like the art.
    So I don’t have much guilt clutter. But I have lots of other clutter–I am anxiously awaiting to see what other categories you have come up with and what suggestions to move into “wide open spaces”!

  24. says

    Wow~ What a perfectly relevant post! Thank you so much for putting words to what so many of us need to hear. I’ve been journaling for YEARS about “liquidating my assets” and unburdening myself of possessions that no longer serve me. Your post and the subsequent comments have given me an extra push to JUST DO IT!!!

  25. Tim says

    Christine:

    I am a pack rat, no doubt. I don’t know how I got this way, but most likely from my mother. In any case, I am moving in a couple weeks and have been going through my “stuff.” I need to get rid of some things in order to fit into my smaller place. I don’t know if I will get to all of it, but it feels good to let go of some of the things I’ve kept for years.

    Christine, I got tickets for your show in Chicago (2nd row center) and after a summer filled with stress, chaos, and loads of work– I am looking forward to your show.

    Tim

  26. says

    I never thought about the fact that clutter dumped on another person can symbolize someone else guilt. I know of a few example in my life where other peoples’ stuff was dumped on to me and I took it because I’m too nice and I hate saying no. So the other day I was cleaning out my closets and realized that I have a collection of junk that I didn’t even buy! Being a creative person, I feel that if my place gets too junky, that I have a hard time focusing. So Christine, thank you for opening my eyes to this and next time I will just say no when I don’t want to accept someone elses guilt, I mean junk!

    http://www.tdbstudio.com/blog – Music Blog

  27. says

    great post Christine!!! We all have things we save or take because of guilt! I know I have taken my fair share of stuff over the years. But recently I have been downsizing my life, going for a cleaner, simpler life and look and have been busy getting rid of STUFF!

    Its amazing how much stuff there is to go when you are ready to part with it. But what a wonderful feeling when we can get past the guilt and let it go, it’s such a refreshing feeling, to make that fresh clean space in your life. To move on! I feel fantastic that I have now begun getting rid of the guilt stuff! It has also made it easier to say no to more guilt stuff. That stuff can clutter up your energy and these days I want my energy to be my own.

    PS: thanks for the cd, you music is great!

  28. Petra says

    Christine, I swear you have some kind of secret camera in my bathroom cabinet and linen closet, where I store my ZIPPY BAGS!!! Yes, feeling a bit guilty, I FINALLY got rid of (some of) them. I thought I had 4 or 5, but it turns out I had SEVEN of them! Now, I’m down to the two I actually use for traveling. And I’ve bid sayonara to the mascaras and eye makeups and removers–I never where eye makeup (now lipstick is another story–it’s one of the five things I can’t live without).

    The guilt component is the biggest reason for holding onto things I really don’t want to. While I’m generally good about letting go of things, sometimes when someone has given me something and I can see the joy they have in giving it, I feel guilty about getting rid of it, 3even when I don’t want it around. I received a glass from a friend–the thought was beautiful, but I didn’t need another glass and it was the wrong size. I was so grateful when it broke (and yes, it was an accident). One thing I do when giving gifts, is that I let the recipient know that they needn’t hang onto something if they don’t want it. I tell them that the energy spent keeping something is too valuable to use that way and if I give an unwanted gift, by all means get rid of it! I will NOT be offended, since I gave the gift in the spirit of love and I know it was received that way!

  29. says

    kathyla – hmmmm, and who was it that gave you that card??? :-) (i think she must love you too!)

    kathy – it actually IS a conspiracy. we’re all in it together. i know the writer of those horoscopes! no — wait — i AM the writer of those horoscopes!

    hi deb – that’s an excellent and clear approach. thanks! as for the other stuff, that’s coming tomorrow!

    thanks lisa!

    anna – there’s no rush. we’ll all wait patiently!

    hey tim! thanks for the note – and i’m happy to hear you’ll be at the show in chicago. please come up and say hi afterwards. it’s a whole new thing to meet people after they’ve written comments here…

    hi tiffany! thanks for the note! (and i couldn’t make your link work. can you check on that?)

    thanks michelle – and i’m glad you like the CD!

    hi petra – i pretty much spend all my time watching over you and kathy (see above). i’m out to get you! SEVEN zippy bags — wow! (i have 5 or so. i’ve been liquidating slowly!)

  30. says

    Hello Christine – have you been talking to my wife? This was an eerie post to read, since my wife and I were just having a similar conversation. You hit the nail on the head – it’s guilt, baby! I call myself a reformed pack rat, although I do keep a few things I really shouldn’t (there’s that guilt thing again). “Oh, I can’t throw this out – those wonderful people spend hours coming up with that gift – and they framed it too!” And my wife, correctly, says – “well, if you love it so much, why has that framed gift been sitting in the closet for 8 years”? Touche. It’s going. But not before I make a digital copy of it. THAT’s a closet I can put a lot of stuff in. You should see my inbox at work. You never know when you’ll need to reference that e-mail about paper clip purchases you wrote in 1997.

    I’ll keep at it though – I’ve already managed to get 47 years of memorabilia into one small (and smart looking) box, so getting 60,000 e-mails shouldn’t be too hard, should it??

    Take care Christine, and great pic of your dog by the way.

    pqzulkzs (that’s the imaginary security code for your blog)

  31. says

    Your blog is always so poignant to me. I’m always amazed at the cycles people go through at the same time. I’ve been sitting in my house frustrated that it’s gotten to cluttered over the past year and I had promised it wouldn’t. But I can’t seem to get rid of anything. I couldn’t figure out why it was so hard to throw things out. I now see why…and I feel like my legs up to my hips are stuck in tar, aka guilt.

    Time to get out some garbage bags! Thanks Christine!

  32. Casey Finn says

    Oh AMEN! I look at all the stuff and think “why?”. We want to retire in a few years and will downsize to a smaller house, so I know I need to start getting rid of this “stuff” soon. What a great blog and I love all the comments. Thanks!

  33. gregg says

    Hello; I am a jewlry designer and sculptor and I collect things mostly printed materials thinking that I’m going to need them as reference etc. in the future, but I have sooo much now that i can’t get into my workroom and I know it’s not a guilt thing although I have some of that too around the house but i’m going to get brutal and start clearing out.

    Thanks for the post its inspiring! G.

  34. Burt Carter says

    Great post. When I moved from Charlotte to Minneapolis last year, I was faced with the same guilt. What wasn’t sold at the final garage sale was either pawned off on friends or thrown away. I also have not received any visits from angry spirits.

    I miss Asheville and Bele Chere and am really looking forward to seeing you on the 23rd here in Saint Paul.

  35. says

    Thank you for pointing this out. I am the opposite of a pack rat — to the point that once in a while I look around and think “Didn’t I used to have… boy I wish I still had that…”

    But I just am not that attached to things, generally speaking. Unsentimental to the degree that I do feel guilty about it sometimes.

  36. Mike in DC says

    One of the best ways to fight clutter is to have friends who cart off your furniture every time they visit! It works even better when they’re starting out singer songwriters before they hit it big.

    As for hitting it big…..two weeks ago I’m driving through Portsmouth Virginia, listening to the local NPR station, and the host is plugging Christine! (OK, I read that back, and it didn’t exactly come out right, but you all know what I mean) And it wasn’t just a plug – it was a heartfelt “we’re so lucky that someone of her stature is coming to play in our challenged little town” plug. Over the top gushing. Completely deserved, I might add.

    I’m proud to know you!

  37. Erin says

    I used to work at an archives and we were always getting unsolicited donations. Mostly it was people who just could NOT throw out some ancestral item. Great-grandma’s receipt book from 1918? One postcard from Niagara Falls that was in Grandma’s sock drawer? A single ticket stub that may have belonged to Uncle Mikey? I was always amazed at the energy these people put into not making the decision: driving downtown to the archives, dropping the stuff off, telling us to do whatever we wanted with it, just to have us turn around and bin it. Think of the time and energy they would have saved, and the empowerment if they had been the one to ditch said item!

    I’m a bit of a nut about having only beautiful and/or useful things in my home. I do hate putting gifts people have given me into a box destined for Goodwill, so this year I have asked my family and friends not to give me any gifts. My friends and I take each other out for brunch as a birthday treat. That way we get time together and can enjoy a good meal. My younger sister passed away suddenly a couple of years ago and that really cemented it for me: nothing is more precious than TIME, time with your loved ones, time to yourself. You can never get it back.

  38. Amber Mae says

    As a little kid I collected a lot of porcelain dolls. My grandma gave most of them to me and she sewed a lot of the dresses by hand. As an adult, I have no where to put them, and I really don’t want to decorate my home with old lady curio’s filled with dolls. It’s not my style, but when I even think about getting rid of them I’m FILLED with anxiety. My grandma once overheard me say I didn’t know what to do with them and she cried! P.S. I’ve only seen her cry like twice in my life. *sigh* I don’t have the space to store them, but I don’t want to put them out… The situation feels hopeless. Is that silly? To feel hopeless over clutter?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Guilt is the stickiest reason why we keep things we don’t want. It’s the heavy gooey energy that convinces us we’re bad people if we let go of heirlooms, sentimental items, knick-knacks, unwanted clothing, unwanted gifts, and grandfather clocks that no longer work. These items clutter up our lives and keep us in a comfortable – but draining – place where we never have to decide what we do want in our environment. [...]

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