How to Deal With Emotionally Difficult Clutter, According to an Organizing Pro

Asking yourself these 9 questions will make it much easier to let go. 

Emotionally Difficult Clutter, woman packing up belongings
Photo: Cultura RM Exclusive/Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

Whether you're having trouble letting go of your growing children's baby belongings (those baby booties are just too precious) or are struggling to declutter following the death of a loved one, purging belongings that have sentimental value is notoriously difficult. To help make the process a little easier, Lisa Zaslow, a professional organizer and organizational partner to MakeSpace, shares her tips for tackling emotionally-charged clutter. Left to our own devices, we might decide to keep every last ticket stub and card, but by following Zaslow's steps and asking nine hard questions, it's suddenly easier to decide what to keep and what to let go of. When the decluttering process is over, not only will your home find a little more breathing room, but you'll be able to breath easier in your space.

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Be aware of how your emotions play into organizing

Emotionally Difficult Clutter, woman packing up belongings
Cultura RM Exclusive/Sofie Delauw/Getty Images

The first step, Zaslow says, is to recognize how strong emotions can derail the decluttering process. "A stack of ratty college sweatshirts in a closet evokes memories of fun, carefree times, so we don’t think about whether we truly want them, or whether the space they take up would be better used to store sweaters we actually wear," Zaslow explains. Becoming aware of our emotional attachments can help us make more logical decisions about what to keep and toss.

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Start organizing when you're feeling good

"Walking down memory lane takes mental energy and time," Zaslow warns, so starting the decluttering process when you're feeling good and full of energy will help. "If you’re feeling positive about the present and the future, you won’t get bogged down in decisions about the past. Set aside at least a leisurely hour or two. You don’t need to do everything at once."

And what happens if you're not in the emotional space to start decluttering? Consider hiring a storage service, like MakeSpace, that will even pick up (and later deliver) the belongings you're not ready to deal with just yet.

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Ask yourself these 9 questions

When it comes to our emotions, it's hard for us to make objective decisions. A friend or pro organizer can help with the process, or you can start by asking yourself these 9 tough questions (and be honest!).

  1. Would it be one of the first things I would grab if there was a fire?
  2. Do I love the way it looks?
  3. Does it bring back happy memories?
  4. Is it a unique artifact connected to my family’s history?
  5. Am I saving it for someone else who actually wants it?
  6. Would I remember the memories even without the object?
  7. Could someone else use it now?
  8. Am I keeping it because of guilt or regret about the past?
  9. Does keeping it make me feel badly?
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Keep the memorabilia manageable

Zaslow follows three guidelines to ensure that mementos don't end up taking up more space than they should.

  • Keep the best and let go of the rest. Save heartfelt letters from mom, not every card where she simply wrote “Love, Mom”.
  • Edit items to fit into a reasonably-sized container. Pare down plastic tubs of baby clothes to a few adorable tiny pieces that will fit in a box on a shelf.
  • Take a photo of items that are meaningful but not beautiful enough to display: old dolls, stuffed animals, kids’ artwork, and knick-knacks. Keep the memories and let the objects go.
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Once you decide what to keep, store it properly

"Photographs, papers, and textiles can degrade over time, so store them in archival quality, acid-free and PVC-free materials and containers to preserve them as long as possible," Zaslow recommends. "Remove photos from 1970’s-era albums with sticky 'magnetic' pages, which do more harm than good."

"Protect your treasures from harsh environmental conditions—keep paper and cloth items away from light, moisture, dirt, heat, large fluctuations in temperature, and pests." Once you've decided to keep an item, it's worth storing it the right way.

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