Letting go, but not forgetting

Life happens. We get busy, start a family, pursue a new career, or move on to new things. Sometimes we just lose interest in the things we used to do, and other times it’s a painful, but necessary process of letting go. Our closets, basements, and attics hold objects spanning our lifetimes: old textbooks, clothes we used to wear, and gear for hobbies we no longer do. As we change, what do we do with all that stuff from our past selves? Here are some questions you can ask yourself, to help you process these items in a way that feels right to you.

How do these objects make me feel?

When you interact with these objects, how does it make you feel? Do they bring back pleasant memories? If seeing the items makes you feel stressed out, maybe because they bring up unpleasant memories, or you feel guilty for no longer using them, it may be time to part with them.

Why am I holding onto them?

We have all kinds of justifications for keeping things around that we no longer use. Here are a few I’ve heard:

“I may use this stuff again in the future…”

Say you used to be an avid skier, but now, with a 4 year old and 2 year old, you barely have time to sleep, let alone ski. Your garage is so full of bulky equipment  you haven’t used in years, that you can’t get your car in there anymore. Think hard about how likely you are to take up this hobby again. Come up with a specific percentage. Is there an 85% chance, or a 5% chance you are going to do this again? Are you taking a short hiatus, or have you moved on in your life? Consider giving yourself a time limit: “If I don’t use this stuff in the next year, I will give it away.”

I don’t want to have to buy it again…”

Let’s say you decide that you will probably return to this hobby in the future. Is it worth keeping the equipment around another 5 years until you are ready to use it? Think of alternatives. You could loan it to a friend, on the condition that you are able to borrow it or take it back later. You could rent the equipment when you need it, instead of owning it. Or, if things change down the line, you could consider buying used or getting free hand-me-downs from people giving away their stuff online.

“But these items are part of my identity”

Many of our things hold sentimental value for us, but regardless of what these items mean to us, they don’t define who we are. With or without these objects, we retain the memories, the wisdom, and experiences. I used to act in school plays. I kept many of the items we used, such as old costumes, props, scripts, and notes. It has been nearly two decades since that time, but I still remember it fondly, and every once in a while I like to revisit those things and reminisce. Eventually, I pared down to just a few things that reminded me of that experience. I made a scrapbook with my favorite photos, some of our old jokes, and one program (I had inexplicably kept multiples of each) from each play. Now I can look back at it and remember that time, without having to keep around boxes of extra stuff.

There are many ways we can hold onto these memories without keeping everything. Say you have family heirlooms that you are never going to use, but can’t bring yourself to get rid of. Take photos of these items and keep an album (analog or digital) that you can refer back to when you’re feeling nostalgic. Or you can keep a few small mementos in a treasure box, and let go of the rest. It is not the item itself, but what it evokes for us, that we are holding onto. Try writing a reflection about that time in your life, how you felt, and what these items meant to you, then keep that and let the items go. Think carefully about where you want to keep these mementos. Maybe instead of letting them languish in the basement, you can find a more accessible spot, so you can look at them more often.

“I may need to reference that...”

We are all guilty of keeping around old books, papers, magazines, and clippings, on the off chance that we might need the information someday. If you are not referencing these sources regularly, why keep them around? Ask yourself if this information could be found online, or if you could take out books from the library instead.

“Would someone else benefit from these items?”

When we keep things hidden away, getting old, dusty, and deteriorated, they aren’t doing anyone any good. There are people who would love to have these things, and would use them all the time! You have many options for getting rid of unused stuff. You can sell the items and put the money towards new stuff that is more interesting to you now! Or perhaps you have a friend you can give your old things to, and then you can actually see these items being used and loved. If you want to donate the items, there are many great organizations that will take your things. Second-hand stores allow greater access to items that some people can’t afford new, and are an environmentally friendly alternative to everyone buying new stuff all the time!

“What do I have to lose?”

Looking back at our old things can be a good chance to reflect on where we were, and where we are going now. Think of how your past experiences have shaped who you are, but don’t let them limit you from becoming more. What are your current goals and values? What do you appreciate about your life now? What are you doing that inspires you? By letting go of your past self, you open up space for new opportunities and adventures! Dive in!