Getting Rid of Possessions: It’s Harder Than You Think


If you’re ready to move to a smaller space or think you might want to downsize in the not-too-distant future, take a deep breath and start planning.

It’s a much bigger task than you’ll ever imagine, partly because the process entails far more than just deciding which possessions to keep and which to toss.

Most people acquire things over a lifetime — one decade, year, month or day at a time. Through the years, possessions from clothes to decorative arts can accumulate: Flexible Flyer sleds tucked away in the basement crawl space; bridesmaid’s or flower girl dresses stored in closets; Valentines, birthday cards and other personal correspondence stashed in night table drawers.

Why We Won’t Toss

Why have we accumulated so much and refused to toss so little? “People took pleasure in the things they used, cared for and valued,” said Gary W. Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and president of the American Society for Geriatric Psychiatry. But keeping all those things can become, frankly, a burden. “It overtakes your life,” Small noted.

Seeing items you haven’t thought of or seen in a while can trigger sweet memories of times past or of loved ones no longer alive.

Trying to sort and toss possessions is a deeply psychological task as much as a decluttering one. It means, in a way, dismantling a life that once was and no longer is, at least not in the same way. We hang onto things that remind us of a pleasant time. Sorting through old letters from friends or family members is “pleasure for a moment,” Small said. “It’s a momentary experience.”

When lightening your load, emotions come into play. Some are sweet and others are less so, including the often hidden feelings within us that rise to the surface, reminding us of the past and of the limits of life itself. Seeing items you haven’t thought of or seen in a while can trigger sweet memories of times past or of loved ones no longer alive.

Dealing With Mortality and Balance

The difficulty of dismissing stuff can be rooted in mortality and the realization that no one lives forever. At a certain point in life, there is more past than future, and that, in itself, can be daunting. “We’re all mortal,” Small said. “The issue is balance. You can’t hold onto all things. One of the upsides to downsizing is it allows us to live more in the present.”


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