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Why we hold onto things we don’t need — and how to let them go, according to experts

Letting go of stuff, even if you no longer need or use it, can be hard. Here's how to make it easier, according to experts. (Photo: Getty Images)
Letting go of stuff, even if you no longer need or use it, can be hard. Here's how to make it easier, according to experts. (Photo: Getty Images)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

Anyone who has ever cleaned out their closet, or even a junk drawer, knows how hard it can be to let go of stuff. Even if you know logically that you no longer need it, it’s easy to second-guess yourself. What if you donate that purple sweater and then finally find the perfect outfit to go with it? What if you give away the fondue set that’s still in the box and then have a craving for fondue six months later?

The feeling is universal, according to experts. "All of us have trouble letting go of stuff," Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, the director of the Translational Therapeutics Lab and an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, tells Yahoo Life. "All of us hold on to items that we may not need."

Why is it hard to let go?

When we’re unable to get rid of possessions we no longer need or never used, it’s usually because of one of three reasons: "We spent money and/or time procuring the item, and don't want to admit it was fruitless," Amy Trager, a certified professional organizer, tells Yahoo Life. "Or, we really think we might use it again someday. Or, we feel guilty getting rid of whatever it is."

Trager says that most of us have made "an impulse buy or bought something we intended to use, but never did," adding, "It's hard to admit that it was all for naught. Maybe we're really truly intending to someday do that thing we hoped we always would. But, chances are if it's been laying around the house for a long time, we aren't going to."

In some cases, we keep possessions out of guilt "because of who gave it to us," Trager says. "We're convinced — sometimes rightfully, and sometimes not — that the gift giver will know if the item isn't in our home anymore. Or, we know there were good intentions, so we feel bad donating that picture frame that doesn't match our decor or any size photo we own."

Clothing items, of course, can be notoriously hard for people to part with — particularly clothes we used to be able to fit into. "It really can be a challenge," says Trager. "Often, we tell ourselves it's motivation to lose the weight. But, in reality, it's a constant reminder in the closet that we aren't the size we hoped to be."

When helping a client revamp their closet, Trager asks them if "realistically, by the time they are that size again, is it a piece of fashion they'd even want to wear again?" she says. "Was it comfortable? Fashionable? A part of your current lifestyle and wardrobe?" If the answer is no, then it can help them let it go.

It can also be hard to part with certain pieces of clothing that people associate with part of their identity, such as when they were in college or before they had kids. Some may think: "'If I'm no longer fitting into the clothes that I wore at a particular point in my life, then that means I'm not that person anymore,'" says Rodriguez, "but that's not true. We evolve, our tastes change."

Rodriguez adds: "You don’t need to hold onto a physical item to know your value or your worth. And you can just rebuy it if you need to. But right now, it’s weighing you down with volume and space."

When it’s a sign of an underlying problem

It’s common to have a bit of a tough time parting with possessions you liked but don’t need anymore. But if you’re consistently struggling with and are significantly distressed about letting go of items that no longer (or never did) serve a purpose in your life, that can be a sign of a mental health issue, such as hoarding disorder.

According to the International OCD Foundation, there are three signs that, together, signal a hoarding disorder: "A person collects and keeps a lot of items, even things that appear useless or of little value to most people. These items clutter the living spaces and keep the person from using the rooms as they were intended. These items cause distress or problems in day-to-day activities."

This isn’t to be confused with collecting, such as bobbleheads or stamps. "Collecting is different in that a lot of people see it as a pleasurable activity," says Rodriguez. "It brings them great joy and there’s a level of organization, unlike hoarding disorder where it’s a mix of items and they may be embarrassed about it." (The International OCD Foundation has a resource directory for therapists, clinics and treatment programs for hoarding disorder on their site.)

How to let go of stuff you no longer need

In general, Trager recommends following this advice when deciding whether or not to purge an item in your house: "A good rule of thumb for everyday items is that if it hasn't been used in the last year, it likely won't get used again," says Trager. "For more seasonal or specialty items, the time frame can be stretched a bit. But, if something's been in its original box in the basement for years, the chances you will use it are slim to none."

1. Set aside time for the task

Rather than spontaneously launching into cleaning out a closet or a series of drawers in your kitchen, both Rodriguez and Trager recommend setting aside some time to focus on organizing an area.

"Figure out when you will really be able to focus on the task at hand without distractions like kids coming home from school or work emails dinging in the background," suggests Trager. "Schedule time into your calendar like any other important appointment."

Rodriguez also recommends "budgeting more time than you think you’ll need." That’s because "people aren’t accounting for the emotions," she says. "You never know if you’re going into a mystery drawer and may run into an item that was your grandmother's. You want to take time to think about that memory and feeling or talk about a loved one. That takes time. They're meaningful objects."

2. Have supplies on hand

Both Rodriguez and Trager recommend having a few supplies on hand to stay organized — such as garbage bags or bins for different items. "So things you want to keep, donate, and throw away," suggests Rodriguez, along with items to recycle.

3. Start small

When cleaning out or organizing an area, Rodriguez suggests not putting "the goal so high that it’s overwhelming." Instead, start small, such as focusing on a specific category like books, makeup, or water bottles. "One square foot at a time — that mantra helps to reign it in," says Rodriguez. It also "builds a nice momentum," she says. "You get a little positive reward and then you can do something bigger."

Another reason to start small? "When you unclutter it can look worse before it looks better, so make sure you're not biting off more than you can chew," says Rodriguez.

She also suggests starting where you can clearly see the benefits. For example, "if your bedside table is the area where you want to start, that’s a great goal because every time you wake up in the morning you can see it’s uncluttered," Rodriguez points out. "When you see it, you can get that sense of accomplishment."

4. Work through any feelings that come up

If you’re feeling unsure or a bit anxious about letting go of certain sentimental possessions even though you know it’s likely time, Trager points out that "there are things we can do to help us remember the item" without physically keeping it.

For example, "we can snap a photo of it before it leaves the house," Trager suggests. "We can re-purpose it into something else — for example, a t-shirt quilt. We can journal a story about why it's so important. Most powerfully, we can make sure it gets into the hands of someone else who will love and use it."

Rodriguez agrees, suggesting that "thinking about others that may need the item more and donating to those in need" can help you let it go.

The benefits of decluttering

Experts say there are several benefits to getting rid of, recycling, or donating items you no longer need. "We instantly feel lighter," says Trager. "Our outer space very often reflects our inner selves. The calmer our space around us becomes, the easier it becomes to create a calmer self."

Rodriguez adds that "decluttering can save you time," making it easier to find the items you need in your home.

Trager agrees, saying that, by decluttering, "we can make space for whatever else we want in our lives — a new activity, a new person in our home, or just some open space. There can also be some charitable satisfaction that we've given things to people that may not have been able to access those items easily. The things move on to new lives in new homes, where they'll be used and enjoyed."

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