the psychology of sentimental items
One of the biggest barriers many people experience when transitioning into a minimalist lifestyle is letting go of sentimental items.
We all have them. Childhood stuffed animals, inherited crockery, holey old jumpers, postcards, film photographs, faded letters. They remind us of a person, an era, a place, a feeling. Often, they have no real use or monetary value. A lot of people never even look at their sentimental items. Many even keep them in offsite storage containers, paying to hold onto unopened boxes.
I was no exception. I used to have an entire filing cabinet and several storage containers full of papers alone. Part of this came from the extraordinary anxiety friendships used to cause for me. I loved the people I was around, yet I was always scared they would desert me. So, I tried to keep a record of them. I grasped for fragments of our time together and hoarded them. Letting go of my enormous collection of papers, stuffed animals and old clothes was a tremendous challenge. I managed it eventually. Here is what helped me.
First of all, it's useful to understand a little bit about the psychology of sentimental items. This made a huge difference in my own efforts to rid myself of them.
There are two important psychological concepts here: the endowment effect and loss aversion.
The endowment effect: we value things more because we own them. A simple premise, yet one which causes us endless problems. Experiments have shown that people are even willing to pay to keep something they acquired mere minutes ago. It is why shops can be confident about offering generous return policies. Once the item is clenched in your sweaty fist, you are motivated to keep it - even if there are issues with it.
This is also why items which have belonged to someone famous sell for insane prices. Our collective concept of value is a nebulous, malleable one. Holding onto something causes it to appear special.
Loss aversion: a related and relevant concept. We don't like losing what we own, even if it is by choice. This is one reason why many people baulk at the concept of minimalism. It feels like a threat to their current belongings.
Our possessions have an emotional hold over us. That is undeniable.
So, what is the solution to the issue of sentimental items? Well, there is no clear cut answer. I cannot condense it into a pithy statement or set of rules. There are, however, a few key ideas to keep in mind:
Your memories are not held within physical items. They are encoded somewhere in your brain, an organ which happens to do its job pretty well. We are capable of remembering far more than it seems on the surface. Looking at your grandmother's rusted watering can make you remember the details of her face, yes. But the memories are not in the item itself. They are in your mind and the object just triggers them.
Getting rid of sentimental items is not 'throwing away your life.' It does not belie a contempt for your past self. It is not a rejection of people you care(d) for. Truly, it is okay. This need not be a painful process. Some people find it useful to actually thank an item for its service before they get rid of it. Gratitude is a key part of the process.
There is no need to jettison every single sentimental item. Truly. It is not a requirement for living a minimalist lifestyle. If a particular piece brings you real happiness or is useful, keep it. I still have my filled Moleskine notebooks, stored at my mother's house along with my two best loved stuffed dogs.
Think about what you can gain by adopting a minimalist lifestyle. Freedom. Space. Time. Money. Clarity. If I had kept all my sentimental items I would still be confined in my childhood bedroom. Now I have the freedom to travel as I wish, carrying my belongings with me. As tough as the jettisoning process can be, you stand to gain so much. Donating items can also help out other people. A few years ago, my mother finally sent my long unused baby blanket to a charity shop. That same day, I was walking down the street and I saw a woman holding a tiny, fragile puppy - wrapped in my old blanket. It was a beautiful moment and made me far happier than keeping it in a cupboard ever would have.
Sentimental items can keep us held in the past. They can be a tangible reminder of events and people which were not necessarily so positive. I remember the day I lost a hoodie which my first boyfriend gave me. It was a typical black, zip-up hoodie which can be brought anywhere. I had kept it throughout my teenage years so it was somewhat battered. Not my style, yet I retained it for a long time. One day I left it behind in a classroom. Frantic trips to lost property did not lead to its recovery. Tears prickled in my eyes as I tried to comprehend the finality of its loss. In truth, that hoodie made me miserable. When I wore it, I did not recollect the good times the two of us had together. Instead, it sparked memories of the miserable breakup. Wearing it kept me stuck in the past to the extent that I avoided new relationships. The loss, though non-consensual, freed me and let me move on.
Photographs and writing can be the most evocative things of all. We are lucky enough to live in a time where these can be stored in the cloud and take up no space. It is simple to scan or photograph sentimental items. A picture of it will trigger as many memories as the actual thing itself. Photographs from events can also hold more meaning than mementoes. For example, I kept a traffic cone in my bedroom for years. Some friend of mine had thought carrying it home whilst drunk would be hilarious. So I kept it in the corner of my room, a huge traffic cone which smelt weird. When I at least eradicated it, the memories of that night did not fade. I had plenty of photographs to look at if I wished. In the long run, my memories were more positive because I did not have the annoyance of shuffling a stupid traffic cone around my room.
Try making a list of all your most valued possessions, without actually looking at them. I do this on a regular basis to assess what I use enough to remember it even exists. If you cannot even remember you own something, the chances are that it matters less than you think.
To finish, here are some words from Frederick Buechner:
“To sentimentalise something is to look only at the emotion in it and at the emotion it stirs in us rather than at the reality of it, which we are always tempted not to look at because reality, truth, silence are all what we are not much good at and avoid when we can. To sentimentalise something is to savour rather than to suffer the sadness of it, is to sigh over the prettiness of it rather than to tremble at the beauty of it, which may make fearsome demands of us or pose fearsome threats.”
Want this (and dozens of other essays on minimalism) in PDF or Kindle format to read at your leisure? Take a look here.