Mountains of Vogue back issues. Yellowing newspapers, some still rolled up and coated in porch dust. University essays I can barely decipher – Foucault who? Movie stubs circa Fargo. A marzipan wrapper from an ex. Every birthday card ever received from family overseas. Gossipy notes from grade school, shoved in a toffee tin. Tattered teddy bears, eyes missing. Four Barbie dolls, two without bodies (long story).
Neatly tucked away in boxes, chests and closets in every corner of my home, the detritus of my life is feeling heavier every year. Why not chuck it all? Sentimentality, guilt, inertia, dumb optimism ("I'll play tennis again; better save those balls") and a serious dearth of free time, for starters. But it's also a choice: Sort through old tax statements this weekend, or do brunch? "These are all psychological issues manifested in the thing," says Brenda Spangrud, founder of Sorted Organizing Products & Services.
As spring-cleaning season stirs our domestic ambitions, the psychological burden of stuff grows for anyone who's amassed a life's worth of it. "You look at the pile of messy papers or the beer empties and you make some judgment about yourself. It makes you unmotivated because you feel like a loser," said Sheila Woody, a registered psychologist who studies compulsive hoarding and teaches psychology at the University of British Columbia.
More than needling shame, there can be intense indecision about what to keep and what to toss: "Uncertainty is paralyzing," says Gail Steketee, dean of the Boston University School of Social Work and co-author of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
People hold onto things for myriad reasons, say the experts, but there are ways to have a healthy purge.
What Piles Up: Unopened mail; expensive clothing; outdated equipment (remember VCRs and 35-mm cameras?).
Why we can't let go: "If we spent good money on something, we're quite reluctant to part with it without at least trying to find a good home for it, or wanting to stash it away until we have need of it again. We get ourselves into trouble with needing extra storage for these things," said Prof. Steketee.
How to purge: Try a clothing swap with friends, but also be ruthless with yourself: "If you would not buy this piece of clothing again now, then it's time to get rid of it. Styles and bodies and interests change. We have to learn how to tolerate change and this is one way to do that," says Prof. Steketee.
In the case of overwhelming paperwork, consider consulting with a professional organizer, chucking income tax records after six years, buying a home shredder and enforcing the Only Handle It Once rule, so it doesn't migrate from pile to pile.
What piles up: Well-intentioned objects from family and friends – gag gifts, hand-knit sweater vests, carved ducks.
Why we can't let go: "It's like a little betrayal of the person it's connected to," Prof. Woody says. "It extends beyond gifts the person put some money into to birthday cards your mother sent you. Who doesn't feel guilty when they recycle all the Christmas cards?"
How to purge: "If you can identify that the emotion is guilt, you should ask yourself, is this guilt appropriate?" says Prof. Steketee. "If someone simply gave you something that you don't love or need, then the guilt is misplaced. You can thank them in your mind for the sentiment, but you don't really need this taking up space in your home."
"You have to find out what emotion you're connecting to the item, release the emotion and then release the item," offers Ms. Spangrud.
What piles up: Childhood mementoes; souvenirs from exes; baby clothes; old university papers.
Why we can't let go: "When you run across one of those items as you're rummaging for something else, you think about those times in a way you wouldn't have otherwise. That is a sweet kind of thing, to reflect on that time," Prof. Woody said.
"Sometimes it represents a part of their lives that they don't to separate themselves from. It's as if, when you throw it out, the experience is gone, which of course is not at all true," Prof. Steketee said. "You can't let go of things that represent a person that you were," adds Prof. Woody.
How to purge: "You can come up with an alternative way to trigger the memory," said Ms. Spangrud, suggesting a photo album of favourite things, which takes up far less room.
What piles up: Broken appliances and equipment; free stuff picked off the side of the road; takeout containers reborn as makeshift Tupperware; soy sauce packets and chopsticks.
Why we can't let go: "They think they're being thrifty, whether they're saving money or the environment," says Ms. Spangrud.
Some rationales Prof. Woody has heard: "'If I only had this cleaned it would be great for my basement,' or 'This would be great for my daughter, she's just setting up her own house.'"
How to purge: "I have my clients attach a value to the time or money it's costing them to save it," said Ms. Spangrud. "Every item requires you to manage it in the future at some point, whether it's to throw it away, dust it or store it. The more that they keep, the more time and money it is to manage."
What piles up: Old sporting equipment; clothes that no longer fit ("ambition clothing"); old newspapers and magazines
Why we can't let go: "There's a 'some day when' mentality: 'I'm going to save this because some day I might use it,'" said Prof. Woody.
"In our minds, these objects represent a future, a goal and an opportunity," Prof. Steketee said. "We want a reminder so we won't forget that it's on our bucket list."
How to purge: Prof. Woody recommends that people enlist the help of trusted friends who won't throw things out indiscriminately: "Someone who can ask questions like, 'What's the likelihood you're ever going to wear that again?' or 'What's the likelihood you're going to read those newspapers from last year?'"
Prof. Steketee suggests: "Double back to values: What is it that you think you're trying to do in the next 10 years? If this stuff doesn't fit into it, or if it's actually costing you space, time or money, it's a drag on your future."