Why do we hold on to clutter? An expert weighs in

Dec 30, 2019
When downsizing, the first step is edit your possessions and only keeping the most important. Source: Getty

We moved from the Mallee to Melbourne in 2000. Like many parents, we seemed to be hell-bent on consuming items with alacrity! The number of possessions we had accumulated in seventeen years of living there astonished me. If you’ve previously experienced moving to a new house, you will understand… LP collections, CDs, videos, card collections, old letters, books, clothing, sporting equipment, furniture… you name it.

As our lives get busier and our houses fuller, we try to upgrade the furniture as required. However, we may not have the resources at the time to do a proper makeover. So, we go to the big furniture stores and purchase what we believe will work wonderfully. Sadly, in more cases than not, the new furniture doesn’t quite fit in with what we have; the colours are not right and the scale is far too large. We make do because frankly, juggling our careers and a growing family, we don’t have the time.

Once the kids move out, we often find ourselves left with their collections of clutter, too! Many in our children’s generation define themselves by what they’re able to consume – the clothes, the computer games, the turntables, the digital gadgets and the latest sporting equipment. These items won’t fit into their share houses or flats. Suddenly, their clutter is added to our own.

We discover that we haven’t anywhere to put anything. As large as old family homes can be, they often don’t have appropriate storage for all the ‘stuff’ families accumulate. The children’s rooms may not even have built-in wardrobes. Often children have had to rely on grandpa’s hand-me-down freestanding closet or IKEA’s latest offering. Frustratingly, every time you go to put something away, you deal with everything tumbling out of the cupboard first. Kitchens are notorious for this – getting to the baking tins can be an exercise in logistics.

Ultimately, whether you decide to move or re-function your existing house, your first task is what I call ‘the big edit’. This entails editing your accumulated possessions and only keeping the most important.

For many of us, this is a major hurdle – how on earth do we clear the clutter? How do we release ourselves from the pull of treasured possessions? For others, it’s almost cathartic – they consider it a wonderful opportunity to rid themselves or their family of a whole lot of stuff that hasn’t been used for years! But why do we hold on to so much in the first place? And, once we’ve decided to let go, what can we do with everything?

Why do we hold on?

Having lived with all your ‘things’ for so long, there will be some pieces of furniture and objects that you’ll feel you won’t be able to live without. These are the precious pieces. Links to the past that have been passed on from family members and items you’ve collected over the years. They connect to special memories.

The weight of nostalgia can be incredibly strong. In 2010, the BBC published an article titled, ‘What is Nostalgia Good for?’, acknowledging the appeal of keeping sentimental items:

“Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful – to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning,” it read.

However, the article also noted the potential risks of keeping everything from the past:

“While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that ‘overdoing reminiscence’ risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on memories to provide happiness.”

This is one of the reasons why so many people hang on to the family home itself, as well as the objects within it. Even if it’s too big for them, they don’t want to part with the wonderful memories. The other reason we hold on to our clutter is just in case it can be used later. Often, my clients have a storage facility, or a very large garage or a comprehensive shed in the country for storage. Even though these pieces tend not to fit in with their current lifestyles, they are reluctant to sell or give them away, ‘just in case’.

Similarly, how many of us hold on to baby clothes or toys, school records, school blazers, photos or the favourite videos we watched together as a family? The thought that our children might want to keep these things to show their children is the excuse we use to hang onto them. But I’ll let you in on a secret – other than some photos or one or two pieces, our children are not too fussed about them at all.

Part of the all-important editing process is defining which of your belongings must move with you. In turn, you identify those, which will successfully make the transition. Clearly, if you use something every day or every week, it will need to be a part of your new life. On the other hand, how often do you play the baby grand piano or spend looking through all those family photographs?

If you no longer play the piano, but it holds great sentimental value, you could frame a favourite piece of sheet music to hang in your new home. Finding a way to display some part of the experience in a meaningful way will allow you to remember the piano, much as a photo of loved grandparents or animals allows you to remember them.

If you’re able to donate the piano to a music school, a student or a nursing home, then you’ll have the added comfort of knowing that it’s appreciated. My friend Beyoncé (no, not the recording artist) was recently waiting in Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, when she heard exquisite music being played on a piano. It delighted her to discover a fellow traveller playing on an upright piano positioned in the airport terminal. Now that is an imaginative use for an unwanted piano.

Recently, one of my clients was telling me how she had to go through her parents’ belongings in the country. Both parents had died in the last six months and she was trying to garner the courage to begin the sorting process. She told me how her father’s tool shed and its contents were still in place – as if he had just left the shed to have a cup of tea. She loved how the shed reflected so much of his character so she was dreading the time to dismantle it all. At once, I thought of ‘Untangling’ by Jeff Wall, the light box transparency that the National Gallery of Victoria purchased in 2006. I suggested that we find a professional photographer to take a series of beautiful photographs of her father’s shed. The photos could then be framed and displayed in her new home. She thought this was a great idea. Soon, we will start the process of finding just the right photographer for this heartfelt project.

While it can be difficult to get started, sorting through your items to decide what and what not to keep is a valuable process. It begins to lessen the psychological burden of owning so much stuff. When we assist our clients with their move and help them decide which of their pieces are the non-negotiables, it’s amazing how those items help to ‘ground’ the more contemporary elements in a new apartment or townhouse, for instance. The juxtaposition of the old and the new can be incredibly powerful.

This is an edited excerpt from Kym Lackmann’s first book, The Art of Downsizing. For more details, visit Luxe Domain. Read the next instalment from The Art of Luxury Downsizing to find out Kym’s advice on what to do with all your unwanted items. 

Sue's sassy!

She became a member of Starts at 60 and got access to amazing travel deals, free masterclasses, exclusive news and features and hot member discounts!

And she entered to win a $10K trip for four people to Norfolk Island in 2021. Join now, it’s free to become a member. Members get more.

What possessions are you holding on to that you know you should get rid of?

Please sign in to post a comment.
Retrieving conversation…
Stories that matter
Emails delivered daily
Sign up