Why we hold on to clutter and why you should care!

why we hold onto things

Do you ever feel like your stuff is taking over your life?  Like your closet full of old, unworn clothes or basement full of old trophies is worn like a talisman (metaphorically speaking of course)?  Do you ever have nightmares about a tidal wave of things engulfing you when you sleep?  No?  Maybe it’s just me (ahem).  Anyway, we have so much stuff nowadays, that families often leave their cars outside in order to store more things in their garage (an everyday occurrence in my neighborhood).  Therefore, I want to dive into the answer of why we hold on to clutter that we don’t wear or use, so that you’re not swallowed up by a tsunami of stuff.


One reason why we hold on to clutter is a sentimental value associated with an object, especially if someone dear to you gave it you.  Letting go of that item can truly be painful, as discussed here.  For example, my grandmother gave me her old gold pocket watch many years ago.  It’s a beautiful watch and has since been restored and sits in my curio cabinet.  I pinned it under my wedding dress on the big day, but will never wear it now.  However, the watch is something that I will always cherish and can’t bear to part with.

On the other hand, I have a box in the basement full of old stuffed dolls and animals that are old as dirt and falling apart.  Those objects are NOT being cherished and are basically just rotting away.  I’m sure most of you have those things from the past, such as old tarnished soccer medals and worn one-eyed stuffed animals.  It’s a way to keep a connection to the past, but we don’t always need a physical object.  No one can take away your memories.

why we hold onto things
Does this look familiar?

Maybe you think you might use the object again.  We do this a lot with clothes.  We say, “I can wear that again once I lose that extra 20 or 30 pounds.”  But then, you never actually lose the weight and the clothes hang in the closet year after year.  So why not let those clothes go to someone who can use them now and just keep the garments that flatter your current shape?

As another example, I personally have a cardboard box problem.  I don’t need a twelve-step program yet, but I have a really hard time throwing away cardboard boxes.  It seems very wasteful to me and what if I need that box in the future?  Boxes are very useful for holding more things, right?  At one point, my husband staged an intervention and started throwing them away left and right (ok, they were recycled, so not filling up the landfill), much to my chagrin.  That was when I realized that, unless we are moving, we don’t really need 50 cardboard boxes.  Plus, if I have fewer things, then I don’t need all of those boxes anyway.  Now we maintain a more manageable 10-15 boxes at a time.

Sometimes a feeling of overwhelm is a reason why we hold on to clutter.  Where to begin?  How do I actually purge these items?  I completely understand this one, because that’s how I felt when I had to pack up my dad’s apartment last year.  He needed to move in with us for a while after some medical issues, so we had to get his stuff into storage as quickly as possible.  I was totally overwhelmed by the mountain of unopened papers and mail that were haunting me and appeared to multiply at a rapid rate.  I had to go through all of it personally in order to see what could be recycled or what needed to be kept or shredded.  That was an extreme example, but never would have been completed if I didn’t just start somewhere.  Consequently, sometimes it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you just start.

Often people will say that they don’t have time to get rid of things.  I’ve used that one before.  We are all busy with day-to-day life: children, work obligations, home chores, running to activities, etc.  You think you will eventually clean out that closet, but eventually never comes.  The amazing thing that happens when you purge and organize your things is that you actually have more time to do other activities.  You no longer have to spend a half hour looking for your child’s shin pads (true story, by the way).  You can quickly glance at your closet and know exactly what’s in there instead of feeling like you’re on a treasure hunt every time you enter.

why we hold onto things
Can you find anything in this?

A curious reason for why we hold on to clutter is fear.  Fear of regret, of loss, of emptiness.  The “what-if” syndrome starts to take over.  What if I need that object later? (You can borrow it.)  What if I have a sentimental attachment to it? (You always have your memories; try writing them down instead.)  What if my things don’t get used properly? (Donate them to a homeless shelter or clothes/furniture bank where they will be greatly appreciated.)  What if I’m lonely without my things? (Go out into the world and meet new people now that you have more time.)


So why does it matter that you have so much stuff in your environment?  Does it really make a difference on your quality of life?  You might be surprised by the negative impact of clutter in your life.

why we hold onto things
Is clutter causing chaos?
  • Clutter impairs focus, as seen here.  It acts as a constant distraction and actually makes it harder for your brain to concentrate on tasks, similar to the difficulties of multitasking.  Basically, a chaotic environment can lead to a chaotic mind.  I think we all would prefer to have a mind more like a Buddhist monk and less like a volcano ready to erupt.
  • Clutter increases stress levels (especially in women), as discussed in this journal paper.  Just looking at an untidy pile can lead to increased stress  You basically become a ball of stress, and that’s no good for anyone, as seen here.
  • Clutter can suck up all of your time.  Ah time, our old nemesis.  As busy as we all are, have you ever thought about how much time you spend looking for things?  If not, then you might need to perform a time audit.  We’re all in need of more time, so diminishing the clutter can help you win the battle with time.
  • Clutter can make you sick.  Clutter clings to dust and pet dander and makes it more difficult to keep things clean.  That can lead to a worsening of allergies or asthma.  Plus, as in the case of my dad’s old apartment, you might not be able to see potentially dangerous mold developing, since it becomes buried under all of the stuff.  In addition, too much clutter can be a fire hazard, especially when paper is involved.
  • Clutter can prevent you from living the life you want to live.  Does that sound crazy?  Good, because I want you to think hard now.  All of that stuff filling up your environment also fills your mind.  Therefore, if you release some of those things and let them go, you will free up space in your mind.  You will feel lighter and have more energy to channel into doing activities that fulfill you and living a life that you love.

By now, I hope that you are thinking about how much stuff you truly have and if you really need all of it.  You might also be wondering about how to rid of the clutter.  Next post, I plan to delve into the art of decluttering.  Until then, please let me know your reasons for holding onto things and how that negatively impacts your life in the comments below.

Joyful thought for the day, “Out of clutter, find simplicity.” -Albert Einstein

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