I hear it all the time, and I know it’s usually said with the best intentions. Your stuff is just stuff … or is it? Listen to this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show to find out why I’m not a fan of “It’s just stuff” and what advice I prefer to give instead.
In This Episode:
- why saying “it’s just stuff” might be holding you back
- how to create a new, empowering perspective on decluttering
- a surprising benefit of letting go you may not have considered
Featured In This Episode:
- Get your free Mindful Decluttering guide: simplyfiercely.com/freeguide
- Read the blog: simplyfiercely.com/blog
- Connect on Instagram: @simplyfiercely
- Clear Your Clutter opens in Jan 2024–get on the waitlist: simplyfiercely.com/clearyourclutter
Subscribe to The Simply + Fiercely Show
Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.
Why You’ll Never Hear Me Say, It’s Just Stuff
Hello everybody. It’s Jennifer here, and this is another episode of The Simply and Fiercely Show.
Today I want to talk about something that I often hear in conversations about decluttering. It’s something that someone might tell you if they are trying to give you some well-meaning advice. I often see it on social media or Reddit.
I do a lot of research about decluttering, so I’m always in Facebook groups or reading forums. When people are looking for advice on how to declutter or when they have felt stuck with something that they’re unable to part with, one thing that will often come up, and again I truly believe it comes from a good place, but I don’t think it’s very helpful and that bit of advice “It’s just stuff”.
I don’t know if you’ve heard that before. You may also have heard a variation of this that I’m not a big fan of, which is where people say “Your memories don’t live in your stuff. Your memories are in your heart.”
I’m not a big fan of this and I’m going to tell you why in a moment and what I think we should say or what we should talk about instead.
In full disclosure, when I came up with the title of this episode, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ because I have been blogging since 2015, and I really hope that I’ve never said this before.
In the beginning, I thought, like many other people, that saying it’s just stuff was helpful advice, but as I’m about to say, I don’t always think that’s the case.
It’s just my disclaimer, I’m not here to judge you if that’s something that maybe you have said because there’s a very good chance that maybe I’ve said it before.
But drawing that line in the sand and moving forward, this is why I’m not going to say it and why I think that perhaps we should all rethink sharing this as advice.
Why does Jennifer say that the advice of ‘It’s just stuff’ is not helpful?
First and foremost, as I said, it comes from a good place, but I think it can be very condescending.
Logically we know it’s just stuff. We’re not idiots, even though we feel like it sometimes, but we all know that a picture that you’re struggling to declutter or your grandma’s old sweater or a stack of papers or whatever it is that you’ve got in your home that you’re trying to get rid of, we know it’s just stuff.
This is not Toy Story. There are no emotions, no little cartoon characters living in our stuff.
But when somebody says that to you and you already know it deep down, it makes you feel like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ Right?
I’ve talked about this so much on the podcast and I’m sorry that I’m repeating myself, but I think it’s something that is very rarely spoken about but keeps so many people trapped.
As soon as you start blaming yourself, as soon as you start thinking, well, the reason that I can’t declutter is because something is wrong with me or I’m not smart enough, or I’ve got some kind of fundamental character flaw, it is a huge hurdle that you didn’t need to have that now you need to overcome.
So if someone says “It’s just stuff” and you go, “Yeah, I know that, but I still struggle”, that may make you blame yourself.
Or maybe you’re going to shut down and resist any type of advice because you don’t need more people lecturing you and telling you it’s just stuff.
Regardless, it’s just not very helpful.
The analogy of decluttering to weight loss, the nuances and complexities involved
If you’re struggling to see that perspective, I think a really good example is if somebody is trying to lose weight and someone says, just eat less food.
I’ll just say a quick disclaimer. I’m against diet culture. I don’t want to turn this into a big discussion about weight loss, but I think that we can probably all agree that if somebody says, just eat less food, it’s a little unkind, perhaps unintentionally, but no one feels good about hearing it.
It’s an oversimplification of a problem, and that’s where that condescending feeling comes from.
And also, it’s just not true. If somebody is struggling to lose weight, it can be because of their health, right? I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty confident certain conditions can make it harder to lose weight.
Or medication. I know this one firsthand. I was on oral steroids for quite a while, and that can make it difficult to lose weight.
I also think it’s important to say that all bodies are different. Some people carry more weight naturally on their frame, and that’s not necessarily something that needs to be fixed.
So saying, just eat less food. There’s no nuance or understanding.
Furthermore, a lot of times people struggle with food for emotional reasons. I was watching a show recently and oh my God, it broke my heart.
How so many of these people who are struggling with their weight had come from horrible, traumatic backgrounds where something, I’m not even going to go into the details, but something quite horrible had happened to them as a child, and food became a way to deal with it.
Even on the other end, it doesn’t have to be something super traumatic, but a lot of times just everyday people are going through hard times.
Life is hard. Everybody knows that. Sometimes food is a way of dealing with it if you haven’t learned other ways of dealing with it or you don’t have support, you don’t have financial support, you don’t have friends, family who are there for you, whatever.
I’m sure if someone was an expert, they could probably add 50 things to this list about why saying just eat less food isn’t helpful because it’s such an oversimplification. It’s more complicated than that. Plus it makes people feel crap.
It’s the same kind of thing as saying it’s just stuff.
It does not feel empowering and obviously, there are going to be exceptions. There’s going to be somebody who listens to this and says, “Oh, yeah, I found that really helpful”.
But I feel like there’s too much potential for it to be not helpful.
Alternative to the “It’s just stuff’ phrase that’s more inclusive
There are other things that we can say instead that are more inclusive, and more supportive.
From experience with my own decluttering journey, it’s not even about emotions. It’s about how we can help people get unstuck. What practical advice is going to help them make real changes if that’s what they want?
Saying it’s just stuff is probably not anywhere near the top 10 things I would say to someone. So what should we say instead?
I think it is empowering to acknowledge that your stuff is more than just stuff, whether you realize it or not. Everything you own tells a story of some sort.
Oftentimes clutter is a placeholder for difficult emotions. We are not necessarily ready to face something painful from our past, something challenging.
There are a million difficult emotions that are out there and we may not be ready to face them. And sometimes, again, that’s not necessarily a choice.
Maybe right now you’re at a point in your life where you have no support, you’re taking care of your elderly parents, maybe supporting young children, working overtime, and you just don’t have the bandwidth to deal with some kind of trauma from your past.
It doesn’t even have to be traumatic, just some kind of heavy feeling that you’ve been carrying.
So in that way, I don’t always think that clutter’s a bad thing. Your clutter can be a placeholder for that feeling until you are ready to deal with it.
For example, I just told this story on social media recently. It’s something I usually reserve for inside my programs because it’s a bit personal, but I think I will share it today because it is a powerful one.
I lost my brother when he was 21, almost 20 years ago now. He was in the military and he was killed. I don’t even know what kind of word I feel comfortable using, but he was in action. He was in the military, it was in a combat situation.
While he was alive, I was very, very bad at sending him letters. And so I finally sent him a letter, it was in November or maybe the end of October, so we were coming into the holiday season.
I finally wrote him a letter after not having written him in years and the letter came back to me, return to sender, because he was killed.
Without going too deep into this. This is a podcast episode where I probably don’t want to share everything I am struggling with emotionally, but let’s just say it was hard.
I kept that letter for many, many, many, many years. I carried it with me. I ended up moving to Australia, moved across the world with this, and I held onto this letter.
What I eventually realized is that I still carried a lot of shame and I felt like I wasn’t forgiven. I had done this horrible thing by not writing to my brother more often.
When I eventually got around to decluttering this letter, it was almost like part of the healing process. It was like me forgiving myself for just being human.
We all have moments like that where we didn’t do something or we didn’t know what the ramifications would be. But I’m not going to carry that letter around to punish myself for some mistake that I made. I do still keep some things of my brother’s though.
Our emotional attachments to material possessions
If you know me, you know that I am not a hardcore minimalist. I keep sentimental items, but I’m very selective about what I keep.
I keep things that help me remember the strength of our relationship. I don’t keep things that make me beat myself up about our relationship.
That’s just a very deep yet quick example of how our stuff is not just stuff.
It’s not always that serious. As you know I was a shopaholic and fashion was my weakness.
I believe that when we buy things, sure, we’re buying the thing, but we’re also buying the promise of how we think that item is going to make us feel or how we think it’s going to improve our life.
This is what I mean when I say our stuff is not just stuff. Most of our stuff, especially the things that we buy, come with a promise.
For example, if I bought a dress thinking I was going to wear it and I was going to feel and look good. I was going to feel more confident about myself, and it was going to somehow make me feel more elevated or really great about myself.
If I never wore that dress for whatever reason, that is conversation for another day. But let’s just say I didn’t wear that dress. I may still struggle to declutter it, even though my logical brain might know I’m never going to wear it because the promise has not been fulfilled.
So I look at that dress, a beautiful dress in my closet that I’m not wearing, and it kind of feels like if I declutter that dress, I’m giving up on the promise that I was sold. It’s a little bit complicated.
It’s kind of like this story I’ve also told before in various places about how I carried my college textbooks with me, which as you know, weigh a lot. They’re big, heavy, and clunky.
When I moved to Australia I moved over pretty light. I only brought one pallet worth of stuff. But I chose these books to bring with me. And then I moved to various places across Australia with these heavy clunky books.
For years, I used to tell myself that I was going to read them someday or that I might go back to school.
None of which made sense. If I had gone back to school after 10 years in a new country, I probably would’ve needed new books anyway. But I just kept bringing these books with me.
It was only when I realized that the reason I brought them was that I had a lot of insecurity. I never finished my university degree and where I grew up, that was a big red flag.
It was like you’re going to be a failure, a loser, or some other words that you might believe for the rest of your life if you don’t go to college.
I never finished my degree, but it made me feel a little better to drag these heavy books around the world. So if you came to my house and looked at my bookshelves, you’d be like, oh, look, she seems smart.
And I’m laughing because there’s also a voice in my head that’s saying, a smart person wouldn’t do this.
Acknowledging the emotions and the stories about your stuff is freeing
That’s what I was saying earlier in this episode, the voices in our head that sometimes make decluttering harder than it needs to be.
I think that acknowledging the stories and hearing somebody else say, “Hey, it is hard”. “Hey, there are stories in your stuff”. “It’s not just stuff you’ve got to deal with all this mental load.” It’s very freeing.
It’s just like, oh, yeah, it’s not me. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s just the way it is. This is very normal. Jen told me that people everywhere struggle with it, and it’s kind of like a gift that you can give yourself.
That is why I try not to say it’s just stuff if I do, God, somebody called me out on it, especially if it’s recently. I really don’t mean that. I do know that there’s more to your stuff, and I feel like if we can acknowledge it, then we can try to solve it.
I have a book called Emotional Agility by Dr. Susan David. She’s also a TED speaker and one of my favorite authors.
One of the big things that she teaches is that our emotions are signposts, and they tell us what we need to do to change.
So for example, when I finally identified the emotion that I felt with that letter from my brother, it was regret and shame. It was a signpost that I needed to forgive myself.
And again, sort of tying in lots of things that I’ve talked about in previous episodes, this is why I think that how you declutter matters.
Because when you declutter in this way where you really look at the emotions and the stories behind your stuff, you get more benefits than just less stuff.
That one letter that I was carrying around, didn’t take up that much space in my home, but it felt good to let it go.
It felt really good to forgive myself. It felt really good to acknowledge that I don’t need to carry the psychological weight, the emotional weight anymore.
I think that that is one of the gifts of decluttering, and it only comes when we acknowledge that our stuff is more than just stuff.
Announcing the Clear Your Clutter program is kicking off in January 2024
That was a big episode, I covered a lot more than I planned to cover.
If what I talked about resonates with you and you would like to learn more about decluttering from someone who encourages this kind of approach, I have an eight-week group program called Clear Your Clutter. We go through and really unravel all of the kind of stuff that I talk about on the podcast.
It is kicking off in January 2024, which is only a few weeks away now.
You can go to Clear Your Clutter if you want to check it out, learn a bit more about the program, and get on the waitlist.
I have something planned for anyone who’s on the waitlist this year so if you are interested, please sign up.
Thank you to everyone who has spent time here with me this year and I look forward to connecting with you all in the new year.