“Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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.

Beyond guilt, the reasons we hang on to stuff are less sticky. But no less convincing. Below are nine seemingly logical reasons we cling to clutter.

Clutter Excuse #1 – “I spent so much on it!”

This is a different kind of guilt. It’s self-flagellation guilt. You unconsciously punish yourself for having made a bad choice by keeping the item around. You convince yourself that you’re going to get your money’s worth – even if it drains the hell out of you.

You won’t. And it will.

We’ve all done stupid things. And we’ve all had to let them go. Now it’s your turn.

Clutter Excuse #2 – “I might need this someday.”

I often wonder how many idle telephone cords exist in the world. Perhaps tossed in the back of a desk drawer. Or stuffed on closet shelves. They can’t be gotten rid of. Why?

Because we might need them some day.

Evidently, some day, in spite of all the cellular wireless cordless progress out there, you’re going to need that particular grey phone cord that came with a phone you bought in 1989 that doesn’t even exist anymore. That cord is going to make it to the grave with you.

Throw it out. Now.

Same thing goes for: Rusty screws, the extra wine opener, the extra fax machine, light-switch plates from your last house, the three extra flashlights, any and all of those multi-cabled red and yellow stereo cords, extra book cases, IKEA clocks you no longer use, all the glass flower vases that came with flower deliveries, bowls and plates people left behind at dinner parties never to be claimed again, and any machinery or equipment that doesn’t work.

Clutter Excuse #3 – “I might do this someday.”

I know. I know. You’re certain that someday you’ll take those broken pieces of china and pottery you’ve collected, and you’ll create a beautiful mosaic birdbath. And you’ll go through those stacks of magazines and make that collage for your sister’s 30th birthday party three years ago. And don’t forget the quilting project! You’re bound to get to those fabric scraps lying everywhere!

Now – I don’t mean to deny you the right to plan and dream and create. However, if these items are constantly in your environment – and if you notice them often – then I urge you to consider experiencing the vast amount of relief and liberation that appears when you let them go. No one ever expected you to finish these things. Except, perhaps, you.

Call your sister and tell her the collage isn’t gonna happen. Go out and purchase a mosaic birdbath from an artist who makes her living from creating such treasures.

And then, get rid of all the clutter of “someday projects.”

Make space for what you want to do. Don’t fill your space with what you should do.

Clutter Excuse #4 – “It looks good if people see that I have this.”

One woman at a recent retreat admitted to keeping things around because she wanted to appear intelligent when she had parties. Books, CD’s, and media are typically the things that add to our perceived intelligence.

I had a hard time letting books go because I didn’t want guests to think I didn’t read. Then I realized that I only invite people into my home who love me and who I love. Anyone I love knows that I — A] can read, B] have diverse tastes in music, and C] am not stupid. I keep only the books that are relevant to my teaching or writing or songwriting. Everything else gets given away.

Remember this: we are motivated by two things: Fear or Love. Which of these keeps you clinging to items because of appearances?

Clutter Excuse #5 – “I Don’t Know Where It Goes.”

When items don’t have a home, it’s harder to determine whether or not they are clutter. Some things may seem like clutter – like the cute card that your daughter made that floats around from drawer to drawer – but they’re not clutter. They’re just homeless.

When things have a defined place to go, then it’s easier to see what is clutter. Look at your house in terms of zones. What’s a logical and easy place to keep cards made by your kids? Where’s the best place to store stationery or projects to be done? (Even some of the projects in #3 can be managed if they are in a well-defined space or box.) One extra phone cord might belong in a box labeled “Extension Cords and Extra Cables.” Once you start defining spaces for items, then it’s easier to see when something doesn’t fit anywhere and should just get tossed.

Clutter Excuse #6 – “Things have energy?”

This is more about unawareness than about making excuses. Some of us never knew that things have energy and meaning. Even if it’s just the meaning you assign to something – old divorce papers, sweaters you feel guilty about not wearing, or projects you’ll never have time to complete – every item in your home has energy. It’s either fueling you, or draining you. Some things might be neutral, of course. But if there’s anything that triggers you or that you just don’t like, then that is your barometer. Let it go. And trust that the right thing will come in to fill that void. Or not. Maybe you need the space right now!

Clutter Excuse #7 – “But I never wore it!”

See Clutter Excuse #1. Holding onto something to punish yourself for never wearing it because A] you didn’t like it after all, or B] you never lost that extra weight, only serves to drain you. You are allowed to forgive yourself and move on.

Clutter Excuse #8 – “There’s too much stuff!”

Overwhelm can stop us in our tracks. If you are a pack rat, or if this blog makes you aware that there are lots of items in your life that you don’t like, then go slow. Read this post about baby steps. Take action slowly. Divide your house into segments, and assign small chunks of time each day. You don’t have to do this all at once.

Clutter Excuse #9 – “I don’t know what I love or want!”

When you begin to realize what you don’t want, then you may realize that you don’t know what you do want. That’s okay. You simply had never allowed yourself to consider this option.

At my last retreat, I designed a new writing exercise to help each woman get clear about what she wanted in different areas of her life. Some of the women – even the ones who had come to my retreats several times – looked at me with stunned expressions on their faces. For a moment I thought I had designed a really bad exercise. But then I realized that these women had never allowed themselves to ask what they wanted. They never knew this was an option.

If you don’t know what you do want or love, try creating a vision board. That’s a great place to start. Lots of time, when you allow yourself to clear out what you don’t want, you will slowly learn what you do want just by getting comfortable with the space that’s there. If you typically rush to fill space with anything, then it may be wise to live for a time empty. This is a process, not a destination.

24 COMMENTS ADD A COMMENT
  • anne

    christine, I deal with my obsessive holding on to things by making it into a business. I turned my living room into a shop where I now sell all my clutter: vases,cups, old typewriters, coffee cups and saucers, that’s how it started. Now I also sell coffee, tea, cakes, homemade bags, aprons and cushions, but mainly it’s still my clutter. I am a hoarder, and letting go of things is such a catharsis, it fills me with joy.
    I have a rule now when I buy something: for every thing I bring into the house, something else has to go.
    I sometimes have nightmares that my loved ones will have to deal with all my clutter when I die. I would not wish that on them….

  • Stacey

    So, #2 just kicked my butt. I laughed out loud!

  • Stephanie Hackney

    What a wonderful way to share with people how clutter holds us back. It is so true. And yes, even organized people sometimes have to revisit these lessons.

    As a professional organizer, I have heard all the excuses again and again (usually when I am trying to ascertain why something is being kept and the client really does not want to let go…of anything!).

    Here are my responses to them:
    1. “I’d be a bad mean horrible person if I…” – the memories you have on the person who left this to you are all you need to be close to this person. If you truly want to honor them, then place this item in a place worthy of it. If you are not willing to do that, then perhaps a family member would be thrilled to have this item?
    2. “I spent so much on it!” – the money is spent and it’s not coming back. Keeping the “x” will only serve to cost you even more money.
    3. “I might need this someday.” – yes, you might. Then again, you might not. Trust in the fact tat either you will be able to afford to purchase this, or borrow it, when “someday” comes.
    4. “I might do this someday.” – the road is paved with good intentions. But, we need to be truthful with ourselves. If we were really interested in “doing this,” we would have done so already. You have not had time? We make time for that which is truly important to us.
    5. “I gotta look good to my guests.” – this one I have never heard, but it’s been implied. I would say if your friends or family only thinks highly of you because of your stuff, perhaps their opinion is not that important. I absolutely agree that this is a fear-driven behavior, one that says “I want to belong and to be liked – my stuff does that for me.”
    6. “I Don’t Know Where It Goes.” – this is usually why I am brought in to assist people. They simply don’t have places designated for things and are drowning in their clutter or disarray. We work to create the places, based on functionality and need.
    7. “My thoughts don’t have any power. Do they?” – Again, this is not something clients usually express, but it’s something I speak with them about. Our thoughts create our actions which creates our reality.
    8. “But I never wore it!” – Holding on to it serves what purpose? Wouldn’t you rather make room for something you WILL wear and make someone’s day by gifting it to them?
    9. “There’s too much stuff!” – And you don’t know where to begin, right? Start small. Start by choosing the area causing the most pain and deal with it, head-on. Then, once you experience the success that comes with clearing the clutter and solving the pain, you can move on. Almost all clients find they are invigorated by achieving some sense of order and they are soon “white lightening” it around their whole place!

    Again, thanks for putting this out there for the world to see. We could all do with a little less stuff and a little more room to breathe and grow.

    Stephanie

  • lisa

    There are no “extra flashlights” (unless they DON’T WORK). Watch it, lady.

    P.S I fill with good will whenever I read your blog. Thank you for having such good humor!

  • Marilyn Sholin

    AMEN!! We are selling our home where the business also is and to get it ready for sale we are throwing out, shipping out and having hauled away more “STUFF” than I could imagine I owned!! Every one of your points HIT HOME..thanks for helping me to not feel guilty about it all.

    Marilyn

  • Rebecca Thorman

    I just transitioned into a new phase in my life and found that getting rid of crap was essential. I felt it, necessary, in fact, so I could start my new and fresh. I enjoyed this series; I’m planning to purge more soon!

  • pam

    I did get rid of the phone cords, at least most of them and last week I needed them! The phone quit and they had me see if it worked out on the box on the side of the house. It worked so they would not come to fix the phone for 4 days. They said we could hook the phone up outside and run a cord through a window and have phone sevice. If you can still call 911 they don’t have to fix it right away. The cords I saved weren’t enough to get into the house so we had our phone, fax machine and answering machine sitting outside for 4 days. It is a good thing we have wireless internet or the computer might have been out there too!!!

    Pam

  • Claire Fontaine

    Hi Christine – We chatted at the opening night cocktail party at Blogher (you were on the floor, I was in a chair.)I’m the author that just had a year of constant touring and appearances and we talked about the need for solitude and having “ourself to ourself” sometimes. I loved hearing you sing and regretted not finding you afterward to say so. So I googled you today and O, cease, my beating heart. Your blog embodies what my daughter, Mia, and I chronicled in our memoir, “Come Back,” so well, and so much better than my own blog, that I’m just going to send everyone who visits my blog to yours with, “yeah, whatever she just said!”

  • Rebecca (GlamSpirit)

    So many good excuses here. I think the energy of objects is most apparent to me, because I notice that I feel lighter and can breathe more easily once the clutter’s gone.

  • Christine Kane

    hi mags, it’s funny that you said your mom wouldn’t want the stuff back. that’s what i always suspect about these kinds of things!

    thanks for that link, fivecats!

  • Kent Blumberg

    Wow! I love this post, because it has my mind spinning about the excuses companies use to hold on to unwanted divisions, unwanted products, lousy customers and all kinds of other clutter. I’ve got to go away and think about this. Hopefully a related post later in the week.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Petra

    Well, Christine, first it was the Zippy Bags! I got rid of five of them and the ball has just started rolling. Thanks!!! Yesterday I cleaned out my garage and I now have room for two cars again (I only have one, but that’s besides the point). On Wednesday, the broken lawn mower goes out front for bulk pickup (it’s been broken for a year) and then the garage will be completely cleaned up. I just loved driving in after work today; it was so clean and organized and spacious! After I cleaned out the garage, I went to work on the refrigerator. Threw out two cans of energy drink that I got for free TWO YEARS AGO! I don’t do caffeine, but I thought maybe someone would drink them. Now the contents have been dumped and the cans put in recycling. The freezer and pantry are next.

    I think this series of posts has really spurred this “letting go” semi-frenzy of mine. And, in what I’m sure is totally related, today was the first day of classes and it was my best-ever first day in terms of relating to students. And (this has NEVER happened in my years as an academic), I actually had perfect attendance in all three of my courses. Fifty in the biggest class and every single person showed up for that class. I’m sure it’s because of the space for positive energy I’ve cleared by getting rid of that which is weighing me down. This post is fantastic!

  • fivecats

    and if you’re motivated by guilt, fearing that this once precious object might be needed by someone else, somewhere else, there’s always Freecycle.

    http://www.freecycle.org/groups/

    post your object(s) to your local freecycle list and someone who might just been needing that thing right now might will be able to find it and take it off of your hands!

    (just remember — don’t start lurking on freecycle to collect new, precious/useless objects!)

  • Mags

    Hehe – had to smile at this post 🙂 When we moved to Scotland, we went through a major purge of all the old things, broken things, never used things etc until we managed to whittle it all down to what we considered essentials. It was an incredibly challenging, yet fantastically cathartic, experience and we are much the better for it. My mother still considers me evil though for throwing away things that she considered sentimental (interestingly, she didn’t want to take all of that stuff when I offered it to her, though…!) 😉

  • Christine Kane

    Michelle – I find that when you do “waste” your money on what you want – that you actually are applying a whole different kind of economy to your life. It defies standard logic – but it works better! thanks for the note!

    hiya caren – guilt over the landfill is understandable. i recycle pretty much everything (we have a mixed paper recycling center) and i give away the rest. (unless it’s trashy stuff.) i just don’t let that level of tyranny hold me down. ultimately, i put less stuff into the landfill because i’ve gone through this very process!

    hi sheista – “guilt zones” is a great way to put it. we all keep having our blind spots and learning curves. so don’t stress it!

  • sheista

    I have been following this series and, for the most part, live by the quote “have nothing in your home that you do not believe to be beautiful or useful.” However, I have “guilt zones”. All the things that I feel too guilty to get rid of but because they have designated space continue to hand on to them. No more! I am going to finally rid myself the the final guilt clutter.

    Thanks, Christine.

  • Caren

    Which brings me to another reason – guilt over putting things in the landfill! When I re-read my post, that’s what I felt – Oh, no! I’m putting things in the landfill!

    I just have to remember to ask myself “So, you want your *home* to BE a landfill, where broken things go?” No, I don’t. That’s why I pay taxes.

    I can reduce landfill by not bringing the damn things in my house in the first place. So there.

  • Caren

    I can relate to the ego reason, as well – when I finally realized I was doing that a few years ago, I gave away boxes and boxes of books! It felt so good. And I need to do that again!

    I found one of the reasons I kept broken clutter is because of the belief that “I’ll fix it one day!” I had a breakthrough moment a few years ago, when I was on my knees, gathering these torn and stained comic book pages, piling them up, thinking, “I think I have all the pages now! I know the cover’s here somewhere!” I looked at the pages, and suddenly knew – “This book is not me. I do not have to make this whole, to make myself whole. It’s OK to let this go.” Then I had a good cry, and put the pages in recycling. I still have a tendency to want to keep broken pieces – we can fix it! We can make it work again! But I mostly throw them out. And now, after writing this, I’ll throw them all out. phew.

  • michelle

    Another fantastic post!!! Guilt is such a strong motivator in so many ways. I have kept more than my fair share of guilt stuff over the years, for many of the above reasons. I guess you could say I subconsciously hear my mothers voice in the back of my head saying it’s still good, it still works, you keep it! Dont waste your money on what you want!

    Or you get the someone could use this and you can get rid of it till you find someone else to give your guilt stuff too! Sometimes it’s good stuff other times its just stuff that needs to go. I have a big box of those wire things, collected from many places my husband swears we might need someday! He doesn’t even know it exists anymore until I go to get rid of it.

    It’s time to think about what I want in every part of my life! and get rid of the STUFF I don’t!

    Thanks for another great post!!!

  • Christine Kane

    hello whitetshirts – it was kind of embarrassing when i admitted to myself that i was holding on to CD’s and books for ego reasons – but then I just laughed and eventually let them go if i hadn’t read or listened to them in a year or so. (and now with the iPod – I can just upload them and give them to friends! which, i know, i’m supposed to frown on – but it’s how music gets discovered!) books are great to “loan” and then not worry if you never see them again… thanks for the note!

  • Whitetshirts

    Great post again! It is like you are looking into my house. Books are the hardest one for me too. I know that I don’t really like to reread things, even if I loved them the first time, but I am definitely a loaner. But, I know that I need to thin the herd again! I think that I am ready to release some back into the wild.

    Thanks again. Have a great day everybody!