Maybe it's five years' worth of New Yorker magazines, every macaroni art project your child ever produced, or a spouse's collection of vintage typewriters. Experts say these piles of possessions don't just take up space in our homes, but in our brains, too. And that can prevent us from moving on to the next big thing.
You don't have to be a hoarder for that to happen. My husband and I learned this the hard way last year, as we prepared to sell the house and move into a camper for what turned out to be a five-month adventure. While we agreed to put some of our stuff in storage, we committed to radically paring down, a process that involved dozens of trips to the dump and Goodwill. As we testily sorted through what would make the final cut, it was easy to see why so many couples avoid such conversations indefinitely.
"Maybe we should just stay here until we die," I joked one night, after we agonized over the elimination of 80 percent of our books, rooms full of not-our-favorite furniture, and my late mother's good china. "Then the kids can deal with it all."
Turns out being at least a little shackled by your stuff is 100 percent normal, says Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York, and an associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "We all have some clutter. And it's not so much about the stuff as it is our appraisal of the stuff." Letting go of office clutter, for example, might mean shedding part of our professional identity; eliminating kid-related clutter makes an empty nest more real.
Hoarders (a bona fide mental disorder that, mercifully, affects only about 2 percent of men and women) and true packrats, of course, have special problems. For them, clutter can "cause emotional despair or distress," he says. "It's a problem if you are unable to use a guest room or garage for its intended purpose, for example."
But your stuff can also erect a mental barrier against any kind of change. If the logistics of what to do with belongings loom too large, it's much harder to objectively assess your next step. Obviously downsizing, relocating or reconfiguring a home requires managing your stuff. But figuring out (and dealing with) the emotional content of your possessions can help you move forward with other life changes too. Should you dump those letters from the ex you truly loved because they keep you from accepting a new partner in your life? Is that pile of pricey gardening tools you never really used stopping you from diving into a new hobby you adore?
Finding the strength to weed out your stuff can build confidence and set you up to tackle a seemingly unrelated life change. To get started, Rego suggests these basic questions:
Do you have the space?
People with cavernous basements and storage barns can afford to keep more than those in tighter spaces. If you've got the room to box stuff up and leave it, there's no problem.
What emotional purpose does your stuff serve?
Maybe you keep books because you remember the way they made you feel—thrilled, excited, scared, sad. Or clothes from college because it was a happy, carefree time. Often, Rego says, our stuff resonates with us on many levels.
Can you live without it for a few months?
If getting rid of anything causes anxiety, Rego says it can be helpful to box it up and put it somewhere safe—an attic or a storage unit. These baby steps give you time to imagine you've thrown it out, and process the emotions. "Often, anxieties decrease and soften as people come to terms with what that particular stuff symbolizes. It's easer to let go in stages."
Do you need help?
For many people, there are no emotional ties—sometimes clutter is just clutter. If that's the case and you're overwhelmed, start small, perhaps one drawer a day. But don't overlook using professional organizers, who can help develop a realistic plan. And if your reluctance feels deeper, psychologists can help, too.
Finally, Rego says, while facing clutter is "absolutely part of midlife, it's worth keeping that old truism in mind: You really can't take it with you."