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How to Let Go of Sentimental Items While Decluttering

Inside: Do you have boxes of sentimental items you’d love to clear … but just can’t let go of? Here are some tips that will make decluttering easier.

This might surprise some people because I’m a minimalist, and we don’t exactly have a reputation for being sentimental. But if we sat down for a coffee, you’d soon learn I’m one of the most emotional people you’d ever meet.

I cry over TV commercials, apologise to my houseplants, and feel a deep emotional attachment to stuff, which means my decluttering journey has been far from easy! But over the years, I’ve learned a few things about letting go, which I’m going to share in this blog post.

If you want to carve out space in your home and mind but find it hard to let go of sentimental objects, don’t despair. There are ways to declutter—kind, compassionate ways that respect your stories and your past.

So, cozy up, find a comfortable spot, and let’s get started!

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Your Stuff is NOT Just Stuff

Before we dive into what works, I want to quickly touch on what doesn’t (or at least, what didn’t work for me!). 

If you’ve read much about decluttering sentimental things, you’ve probably already heard some version of the following advice:

Your memories live in your heart, not in your belongings. It’s just stuff. 

Have you ever heard this before? 

It makes sense in theory … but the more I learn about decluttering, the less I believe it. You’re not defined by what you own, but almost everything tells a story:

  • About how you’ve been hurt …
  • About what you wish you could change …
  • About your definition of success …
  • About ways you think you’re not good enough …
  • About what you’re still grieving… 

Of course, these stories aren’t physically in our possessions, but denying their existence altogether isn’t helping anyone. Instead, it only shames people who struggle to get rid of stuff, which in turn makes decluttering even harder to do.

So let’s change the narrative. Instead of pretending our stories don’t matter, let’s get curious and see where it takes us.

How to Declutter Items With Sentimental Value

If you have sentimental items you want to declutter—anything from baby clothes to old photos and everything in between—I encourage you to start by putting a name to your emotions. 

Let me explain with an example. Let’s say you want to declutter a vase your grandmother gave you years ago.

On the surface, you might think this vase is hard to declutter because it reminds you of your grandmother—but let’s take a closer look.

What exactly are those memories? 

  • Do you feel guilty about not spending more time with your grandmother? 
  • Was your grandmother the person you turned to during hard times? 
  • Are you nostalgic for the person you used to be when you were around your grandmother? 

This might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I’ve learned that before you can declutter a physical item, you need to understand exactly where the emotional attachment comes from and then deal directly with those emotions. 

This might mean forgiving yourself for not spending more time with your grandmother, creating a new support network, or perhaps even grieving for a part of yourself that no longer exists

This can be hard to do (which is why it’s tempting to keep and hide behind our clutter), but I promise you it’s worth it. It’s how you unlock the full benefits of decluttering, which are as much about personal growth as creating a spacious and easily tidied home. 

So go slow when you need to. If you’re a sentimental person, you probably differ from others, and that’s OK! It took me many years to declutter. I had a lot of baggage to deal with (physically and emotionally), and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. 

But when you finally let go, there’s a lightness of spirit—like releasing a weight you didn’t realise you were carrying.

Related Post: How to Declutter When You Regret Spending Money

You Don’t Have to Declutter Things That Bring Good Memories

Another reason I like to put a name to my emotions is because it’s OK to keep things for sentimental reasons! Everyone is different, but for me—if you own something and it brings you joy, then it’s not clutter. 

Despite what you may have seen on the Internet, minimalism is not one size fits all, and you’re not breaking the rules if you keep a few special items that remind you of precious memories. I have a few decorative things on my dresser that other people would consider useless, but they make me smile, and that’s good enough for me to keep them.

But please know that decluttering is also about trade-offs. 

If physical clutter leads to feelings of anxiety, you have to ask yourself if it’s time to try something different. There’s always a middle ground between too much and just enough. When you find it, you can enjoy your special things without sacrificing peace of mind. 

It beings with the deep, emotional work listed above (and if you need help, that’s what we do in my Clear Your Clutter program!). But here are a few more tips and hacks that can help if you struggle with sentimental stuff.

The Simply + Fiercely Show With Jennifer Burger

The Simply + Fiercely Show is a podcast for women who want to clear their clutter and create space for freedom and joy. If your life keeps getting bigger—but not better—then it’s time to declutter from the inside out. LISTEN NOW

4 Tips for When You Have Too Much Sentimental Clutter

Items that remind you of a family member or loved one

Do you have family heirlooms or other unique items that remind you of a loved one? Perhaps someone who is no longer with us? 

These items are tough to declutter; sadly, I have much firsthand experience with this. So let me start by saying that everyone grieves differently and on their own time. I’ve already mentioned the importance of being patient with yourself, and this is especially true in this case. 

But when you’re ready, one thing that really helped me was thinking about the legacy I want to leave for my own family.

When I’m gone, I want my memory to be a celebration of life, a gentle reminder to go on adventures and live to the fullest, to laugh loudly and love easily and enjoy all the wonderful things that make the world … well, wonderful! 

​On the flip side, I don’t want them to feel weighed down or burdened, especially by something as unimportant (in the big scheme of things) as a physical object. 

If you agree, use this perspective to help you let go of the sentimental clutter. Let decluttering be a tool for healing, and with every item you release into the world, know that you’re honouring your loved ones by creating space for new memories.

And if you found this tip helpful, be sure to download my free Mindful Decluttering guide! Learn the heart-centred approach that helped me go from shopaholic to minimalist by filling out the form below.

Sentimental clutter is often identity clutter

What do a report you wrote in high school, a brochure from a work trip abroad, and a coaster from your favourite nightclub have in common? 

These items tell stories about our identity—were you a straight-A student, a jet-setting executive, and a social butterfly? Or perhaps you just wanted to be these things, but regardless, when our seasons of life change and we step into new roles, it can be hard to let go. 

If you can relate, practising self-acceptance and creating rituals that allow space for closure may help. 

For example, my current career is very different from what I imagined growing up. While I’m very happy with my choices, I also found it hard to declutter sentimental paper items from my past studies. 

The way forward involved a journaling exercise that allowed me to grieve that path I never took while also expressing gratitude for the one I’m on. After that, decluttering was so much simpler because I just didn’t feel the same attachment as I did previously.

Are you keeping clutter as punishment?

Not all sentimental items are a pleasant walk down memory lane. Sometimes we experience strong negative emotions, such as guilt or regret. When this happens, you might be keeping your clutter as a way of punishing yourself. 

Maybe you don’t want to forget or move on because it feels unfair or too much like you’re taking the easy route out? 

Again, I’ve been there, and this is what you need to know: everyone makes mistakes. Do what you can to make amends and forgive yourself for the past. Yet again, I encourage you to view decluttering as a tool for healing, and this will almost always help you move forward.

Place physical limits on your emotional clutter

This type of decluttering can take time, so one practical tip is to place physical limits on how much sentimental clutter you’ll keep. 

For example, I have a memory box where I keep physical items that mean a lot to me. But I also live in a 660-square-foot apartment with my husband and two kids, which means that there are practical limits to how much stuff I can keep. I’m very strict about maintaining that boundary to protect my living and mental space.

Pro tip: If one box doesn’t work for you, that’s fine — just think intentionally about how much storage space you’d like to set aside. Then I’d recommend gradually reducing it; take a gentle approach by revising your box every few months and seeing if there are one or two things you can get rid of.

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What it really takes to declutter your home and life + more resources

So as you can see … I think I lived up to my promise of being an emotional person! And I’m not sure if this post lived up to your expectations—these aren’t really “hacks” or quick tips. 

Still, in my experience, I had to do this work to make significant changes, and declutter my home and life. You let go of items once you let go of the fears, thoughts and beliefs that hold you back. 

And if you’d like to learn more about it, you can check out my courses or one of the following blog posts:

Do you struggle to declutter sentimental items? What are your top tips? Let us know in the comments!

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36 thoughts on “How to Let Go of Sentimental Items While Decluttering”

  1. This is the hardest part of decluttering when beginning, the sentimental items. The guilt I had over some things at the time felt a bit overwhelming, ironic really! But I got past it.

  2. Just REMEMBER ….there’s other ways to preserve things and not discard them. The worst thing to do is throw away history, (esp in these times we’re living in).

    Once it’s gone , it’s gone forever so figure out your options first, please.

  3. Two of my adult children have passed away. Ben in 2016 and Rocky in 2021. Ben was in the military, so all his belongings were packed and returned to me. What was I going to do with all this precious stuff and how could I help his 5 siblings cope with their grief? I let my other kids have what they wanted and then did nothing for 2 years. I wanted to do what would make Ben proud and give me peace. I donated most of his uniforms, and mine as well, to a community theater (he loved theater) and his clothes to a homeless shelter for veterans. Other pieces I had made into teddy bears and pillows for family. His furniture went to siblings and charity. I still have 2 large totes and a bookcase full of books. When Rocky died, because he was married, I have almost nothing. I cherish the few things I have and the memories that come with each. I occasionally can let something go, such as a vase that had flowers I received when Ben died; only yesterday I told my husband it can go to Goodwill. A part of me wants it back, though, but I will let it go. Grief is hard.

    • Oh Penny, I’m so sorry for your losses. I love the thoughtful ways you found to honor Ben’s memory while you parted with his belongings that couldn’t possibly fill his place in your heart. The gifts you gave to others have new life as they bless veterans or add dimension to a play. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to let go, but you showed much wisdom in those choices. I know the truth you said: grief is hard. God bless you.

  4. Thanks to all including Shannon Parker for sharing with me. My name is Rhonda and I will begin to sort, journal, donate my sentimental items. I need prayer to God our Father through Jesus Christ to help release me from this bondage. Holy Spirit comfort, lead and guide me.

    • Just what I needed to hear at 2:41 am as I am unable to sleep while mentally toiling with all the sentimental furnishings, clothing, papers from my parents. I need the Holy Spirit to move me … along with words of wisdom and experience of others. Thank you!

  5. Thanks for this article and the helpful comments.

    Writing a little story to myself, from the object’s point of view, helps me clarify my emotions about the object. l’m 73, and clearing away the clutter so my kids are not burdened with the decisions about my stuff they’d be obligated to make.

    When a story rings true, l edit and print it and put it in a 3-ring binder for my daughter that tells her why the object was important enough to keep. the stories also help preserve family history. My childhood was turbulent, too, and my hope is that these little stories will help them decide what to keep and send back out into the world.

    • Hello Kate Joy, my name is Jesse. I absolutely love your idea! I’m 46 yo. I have two daughters who are 20 years apart in age. I have 2 grandkids, both under a year old. I moved my Mom in with me because the pandemic broke her mentally and she can’t care for herself. I had to get rid of her apartment. She had 50 years of stuff I had to go through and get rid of. I ended up throwing so much in the dumpster, crying out loud as I did it. It was so incredibly difficult for me. I am a sentimental person to the bone.. I will do the same thing you wrote about. I want my stories And my mother’s story to be in my grandchildren’s minds and their children too. Thank you for sharing your idea.

    • This is exactly where I am in life: 73, not wanting to either burden my kids nor leave them wondering why on earth mom hung onto something. This is a very wise suggestion. Thank you!

  6. I have kept school items from my kids such as homework, report cards, anything really. I have always wanted to be a stay at home mom while they were little but it never happened. My husband became disabled very early on in our marriage. I’ve had to work either 2 jobs or jobs with significant overtime just to keep afloat. I know I need to throw this stuff away, but am afraid when I’m older and alone I won’t have anything to remember these years. Is this a sign of mental illness? I am able to throw papers away if I first take a picture. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Sue, your story resonates with me because my mother could have wrote this (my father had an acquired brain injury and my mother worked multiple jobs or long hours my entire life). I’m not in a position to say re: mental illness, but I would guess this is a very normal reaction from someone who has faced a lot of challenges in life. One suggestion I’d have for decluttering is to think first about the story you want to tell. Maybe get out a sheet a paper and write a few pages as if you’re writing a memoir about your life, focused on when your kids were young. Then as you declutter, think of it as curating a collection to support your story. You don’t have to keep everything, but you don’t have to get rid of everything either. And yes, take photos if it helps! There is no one right way to simplify. Take care, x Jen

    • No, it’s not a mental illness. Can I ask why exactly you say “I know I need to throw this stuff away?” Do you REALLY need to throw it away? Who and what has made you feel that you need to? And what do they know, anyway? All of those things are perfectly legitimate things to keep. Why not just find an organized, accessible way to keep them, like in a scrapbook or in a binder in plastic sleeves? If you start throwing out things that mean something to you based on something but some vague societal notion that you should get rid of stuff, you’re not going to get the kind of satisfaction out of it that will ever be worth the pain of loss and regret you will probably end up feeling. Losing your possessions and keepsakes in a flood, fire or tornado is devastating but you cope with it because you really have no choice. Losing sentimentally valuable items because you threw them away on a whim brought on by influences of questionable validity telling you you should is probably a lot harder to get over because you did it to yourself and you can’t undo it.

      And life is too short to waste any time making a full psychological evaluation of each and every item you own before you decide what to do with it. Organize it so it won’t be mistaken for garbage, keep it and if you must, every once in a while look through it and see if there are some things you are willing to let go of now.

      If you want to talk mental illness, people who can throw away anything and never keep anything sentimental, now those people aren’t right in the head. They scare me. That ain’t normal human behavior. Obsessive decluttering is a mental disorder and definitely one of the more repulsive ones.

  7. Thank you for writing this. You have put into words things I have not even realized I was thinking. I am taking notes as I read and hope to apply some to my own decluttering. Once the attachment is understood maybe I can actually (and finally) succeed at this!

  8. I do struggle with sentimental items! My issue is that they are attached to my memory so if I throw something away it’s like I forget it happened! I’ve had a lot of trauma tangled up with good memories so it’s hard to detach. My memory is very poor and when I go through a lot of items, it actually brings the memory back and it’s a GOOD memory! I have a lot of pictures and photo boxes so I was looking into sending them off to be scan and put on a cd or something. Also maybe taking a picture of the sentimental items might work as well.
    But honestly things like my yearbook from high school lets me know that it wasn’t all terrible and there were good memories- so I have a lot of random items like that that fill up totes, and when my kids ask me about my childhood I want to be able to remember something!

    • You don’t have to get rid of things if they make you happy! But it’s all about balance — you’ve got to find that sweet spot that’s right for you. Thanks for reading!

  9. reality check .I pray I can be detached from my things 🙏 but they remind me of what I am and what I’ve been thank you ma’am. guess I’ve to declutter organize and stop hoarding things .
    I am a Filipina but on the heavy side hence my dresses etc have challenging times when given to others
    God bless.thanks

    • People will tell you “Your things aren’t you!” but that is not true. Your things ARE a lot about you. They DO tell the story of who you are. I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked through things I haven’t looked at for a while and it put me back in touch with who I am.

      As for your old dresses, maybe keep just your very favorites for a while, deciding which ones you really don’t care as much about and seeing if you can let those go. A lot of organizational “gurus” will tell you to get rid of all clothes that don’t fit you anymore because “admit it, you know you’ll never wear them again.” That’s actually kind of stupid advice because really what they’re saying is “you know you’re fat now and you’re always going to stay that way, so give it up.” Gee, that’s inspirational. 10 or 15 years ago I lost a bunch of weight and I absolutely wore a lot of the clothes again that I had kept after they had gotten too small for me. It saved me a lot of money, too.

      You know what clothes I give away? Anything that’s actually too big for me. I say “I’m not planning to grow into you” and in the giveaway bag it goes.

  10. I grew up in a turbulent childhood, and when we finally left the house, I took the things in my 8×8 bedroom only. Boxes of things that made me happy in my room while the outside was freaking out. I find it so difficult to get rid of even a paper with a note on it to me. it keeps me feeling secure someone cares to give me a note. someone recognizes me. I want to so badly clean up my disorganization but I am in fear of losing something even that silly little note. this was an encouraging article to read and has helped me to see how I can declutter without loosing myself, who I am, who I was in a difficult time, how I survived in my own world.

    • I often say that clutter is like scars, proof we did hard things and survived. Sounds like this is especially true in your case. Wishing you all the very best with everything x

  11. My reason for keeping my stuff, some of which I’ve kept since I was a teen, is that 9 times out of 10 I’ve forgotten what I’ve done over the years, and apart from my old photos and diaries where some of my memories are written down, I rely on my ‘things’ to spark my memory. And I want to remember my past because I’ve had a lot of happy times

  12. I’ve often thought that having either an emotional or a financial attachment to an article is the battle we deal with when making a decision to let go of it. It’s a conundrum that can be resolved. Have a meeting with yourself. Some quiet time to sort out your thoughts and make peace with your decisions.

  13. Such a well done article. When my Mother passed, she had some lovely rings that I knew wearing them all would be impossible. I have 3 girls, grown up now, so each has one in memory of Gran. As each of my 6 Grandchildren have turned 16, they get a ring, one from my collection with a story about it.
    Knowing they have a home has given me joy and satisfaction.

  14. Thank you for this article, Jennifer. The emotional decluttering is by far the worst for me. I inherited beautiful things from both grandmother’s and my mom & dad. A lot of it is so precious that I can’t bring myself to donate it or worse yet, throw it away.
    Each thing reminds me of my beautiful grandmother’s & mother. It really does feel like I’m throwing away or giving away a memory of them.
    But, I do realize that after I’ve been able to release a certain item, I then actually don’t even think about it again.
    Guess the best thing to do is just deal with one item at a time even if it takes me years to do it.

    • Slow and steady really is the way. I know the internet is full of posts that suggest you “declutter your home in a weekend” and while there are things you can do to speed things along, I think that most people need time and that’s perfectly OK. Wishing you the best x

  15. I have been struggling for so long to declutter my sentimental items – stationery my dad brought me over the years, toys from my childhood, and all the things my mom gave me before she passed away. I’m so glad you brought up that point about being shamed for clutter – I’ve noticed that most decluttering posts do that. To me, it’s not just “stuff.”

    To me, these things are fused with my identity, my past. I feel like I’m throwing away a part of myself by decluttering.

    I am otherwise a minimalist – I’ve built a beautiful life for myself and I love my present. However, this is one thing I’ve been struggling with for years and I do believe that getting down and dirty with the details by analyzing my fears might just be the only way to release all this stuff.

    Thank you for writing this post Jennifer – you seriously are a wonderful human being. I love reading your newsletters and I’m so glad you share so much of your own struggles in every post you write – it really helps. =)

    • Oh Angela, you are so kind! And you are spot on about the identity aspect. Analysing your fears, plus thinking intentionally about who you are and the stories you want to tell, can really help. Plus lots of time and self-compassion! (So, so important!) Thank you so much for reading, and taking the time to comment. You made my day 🙂 x Jen


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