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Breaking 8 Emotional Chains to Stuff

Image: David Castillo Dominici

As we are sorting through the things we have collected in China, and deciding what to take with us on our move, I am reminded how much we have an emotional connection to stuff.

I think back to all the things we used to have and the process of our cutting back that took about 3 years to complete.

I think of all the people who have written to me trying to figure out how to cut back, but unsure what or how to give up their things.

Stuff is powerful – our emotional connection to it is huge.

But too much stuff in our lives holds us back.

I came up with 8 different emotions we, as a society, have connected to our belongings that make them hard to give up.

1. Fear

What if I need it? This created hording before Y2K and creates hording for people now.  For some it may be years of canned goods, but for many it is extra blankets, towels, empty boxes, wrapping paper, or paper clips.  ‘Better safe than sorry’ is the idea behind this.

Counter ideas: Being prepared is a good idea.  But what is practical?  For emergencies, what is government recommended? For other items in your house, how many do you really need or use in a 3 month period?  What would you do if you didn’t have the item?  Is there something you could use instead?  Would a better way of sorting/organizing make less of the item necessary?  How easily can you find the things you need?  How much would it cost to replace if you did decided you needed it later?  How much maintenance of belongings is spent on things you are holding based on fear?  Are you comfortable with that amount?

2.  Pride

What do you own to prove your status in life?  I can agree to a point with the idea of ‘dress-for-success’ but is it necessary to have the wardrobe, the house, the car, the accessories, the vacations, the gifting abilities and more all just to show others your status in life?

Counter Ideas: At some point this takes over a persons life and the amount of money they spend maintaining their image becomes a revolving circle.  Do you want your life to be spent working for an image?  ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ is not a competition anyone can win.  Years ago I read The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley and it really changed my perspective.  He shows that the people who actually have money are often not the people who look like they have money.  Does it really matter how much money any of us have?  Do we want that to reflect our value to the world?

3. Habit

How were you raised?  How have you been living?  Very often it is our habits that dictate what we own more than it is our intentional choices.  These habits are related to the other items on the list to make them even stronger.  Changing habits is very hard in any area of our life.  But since this isn’t a health issue it often doesn’t show up in as obvious ways.

Counter Ideas: Do you want to be a creature of habit?  What parts of your life have you chosen and which parts mirror the way you grew up or the way everyone around you has always done things?  In many ways, habits are very good for our life, but we need to choose which habits we want to be creating and living out in our life.  Making new habits in life based on what you want your life to reflect is always worth the effort.

4. Memories

“I can’t give this toy away, ____ just gave it to me ____ months ago.” — quote from my daughter.  How do we keep the value of the relationships in our life without the connection to stuff?  Keeping things people gave you because you want to value a relationship can easily turn into a house full of decorations you don’t like, clothes that don’t fit, trinkets from places you never visited, and very little room for things you really love.

Some of my favorite things have been gifts, but many things don’t end up being used or fitting the life of the recipient as the giver intended.

Counter Ideas: Relationships are more important than things and relationships are not defined by things.  Gift giving does not prove value of friendship and treasuring a item isn’t the same as maintaining that friendship.  ‘It’s the thought that counts’ is true.  Both gift giving and gift receiving is fun and it is a way our society communicates but these things don’t need to stay in our lives.  Consider giving gifts that are edible, or experience based, that create memories and communicate love that naturally come to an end.

Some memory items can be very special, but having a lot of memory clutter …isn’t special.

5.  Dreams

Dreams are a good thing in life.  They can motivate us – give us hope.  But sometimes dreams in our life end up as clutter… or worse, guilt.  Holding onto clothes that haven’t fit for years is not adding anything positive into the life.  Keeping old music or sports equipment but never using them isn’t motivating anyone.  These things that represent things we were, or wish we were, just get in the way of our lives – physically and emotionally.

Counter Ideas: Embrace the current you.  Realize there are many wonderful goals in life and that you could probably achieve each of them, but there isn’t room for everything in your life.  Choosing what is most important to you at each season of your life means you are choosing against something else.  Make sure you are making room for your most important dreams and remove the distraction from all the other ‘good’ things that won’t fit.

6.  Perceived duty

Both physical and emotional clutter come from perceived duty.  There are things we assume a woman should have and do, or a man should have or do.  There are things we believe need to be provided to children.  There are things we feel we should own or do based on religion, economics, politics, family history, profession, or even out of respect for the environment.  All these things add up into a lot of physical stuff, scheduled calendars, and emotional baggage.

Counter Ideas:  We live in a wonderful world where you don’t have to know how to sew to be a woman or own a tool box to be a man.  Life, skill, time, and interest divide us all into very different people.  Effectiveness and worth are not determined by fitting into societies molds.  Doing one thing well is better than doing a lot of things poorly.

7.  Frugality

It is not cheaper to have a lot of stuff.  Just because things are practical or we will use them someday doesn’t mean they need to stay in the house.  Food bought on sale but never eaten, clothes that don’t fit well, games never played or extra bottles of shampoo. These are practical things that we all need.  At some point we would probably use them.  Even a 5 year supply of body lotions will eventually be used.  But the space and energy that is needed to hold all this extra isn’t worth it.

Counter Ideas: Keep what you will use in the next 3 months and get rid of the rest.  Most extra items in the kitchen, bathroom, or closet end up cluttering the house up for years only to get thrown away when they are past their due date or no longer in style.  Holding onto them for the extra years didn’t help anything.  Having the space for this extra storage could easily cost $100’s a year and often these items are very cheap.

8.  I Deserve It

Getting things because of accomplishments or because of stress is a bad habit.  Celebrating and finding ways to destress are great, but shopping out of celebration or stress is a poor way of handling emotions and a terrible way to treat the wallet.

Counter Idea: Celebrating with people or time.  Find ways to deal with stress that can help lower the stressor not add to financial stress.  Realize that what you do deserve is to create the lifestyle you want.

What are some ways you have changed your thinking to simplify your life?


  1. All excellent points. We are intentionally taking a gradual approach to downsizing simply because 1 1/2 – 2 years from now is the best time for us to move given various children issues.

    However, even downsizing slowly on purpose, the only one of your comments I would change is 7. Because we’re not moving anyway, for instance, if it takes 6 months before I need that pair of jeans, I’m keeping them anyway. (Not keeping things I’ll never use!)

    “Gradually” for us mostly means not spending a ton of time on big projects, being mindful when we open the closet or drawer and getting rid of things we see there anyway, or doing one or two cupboards at a time. The lazy person’s way of decluttering 😉

    For anyone who may be moving sooner though, it’s easy to do the math on how much it would cost to replace those items you’re saving to use later. I’ll bet that, for most people, it’s less than a month or two of savings on the new downsized home!

  2. Lindsay Lindsay

    Awesome. Very, very well said! This is one of those inspirational emails you keep- when you need a boost, or to remind yourself of why simple living is such a beautiful choice.

  3. Rebekah Rebekah

    This post was so awesome. I am realizing that simple living is more about my thinking and perspectives changing than getting rid of things. There needs to be soul searching and a seeking of truth. There are many messages of deception, and it is so easy to not see reality.

    All possessions have a shelf life. They end up at best recycled and at worst in landfills where they gradually turn back into dust. How we can run and sweat laboriously for things that soon enough become obsolete or worn out and worthless.

    I am seeing that I really need a heart and mind change, a different valuing system that appraises rightly what is truly precious and worth spending the limited hours of life pursuing.

    Thank you so much for the thought provoking post!

  4. My husband and I are right in the midst of figuring out how to whittle down our possessions after downsizing from a four-bedroom house to a one-bedroom condo. We know we don’t need all this stuff! Already we can see that living in a smaller place will make our lives simpler and more enjoyable. Thank you, Lorilee, for pointing out the emotional reasons we hang onto things we don’t really need and sometimes don’t even really want!

  5. anon this time anon this time

    I loved “the millionaire next door”. I read it many years ago. And now I am that person 😉 . And like the book, it’s low key. No one would know what we’re worth. In fact we only just realised ourselves, that our net worth is above a million.

    All your points are great though, I have some issues with holding onto family heirlooms and gifts but I am at least at the point where I try not to accept everything people want to give me.

  6. Lesli Lesli

    Thank-you for the thought provoking post. I e-mailed a while back about our process of down-sizing. We were having trouble selling our home but I am happy to say we are under contract & scheduled to close 11/15- not getting what we paid for the house, but we still feel our lives will better in the long run.
    I have moments of second guessing myself & sadness over selling our home. Reading your post is a good reminder of the bigger picture we are working towards. I’m going to miss our big old farm house but selling is allowing me to stay home with our girls. If you tried to tell me 10 years ago I would want to be a stay at home mom I would think you were crazy.
    These next 2 weeks are a great opportunity to continue to declutter and simplify as we pack. We are moving from 2100 sq foot house with a barn to a 1200 sq ft apartment. We are sad about losing our charming house but really looking forward to spending our energy on more creative activities & travel.
    Thanks again for the inspiration to keep moving forward!

    • congratulations and good luck with all the transition coming up 🙂 I am excited for you!

  7. I find fear is the biggest issue I have, but it’s not fear that I will need whatever it is, but fear that I will regret getting rid of something. I am getting better and better at this and for the most part don’t have a huge problem anymore, but it is only from experience so that I can say to myself “hey, you haven’t had a regret yet, it will be ok”

    This is an excellent post because all of the emotions listed are things that need to be realized to move forward. Thanks!


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