Woman packing up books to get rid of while spring cleaning.

5 Secret Reasons You Hold on to Clutter -- and How to Let Go

When emotional attachment keeps you hanging on to clutter, try these tips to set you free.


By: Laurie Sue Brockway

Vivian Eisenstadt is a physical therapist by trade but has become a bit of an expert in clearing clutter from her own life. Realizing she was completely overwhelmed by excess stuff all around her, she decided to do something about it. Rather than just toss things, she delved into why she was holding on. The result: She says exploring the emotional attachment to objects has helped her find great freedom in letting go of things she no longer needs, even if they represent happy memories.

“A lot of the clutter was reflective of my overwhelmed mind,” says Eisenstadt. “By clearing out my clutter, I cleared my mind a lot and can now focus much easier.”

Experts suggest that emotional attachment to objects can keep you hanging on -- and understanding these attachments can help set you free. We ask them to explain the top reasons people hold on to clutter and to also give tips for letting go.

1. Memories of happier times. It is not uncommon for people to hold on to favorite memories through objects, yet it can also keep them stuck in the past. “I found a lot of the items I was holding on to were just reminders of great times in my life, or a period of life that I wanted to fondly remember,” says Eisenstadt.

Solution : Trust these experiences will live on in your heart and mind and keep smaller reminders. “I took pictures of the items for posterity and then gave the items away.”

2. Sense of security . Certain objects may provide a false sense of security, says Bonnie Joy Dewkett, a certified professional organizer. “We make ourselves feel secure and comfortable by acquiring things,” she says. “For some people this goes back to issues in childhood, and sometimes it is just how we're wired.”

Solution: Ask yourself if you really need it. “While you don't need to overanalyze your things, it is good to stop and think for a moment about why you purchase, store, and use things,” she says.

3. Remorse over bad buying decisions. Many people make purchases on a whim -- and sometimes overspend -- and then feel guilty if items sit unused in a box. “We may have spent a lot of money on it and don’t want to face the feelings of failure over having made a bad decision,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and life coach. “For example, expensive shoes that are uncomfortable.”

Solution : Allow yourself to feel buyer’s remorse but remember your excess items might be great for someone who needs them, or as a charitable donation. “Acknowledge the feelings of sadness or failure and then try to find a way to frame the situation more positively,” she says. “And focus on the benefits of removing clutter.”

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4. Fear of letting go . This is an underlying cause of clutter for many people. “We are so attached to our stuff, for a variety of reasons, but most people come from a place of fear,” says Laura Benko, author of the book, The Holistic Home: Mind, Body, Spirit, Space. “It may be a fear of not having enough -- which creates hoarding and stockpiling -- or a fear of forgetting memories, which leads to not being able to let go of any of your children's artwork, photos, or other memorabilia.”

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Solution: Address root causes of why you hold on, and create a plan for releasing clutter and excess. Also, turn simple tasks into symbolic gestures with an overall goal of clearing your home and mind of clutter. “For example, when you take out a garbage bag of papers to the trash, look at it as you are letting go of whatever undesirable attribute about yourself that you don't like,” says Benko. “It’s like bringing a big bag of superfluous worry to the curb.”

5. It’s just too overwhelming . Some moms just can’t muster the time and strength to sort and discard. “We may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of going through it all and having to make a lot of decisions and do physical work to cart it away,” says Greenberg.

Solution: Consider clutter release as a fresh start in life. “Acknowledge that when you let go of the old, you make room for new opportunities and experiences,” she says.

The trick to surviving clutter clearing is not to attempt an overnight miracle, but to engage in an ongoing process.

Start small,” says psychotherapist and author Tina B. Tessina, PhD. “One shelf, drawer, closet, or cache at a time.”

What is one thing cluttering up your life that you can let go now?


Laurie Sue Brockway is a journalist and author who has written extensively on love, marriage, parenting, wellbeing, and emotional health. Her work has appeared in hundreds of print and online publications, including Everyday Health and The Huffington Post.

Image ©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz


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