How to Let Go of Clutter without Feeling Like a Jerk

man decluttering booksWondering why your feed is filled with tips on how to declutter your space? Clean mildew out of the showers. Swap your regular detergent for a better-for-the-environment one? It’s National Cleaning Week, or, as one of my clients put it, national “feeling bad because my house is a mess and I have zero interest in doing anything about it” week.

Even though having a clean, organized space can increase your focus, reduce stress, and sometimes even improve your relationships, most people are far too busy to embrace the decluttering-is-awesome mindset,1 but is it really a lack of time that prevents you from doing it or is something else at work?

I’m willing to bet there are lots of things in your home you’re not using (hello, burnt up plastic food storage lids), but for some reason, you just can’t bring yourself to throw anything away or even donate it.

Why Can’t You Get Rid of Stuff?

Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of child psychology, says the reason we’re so attached to our belongings is due to a psychological phenomenon called the Endowment Effect.2 Basically, we put more value on items we own versus items we don’t own.

There have been tons of studies on this phenomenon too. Like this one where participants were divided into three groups, then asked to assist with research and given a reward for helping out.3 The first group was offered two choices for their reward: a coffee mug or a bar of chocolate. Half chose the mug, and the other half chose the chocolate, which suggests that they valued each reward equally. In the second group, participants were given the mug first, then offered a chance to swap it for the chocolate bar, but only 11% took the researchers up on the offer. A third group started out with the chocolate bar, and most preferred to keep it instead of swapping it for the mug, which was offered after the fact.

The participants always put greater value on whichever reward they started off with.

Decluttering Has an Emotional Component

Another reason it’s so hard to part with your stuff? According to this study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it all comes down to self-worth.4 Rather than looking at the things you own as “mine” you think of them as part of who you are.

If you value relationships, you might have trouble parting with gifts. Kind of like you’re being disloyal to the person who gave it to you. If you value success, it could be challenging to part with items that serve as a reminder of your accomplishments, like an award at work or a decades-old trophy from your high school soccer days.

Some possessions also make you feel closer to people. Take family heirlooms for example. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting rid of a piece of artwork or jewelry that was passed down from your great grandma, because those items make you feel connected to her.

There are lots of reasons decluttering can make you feel bad. Here are a few more that might come up for you:

  • You tell yourself you might need it in the future. You’ve never used this item, but it could come in handy someday! To avoid regret, you believe it’s safer to hang on to it. You know, just in case.
  • You spent a lot of money on it. You feel guilty for wasting money on something you don’t use (or no longer use), so you hang on to it to feel less guilty about the situation.
  • There’s a sentimental attachment. This is the most common reason people struggle to declutter. After all, you have important memories around this item!
  • Having lots of belongings gives you a sense of security. Purging things around the house can make you worry that you won’t have it when you need it. This scarcity mindset makes you hang on to your belongings, purely for a sense of security.
  • You feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Depending on how much you have to purge, it can be a big job. One that can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining.

Sometimes attachments to things can go too far like in hoarding disorder, which is an exaggerated sense of responsibility and protection toward your belongings. That’s why people with this condition find it so hard to get rid of stuff — they feel like they have an obligation to own them.


Get Ready to Conquer Purging Paralysis

Even though we’re a few years past the Marie Kondo-ing “sparking joy” trend, knowing how to calmly and confidently declutter your space is a skill you’ll want to tap into. For the record, mastering this skill isn’t about having enough garbage bags and fresh Sharpies on hand. It’s about learning the proven behavior-change strategies that can take you from holding on to letting go.

  1. Understand That You’re Wired This Way. Your brain is wired to value the things you own (this is the Endowment Effect in action), even if you don’t give them a second glance. Just knowing the psychological reasons why your possessions feel so important to you can help loosen your grip.
  2. Let Time Heal Your Attachment. You’ll always be reminded of how much your old jeans from college mean to you if they’re in plain sight. Try putting them in a box in the back of your closet or garage for a few months. They might be easier to donate away after some time has passed.
  3. Reframe the Situation. If getting rid of your things brings on feelings of guilt or sadness, try looking at your situation from a different perspective. Donating items is a great way to bring joy to someone else. And if you happened to sell something, you could get some much-needed cash out of the deal. Oh, and by the way, you’re not intentionally hurting someone by giving away a gift. Appreciate the happiness you got from receiving it, then move on.
  4. Recognize What You Value. Decluttering doesn’t mean purging everything you own. Take this opportunity to see what you really value, like a family heirloom or something you worked really hard at earning, and know that those items can still have a place in your home.
  5. Know You’re Braver Than You Think. Change is scary. And giving away or throwing away stuff you find meaningful can be one of the hardest things you do. But once you’ve done it once or twice and start to recognize the reasons you’re holding onto things, it becomes easier to let them go.

5 Strategies for Letting Go of Clutter

It’s more than deciding what to keep, what to donate, and what to throw away. Decluttering has deep psychological roots and it’s totally understandable why it’s not as easy as filling a bag with giveaway items and driving to your nearest nonprofit. Whether you’re hesitant to purge old clothes, broken kitchen gadgets, or items you’ve inherited, or you just don’t know where to begin, use these strategies to take baby steps toward decluttering.

  • Understand That You’re Wired This Way
  • Let Time Heal Your Attachment
  • Reframe the Situation
  • Recognize What You Value
  • Know You’re Braver Than You Think

What about you? Do you have a hard time letting go of things?

TAGS:  stress

About the Author

Erin Power is the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She also helps her clients regain a loving and trusting relationship with their bodies—while restoring their metabolic health, so they can lose fat and gain energy—via her own private health coaching practice, eat.simple.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does every day for her clients, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by PHCI co-founder Mark Sisson.

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14 thoughts on “How to Let Go of Clutter without Feeling Like a Jerk”

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  1. I’ve always believed in “clear space, clear mind.” Decluttering is everything.

  2. I find it easier to think about what I want to keep. That makes it easier for me to let go of things that aren’t as important to me.

    I’ve also been working at getting rid of every thing or activity that has the word “should” attached to it.

  3. For me, it’s all what to do with the stuff I don’t want. I hate the idea of more garbage. Sure, I can donate, but it feels like I am passing the buck on throwing it away. So I keep it. Ugh.

    1. Try a Goodwill donation center. They take everything. Your junk could be someone else’s treasure.

  4. It is SUCH a terrible problem to have too much stuff!!! Does anyone but me ever wonder how we sound to third world people?

    1. That has crossed my mind more than once. The US is going to turn into one gigantic landfill at the rate we’re going. Actually, as I’ve gotten older my tastes have simplified. I rarely buy stuff anymore. I wear the same clothes until they are ready to fall apart, and the last kitchen tool I bought was an Instant Pot about 5 years ago.

    2. Of course we do. But our overconsumption doesn’t just affect us. For starters, much of the stuff we consume is manufactured under appalling conditions for both people and planet. So while it may seem like having too much stuff is a first world problem, the negative effects are widespread and particularly impact so called “third world” countries and their people. Recognizing and doing something about “our problem” is a good thing for everyone, whining about it and acting as if we’re the victims in all this, is another matter.

  5. I can hardly wait to be able to sell my art work! I have a lot of things, but most of my stuff relates to my art practice. I am eager to have a yard sale, too, because I have a TON of books that could give other people pleasure, and I would like to recoup at least a little of what I spent in gathering my books. Because I was an Air Force “brat” my home was not a place, rather it was my books, so keeping a small ok inventory is a huge challenge for me. The pandemic put a stop to much of the activity I would have normally taken to keep my stuff pared down.

  6. Several years ago I was invited to a “clothing exchange” where you bring your “still good clothes” that you don’t want anymore. Anyone that came could shop and take what they wanted. It was really fun, I didn’t actually take anything, but got a lot of clothes moved on to other people. I was surprised at how happy I was when I saw people wearing my former clothes. I actually said “that’s a beautiful jacket” before I realized that it was one I made for myself but didn’t wear as much as I thought I would. It looked great on my friend and she still wears it a good 15 years later! I would do it again in a minute.

  7. A lot of junk is presenting people’s life’s to distract from the ral issues they can’t face up to. Rather than clear the lit in a weekend I would say break it down to 30mins one small corner, keep going in that corner every day until that small space is clear then move one. Small changes gradually over time work better than TV show like clearouts

  8. I am a naturally organized person. However, during an extended period of stress (daughter w psychiatric issues, mother having knee replacement, constant work travel, health challenges, elderly dog) everything got off track and I could not seem to recover.

    The book Organizing From the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern helped me dig out of the pit. I have returned to this book again and again as my living space and/or conditions changed (boomerang kids, moves, divorce, WFH anyone?)

    At each of these times I needed a system of organization that would work in those new circumstances. It’s not all psychological – some things can be done according to a system and this book has a method that is flexible, scalable, and effective while allowing plenty of room for individual needs and preferences. If you just don’t know where to start, start with this book.

  9. Am I the only one who goes crazy when things are organized and not messy? I feel more comfortable and focused when things are “cluttered.” Feels more natural to me. When someone has things super tidy and organized, it just feels so sterile and fake…

    A clean house is just a house. A messy house is more real. It’s a home.

    Maybe it’s just me.

    1. I don’t like things super perfect. It makes me feel neurotic and can lead to issues in a relationship where you’ re both like, “clean up your mess!” But there’s a level of homey lack of clutter that can be achieved. I go nuts if there are things in walkways or blocking doors. If I’m likely to kick it while walking, it gets moved pronto.

  10. I used to really struggle with decluttering. A few mindset shifts really helped. One was to look at the way it helps others when I give something away that I’m not using but someone else might love. Also I realized that holding onto things because I “might” need them was coming from a scarcity mindset. Now I declutter regularly…I like to keep energy moving through my house.