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Why People Hold Onto Stuff

Monday, February 12th, 2018

Why people hold onto stuff

“Y is a crooked letter.”

This was my grandfather’s standard response to the basic question of childhood “Why, Grandpa?”.  My interpretation of that expression is that the answer is complicated.  And, when it comes to human behavior,  it almost always is.

Why do people hold onto stuff?

The answer is complicated because there are so many different kinds of “stuff “, and there are so many different kinds of people.  No two individuals are alike.   No situations are alike.  Each is unique in their environment, and although you may empathize, you cannot compare your situation to theirs, nor can you judge them.  You, the reader, may suggest “Why don’t they just toss it?” 

These are SOME of the reasons:

Lack of permission
Lack of instructions
Lack of knowledge
I didn’t know it had a deadline
Not aware of an alternative
I borrowed it, and don’t know if they want it back.
Out of sight, out of mind
I may need it someday
Hope
Future
Can’t waste
Someone else may need it
Belief that it is, or will be, useful
Sentimentality
Overwhelmed
Don’t know where to begin
Unable to bite off small pieces to downsize
Not ready; waiting for the right time
Not a priority
Fear of letting go
This is not the first thing on my agenda

I remember a client who received an envelope in the mail marked “Do Not Discard”.  She didn’t know why she wasn’t allowed to throw it out, and asked for my direction.  The envelope dictated “Do Not Discard”.  The envelope contained a promotional offer which she was not interested in, but the envelope dictated TO HER “Do Not Discard”.  Most people would ignore that demand, but she was confused.  The instruction “Do Not Discard” meant do not discard, period.  It’s a real story, yes!  So, you don’t believe that there are people who could think that way?  This case may be an extreme, but this is the perfect example of the #1 reason why people hold onto stuff.  Many people simply don’t feel that they have permission to get rid of things. They need to be reassured that they are adults, and it’s their stuff to do with as they like.

Clearing out a garage, a closet or a home often requires empowerment.

I had another client who presented me with shopping bags filled with mail (some unopened) and assorted papers.  She can’t decide WHAT to do with each piece, and asked me to explain what they were, so she could make the decision to keep or toss.  Lack of knowledge (“something MIGHT be important that I’m not aware of.”) or instructions (offer expired last month) kept her from making decisions. And this is the #2 reason why people hold onto stuff.  They simply can’t imagine how to proceed – it’s overwhelming. Attics, basements and garages are filled with boxes of past taxes and paid bills because the owners don’t know when they can discard or shred the material.  Pantries, refrigerators and bathroom cabinets are filled with expired food items, medicines and cosmetics.

Where do I start? What’s important? What if I make a mistake?

The future is a mystery to everyone.  “ I may lose the weight, and get back to that size.”  “What if I gain weight again, and need the larger sizes?”  “What if I need it someday?” “I once wanted to travel to those destinations.”  “I used to like to participate in those hobbies.”  These are familiar comments and questions from those who hold on to old clothing, accessories, papers, books and household items.  Closets, cabinets, files and drawers are filled with hope and future possibilities for many.

The environmentally conscious individual will always be concerned about waste.  They wonder if someone else could use the items they own.  Therefore, they will hold onto their stuff until they know the answer.

Some individuals cannot distinguish whether a book or collection is clutter or a treasure.  You might think of clutter as you might consider a weed in the garden.  But, some people enjoy weeds, a.k.a. wild flowers.  Defining irrelevance is not cut and dry. 

My grandfather knew that education is a necessary response to the most tough questions.   The answer to “Why” is complicated, and helping someone to let go of their stuff (or to organize their belongings), begins with learning more about themselves.

It’s a virtual cycle. Clear your mind and then reorganize.

Reorganize and in turn, your mind will feel clearer.

Plus, you may even remember where everything is!

(Reprinted from Mark Banschick’s blog in Psychology Today)