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How to Let Go of Sentimental Items

Updated on October 3, 2011

I Can't Let Go!

I left my home in the US to move abroad in 2007 with little more than a suitcase. It was an incredibly difficult time for me, but I knew that the future was full of opportunity.

Growing up I had been sort a collector of all sorts of things: books, cards, homework from elementary school, memorabilia from past loves, family, and so on. And here it was, over 20 years of accumulation sitting in my room. I had no idea what to do with everything so I what any normal young person would do: I started packing everything into boxes and calling my parents and relatives to see if they had room to store my things. My parents, did, in fact have space and I could have left my stuff with them for free. But more deeply contemplating it, I discovered that there was a hidden emotional cost in keeping my things.

I didn’t want to let go of anything. If you’ve ever had to get up and leave everything (including your passed-down possessions), then you probably understand how hard it was for me to let go of any of those sentimental items. I wasn’t keeping them for their value—I couldn’t use them where I was going—I was keeping them because they held memories. So, instead of letting go, I was going to cram every trinket and figurine, every playing card and piece of homework, into the pile of cardboard boxes I had amassed. That way I knew for sure that my stuff was there if I ever wanted it, if I ever needed access to it for some any reason whatsoever.

I packed every bit of my childhood into those boxes.

Or so I thought.

And then I looked into my closet…

Among all of the hanging clothes that created an organized chaos in the dark space, there was a small box. I opened it and found a collection of small trinkets: a cap from the US Navy, a silver pencil that shined in the light, and a piece of pipe bent in the shape of my name. Three items my younger self had made in an attempt to remember the past.

That’s when I realized that my retention efforts were futile. I could hold on to my memories without all of the stuff, just as I remembered all of the three events packed into the box without the items themselves. I didn’t need my entire collection to remember my experiences just as the memories from my childhood would surface without the three items in the special box.

I called my parents and told them not to worry about the stuff anymore. And then, over the next few weeks, I donated all of my stuff to places and people who could actually use it. And threw away the rest.

Lessons Learned

Lessons from the Experience:

It was difficult to let go. There’s no doubt. But I came upon a few important insights about the relationship between memories and sentimental:

  1. We are not our possessions.
  2. Memories do not exist outside, but within.
  3. Sentimental for me can mean useful for someone else.
  4. Keeping stuff weighs mentally and emotionally. Letting go is liberating.
  5. Pictures suffice for most sentimental items.
  6. Old photographs can be scanned (and might be safer that way).

Now, please understand I don’t believe that we shouldn’t hold on to sentimental items or that keeping them is wrong. However, if the item you want to get rid of an item is weighing on you, then it’s time to get rid of it and free yourself.

My History Exists in Me

In addition to donating my sentimentals and throwing away the things I didn’t need anymore, I spent the next few weeks going through photographs, scanning them, and saving them away on my external hard drive and backed them up online. Best, I never have to worry about losing everything in a fire (like some of my family did).

I don’t need my old stuff to remember my childhood. I am the biggest remaining thing from it. The way I act, my weaknesses and strengths, even my smile are testaments to the impact my childhood had on my life. My childhood never existed in my stuff, it exists in me.

And knowing that, I could take action. I hope you can too.

What will you do today to let go of the sentimental items weighing you down?

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