Letting Go of Guilty Clutter

Letting Go of Guilty Clutter

Oh my this is a topic near and dear to my heart because guilty clutter holds so many people hostage.  The dreaded clutter that we hang on to because we feel guilty getting rid of it.  Whether it’s a present someone gave to you, memorabilia that family has passed down for you to hang onto or something you have spent a lot of money on, there it sits taking up valuable space in your home.

For me that was my mom’s china.  It took up a lot of space in my china cabinet despite the fact that I never used it.  Here’s an old picture of where it used to sit on the second shelf down (I no longer have this cabinet in my new home).

My mom and dad got this china as a wedding present many moons ago and I got it when they moved into a smaller home and they didn’t have the space to store it.  So I took it because I knew my mom could never part with it on her own.  However it just sat there and eventually resentment built up.  We lived in the same town as them so I felt totally guilty even thinking about giving it away.  Then a couple of years ago my girlfriend bought me a beautiful tray in crazy daisy pattern that I absolutely love.  And then my sweet husband purchased me a few more pieces.


The only problem was that I had no where to put it.  In fact it lived in boxes for far too long before it dawned on me that I had perfectly good storage space in my china cabinet.  That’s when I knew it had to be done, I had to part with mom’s china.  In a moment of clarity I realized that I could no longer hang onto something out of guilt.  I packed it all up and took it all to my girlfriend’s thrift store.  I thought the guilt might intensify after that but instead I felt so much lighter, like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.   I don’t think my mom was very happy about it but I think she totally understood when I got up the nerve to tell her.

Right now I want you to think about something you’re hanging onto out of guilt.  Just take a moment and think about it as you look around your home.  Okay do you have that object in your mind?  Now ask yourself some questions:

  • why am I hanging onto it?
  • do I love it or use it?
  • who am I afraid of hurting if I part with it?
  • am I holding onto this because I want to or because I have to?
  • how much space is this item(s) taking up?
  • could I be using this space for stuff I actually use on a regular basis?
  • what’s the worst that could happen if I get rid of it?
  • will someone else want this after I’m gone?

I encourage you today to really give it some thought.   How much stuff in your home is tied up in guilty clutter?  It’s tough I know.  I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, decisions are hardBut I have to wonder how many of us would be content in the size of the home we already have if we released all the stuff we hold onto out of obligation?

I want to leave you with a video I recently watched that sparked this blog post today.  Cas talks about the burden of guilty clutter beautifully and really gets to the heart of the matter.  Such good stuff!

If you can’t see the video, you can find it here.

So tell me what are you holding onto out of guilt that you think it might be time to part with?

Filed under: Organizing Basics, Purging


41 Responses to Letting Go of Guilty Clutter

  1. 2
    Comeca says

    Oh my gosh stuffed animals given to me as sweeties day gifts I just cant let them go! lol

    • 2.1
      Mary Johnson says

      Valentine’s Day? Never heard of any other sweeties day.

  2. 3
    dorothy says

    Spot on!!! I’ve been dealing with this emotional/guilty clutter head on for about a year. I’m getting better at telling my inner hoarder that NO! WE DO NOT NEED TO KEEP IT!!! If the item isn’t blessing my home in some way, it needs to go bless someone else’s.

  3. 4
    Jill Robson says

    Great article. I have recently allowed my mother in law to pass on animal encyclopedias, that my son(once he saw them) wanted, reluctantly i must add. I didn’t want them, but my sons asking made me cave for the time being. He has not touched them in 5 months. I have set a time frame of 1 year. If they are still untouched on the shelf in that time, i will have no qualms about returning them to my mother in law, so she can find a place for them, taking the onus of me to find a home for them. A time frame can be any length of time that suits your needs, but not too long!

  4. 5
    Linda Stoll says

    Super interesting post!

    As a counselor, I do alot of work with women on guilt, fear, shame, and making choices that reflect who we authentically are. So I appreciate these thoughts when it comes to our possessions.

    Guilt’s a lousy motivator, a viscious task-master, an energy drainer. It kicks fear into the mix, blocks creativity, fogs up our thinking, causes us to react instead of thoughtfully respond.

    Let’s live life {and take care of our homes} out of love, joy, and conviction to do the right thing!

  5. 6
    Laure says

    I actually love your mom’s china, and we regularly use china for entertaining. We’re of the mindset, don’t let it gather dust so you don’t break it, just use and enjoy it! My point is that perhaps the best option would be to either (1) not accept something you won’t use, or (2) if you accept it and later realize you won’t use it, offer it back to the person who gave it. In this case, your mom doesn’t have room for it, but might have a friend who, like me, would use it and enjoy doing so…so even if her daughter didn’t want it, it would go into a loving home rather than an impersonal resale shop.
    I tend to have gifts I hang onto out of guilt. These can’t be refused, or offered back, as I suggest above for your china, so I keep them for a decent period of time (6 mos – year) and then offer them to a friend I think might enjoy them, or I donate them. Hard to stay on top of, though!

    • 6.1
      Laura says

      Hello! So many people have trouble giving to thrift stores but you have to remember that it’s still a blessing to someone else even if you don’t know who it is buying. Plus here where I live now all the profits at our local thrift store go to the our local hospital to purchase equipment and things which is such a good cause. In fact I never sell anything anymore, it always goes straight to the thrift store. It feels great to give back in such a small way.

    • 6.2
      Marie says

      While I understand what you are saying about finding someone who will enjoy it before giving it to a thrift store, I often find myself with bags of stuff that might be enjoyed by someone else and then it becomes completely overwhelming. I have a friend to whom I pass on children’s clothing. I also pass on crafts items and children’ games that we no longer want to my children’s school for their after-school/summer program. Other than that, I just find it easier to donate it to a local charity that accepts basically anything. I always feel so much better when the bags are out of the house and then I can continue to purge without feeling like I’m creating more work for myself. I think we each needs to find what works for us.

  6. 7
    Kaui @ Thrifty Military Mommy says

    I think we all have issues with letting go of something, even for those of us who are super organized. I’m actually pretty good of letting go of things, but for me the one time I have the hardest letting go is when someone I really care about passes and I get their stuff. Then I usually go through a year long process of piles of stuff that were never mine and I never would’ve liked personally, but since it belonged to my loved one I can’t get rid of it because it’s like getting rid of them. I know I get this from my mom.

    There have been numerous times I’ve gotten things from family members and never held on to them. At first it was hard for me to get rid of their things because those people would be very offended. So i then learned to never tell them I got rid of their stuff and rarely was I ever asked by that person what happened to the present they gave me.

  7. 8
    AJ Thomas says

    Thank you for this post and encouragement. In the past, I did well getting rid of things that were mine, however, I struggled with the things my mom would give me. On the up side, I got her to quit buying me stuff when she shopped 2nd hand – not that I don’t like used, but I don’t need every used thing that’s a deal there is to get. One thing she gave me was her mother’s ring. This is a ring that my father gave her after my closest brother was born…meaning that I wasn’t even a thought! Why would I need this ring? Along with a set a dishes she saved grocery points in the early 80s to get that we never used and is a color that I don’t use in my house.

    On the other side of your conversation, my mom encouraged me to save things for my daughter. I had to laugh and say, just like you saved things from my childhood? I refuse to pass those things on to my daughter. She will not want 30 year old baby items. I only keep the things that I want, for me. Maybe she’ll appreciate it some day, but I won’t force it on her.

    Time to go purge!

    • 8.1
      LB says

      She might want them! I think it would be neat to have one or two items from when my mom was a baby… one or two!!

  8. 9
    Marcy says

    We have a rule, if its not yours don’t throw it out. I think you should have told her before donating it. Just my opinion and no offense intended at all.

    • 9.1
      Laura says

      Hi Marcy, I hear what you are saying but once someone gives something to you it does become yours. My mom didn’t give me her china to hang onto but gave it to me. It was mine to do with as I pleased. Would she have been happy for me to hang onto it so she could still enjoy it when she came over, probably. I would have been happy to do so to if I had the space, but I didn’t so that made it clutter to me. And when it all comes down to it, it’s just stuff. I also knew my teenage daughter didn’t want it so I didn’t want to hold onto to it just to eventually burden her with it you know. Hope that helps clarify.

    • 9.2
      Becky says

      Wedding china? Wow, I could not imagine getting rid of a such a gift without first offering it back to the person who gave it to me. She might have known someone else who could enjoy it. That is like getting rid of wedding rings. Just because they belong to you, doesn’t mean it is ok to part with them while you still have a relationship with the person who gave them to you.

  9. 10
    Judy says

    I get rid of guilty clutter right after Christmas every year! I have a friend who I love dearly, but she usually gives me a gift that for one reason or another doesn’t work for me. It’s not my taste, I have no use for it, it was something she regifted because she didn’t like it – you get the picture. Every year that item – and they’ve ranged from picture frames, scented candles, wall hangings, etc. – have found a new home in my charity box (currently Big Brothers Big Sisters is my charity of choice because they pick up at my home every 6-8 weeks). I let go of the guilty feeling years ago. My light bulb moment came in January 2010 when I made a resolution to clear the clutter in the entire house. It took a year to get rid of the bulk of it (with a family of four it’ll always be a work in progress), but my house looks and feels a thousand pounds lighter.

    • 10.1
      Laura says

      What a great testimony Judy, thank you for sharing it with us.

    • 10.2
      Andreia says

      Personally, I love the idea of having a gift shelf (or room, or box) to put all those scented candles and picture frames, etc. They’re great to re-gift when your bowling league or book club or quilting crew has a gift exchange. Rather than stopping at the local drugstore for a present you forgot to buy for the exchange, you can grab something off your shelf. You might end up replenishing the shelf when you get home from the gift exchange, but you may end up receiving a gift you’ll really enjoy and use. (Just be sure to label everything with who gave it to you and when so you don’t accidently re-gift to the same person next year.)

  10. 11
    Melissa says

    Love this and the video. And while watching it, looking around the room I’m in and thinking about our other rooms and how much I want every space (even the junk room) to be organized and contain only the things we need or truly want…I realized this room I’m in (fireplace, bookshelves, wall shelves with photos, knick knacks, vacation shot glasses…lots of THINGS) doesn’t contain enough things I love and contains too many things I feel obligated to have/show/keep. I think this weekend I’ll start paring down this room. I also realized my hope chest is in the junk room in the basement. It was a 16th birthday (or christmas?) present and it’s storing my wedding veil and bouquet (fake flowers) and some stuffed bears I collected as a kid. It’s acting as a photo printer stand and taking up a lot of space. I think it’s time to sell that and while it was a gift from my parents, I’m certain if I ask my dad, he won’t care what I do with it…heck, he just sold a giant sectional couch for $100 at a garage sale because he didn’t want to move it to his new house. He doesn’t care what I do with my stuff. Thank you for this post and video, so very awesome and excellent timing for me.

  11. 12
    Jennifer G says

    Guilty clutter. Hubby & I have a small box of that. I have a feeling when my inlaws are gone we will have 2 houses full. They have kept a ton of stuff that belonged to their moms & grandmas. The biggie is going to be the handmade afghans that my FIL’s mom made for everyone for every holiday, birthday and occasion because she didn’t have a lot of money to buy gifts. Which means EVERY ONE of them is “special” now that she has passed away. I am trying to talk MIL into sorting them into favorites and then washing up the ones that are not favorites and donating them to the local children’s home. I mean, her MIL would have wanted the blankets to be used, not to be a source of sadness (because she is no longer with us) and guilt (because you know, if we get rid of the blanket we are somehow diminishing her memory). But neither of them can part with anything, so they have a 2300 sq ft house, a 16×20 “office” unit and an 8×10 “garage” unit all overflowing with stuff, as well as stuff in their back yard that won’t fit into any of those spaces.

    My mom is thankfully not so bad about keeping stuff. My dad died about 8 yrs ago, and their home flooded a few months before he died, so my mom didn’t have a lot of stuff left to keep (though I think she would have kept most of it if she could have at that point). And then my grandmother died a couple of years ago; after Mom had to sort through all of the stuff my grandmother collected over her life (and she really wasn’t that bad, she was adamant that her stuff be quality and lasting so that she didn’t have to replace cheap crap all the time…the amount had just built up gradually over time), she has decided that she doesn’t want to put me or my sister through that and has begun paring down her belongings on her own. Occasionally she will call us to offer us something before she gets rid of it, but mostly she is just letting stuff go.

    Hubby is a bit more sentimental than I am so we will end up with more guilty clutter than I want, but he is still pretty good about letting stuff go. And as we have no space to display any of it (or the desire to dust if we did have space to display it), it will just continue to be in a small box or 2 in our closet. I can live with that until he is ready to let it go.

    • 12.1
      Ellie says

      Thanks for mentioning the afghans your FIL’s mom made. My deceased mom made afghans for all her children and grandchildren. We never use them anymore preferring fleeces. This fall they will be donated in time for the cooler weather so others who have need or desire for them can use them. My adult kids will appreciate this.

  12. 13
    Gaye says

    Yeah, this post really hits home with me. I have my grandmother’s china, which occupies most of my china cabinet. I truly do not think that I will be able to part with it until after my mother dies. I just think it would be too painful for all concerned. But I have other candidates for “letting go” – boxes of our sons’ school papers and projects (the youngest just went off to college!), almost all of their childhood books, baby clothes – the list goes on.

    Thanks for this advice.

  13. 14
    Elizabeth says

    Thank you for this post! Cas’ vid was great for me…so right on! I thought I was the only one who did this…so much guilt! I feel even more guilty when I am “stuck” and then I don’t get rid of it! I want to let go and just get rid of it! I related so much! I have a huge stack of baby blankets my mom-in-law( in a box) made out in my garage…I know my kids won’t want them. They’ll want new stuff! My oldest is 23 and I know she won’t want those blankets when she has a baby….whew! What was I thinking????
    My husband does the same with books…he can’t part with his books!!! I have books everywhere (of his)…I need to chill and just do it one area at a time…slow and steady BUT letting go of stuff and NOT keeping the guilt!…Why is this so emotional?

    • 14.1
      Andreia says

      My dad is like that with books. He has shelves upon shelves of paperbacks he’s read and will never re-read. One day when I came home I told him that he needed to pick 6 books to donate. It was tough for him to come up with 6 books (out of hundreds) that he wanted to give away. But since then, I’ve heard that he’s gotten rid of 6-10 more every time Mom announces that the AmVets are picking up donations.

    • 14.2
      Mary Johnson says

      We have a lot of books. When we moved to this house we had 9 linear feet – ceiling to floor of books in our apartment and we have added to same of course in the ensuing 28 years.

      But most are not general fiction – oh, I have my collection of books by and about Louisa May Alcott and he has his James Bond books going back to when he was young and they were first coming out, but most of our books are reference to books. I went to write an article for a national magazine on a historical embroidery subject and found that I owned a much better and complete assortment of books on the subject than the county library system did. I am currently putting together a talk for the local embroidery guild on the history of samplers – all from the books I have and photos husband has taken at exhibitions we have gone to of samplers. Also lots of other books on history which we use for reference as reenactors. So it seems to me that getting rid of books depends on what they are and what they are for.

  14. 15
    Michaela says

    I have let go of a lot of emotional clutter the last two years. I inherited things when my grandmother went into a nursing home (and later died), and most of it was junk that I never wanted or associated with her. Anything of any value was pilfered away by greedy relatives, and the whole situation made me so upset that I later changed my will. I held on to a lot of it for over five years, but I found when I came across some of the objects – I literally had a horrible attitude/reaction once I saw it. Finally I began to let go last year, most went Freecycled, books got donated to the local library, furniture got sold (much to my mother’s horror). I made no apologies, I just did it and it felt GREAT. The irony is once those left my home, I got offered her hutch (another relative had it and was moving). It was something that really means a lot to me and has a positive vibe to it. Right now it proudly sits in my front room, and it fits perfectly in my home. It seemed meant to be.

    I believe it gets easier to know when to let go over time. I have let go of letters that caused me to be sad, items that harbored guilt and regret, and anything that I deemed unnecessary to my day to day living. It feels lighter and I feel better inside. When I look around my home I see objects that truly represent ME and not my emotional baggage.

  15. 16
    Lawfrog says

    OH AMEN!!! I recently moved and that experience was enough to make me declutter like my life depended on it. I had actually done quite a bit of decluttering prior to the move as well, but there was so much more that I was able to do afterwards. It’s still a work in progress, but it feels SO good when I fill another decluttering box. I completely understand the feeling of lightness you describe when you let go of the China.

    I might also add that something I think gets missed with decluttering as well is that you should actually use the things in your home that you love. It’s kind of the flip side of decluttering in a way, but so many people store things in boxes waiting for a special occasion (that never comes) or they don’t use something for fear of damaging it or what have you. USE YOUR STUFF! If you are going to allow it space in your home, then use it.

    I made use of this line of thought (pardon the pun) when I moved and realized I needed silverware. I broke out the beautiful gold-plated silverware I’d received in 1998 as a wedding gift. It hadn’t been used ever. I’m using it daily now and loving it.

  16. 17
    Amy says

    Oh, I know this only too well as we are moving this week, and everywhere I turn I see guilty clutter, and it is making me feel those same feelings of resentment that you described! I keep thinking, “I don’t love this! Why am I going to the trouble of moving it?!?!” So thanks for the inspiration…and now, onto more packing!

  17. 18
    Sinea says

    I’m going through that right now! So many little gifts received, keepsakes inherited, many many many FRAMED family photos. All crowding in on me. Most seldom used. Guilt EVERYWHERE about giving it away. Gotta do it, though.

    The frames went to Goodwill this week. The photos will be in a new album after I scan them to put in the digital frame I hope someone will buy me for Christmas! LOL.

  18. 19
    Pauline says

    Oh my, I could sooooo relate! I have a small library full of children’s books that my Mom collected for me. When I was a kid, I read several of the books – and loved them! But most did not interest me, at that time. But because she worked so long and hard to give them to me – and it meant a LOT to her to do that – I still have them. So yes – it’s time to say goodbye. So over the next few weeks, I will be looking over them, keep a few that I really treasure (and to honor her dream for me) – and send the rest on to our local charity thrift store. Mom passed away in 2000, and no one else in the family wants them, so that works. Thanks for giving me the boost I needed, Laura! (Loved the video, too!)

  19. 20
    Twyla Hajdukiewicz says

    I had the challenge a few years back of cleaning out my dad’s place after he passed away. He had lived the last few years in a fairly small one bedroom apartment where my grandmother had lived before him. They were both pack rats (not hoarders, but pack rats), so there was a tremendous amount of stuff to go through. It was quite overwhelming. I suspect I threw out or put out for donation things that had some monetary value without realizing it, but there was just so much stuff. I vowed then that I would never hold onto that much stuff for someone else to deal with when I go. Your blog helps remind me regularly to clear out what I don’t love, even if it’s got sentimental value. After all the sentiment is attached to the memories, not the things themselves.
    I’ve recently found I feel much better about getting rid of guilty clutter when I know the person who receives it will enjoy it. The “wanted” section on Craigslist is great for finding folks who really want what you really want to part with….
    Thanks for the great article. I’m going to share it with family and friends!

  20. 21
    mary norman says

    Because of the guilt thing. my mom and i have a pact to not feel guilty about donating or getting rid of something that the other gave. we have to be honest with each other. AND we are. If it is something that I think she needs to know about…. I def let her know. It works for us.
    So…… I LOVE those daisy plates. AWESOME!!!! please tell me who made them.

    • 21.1
      Laura says

      They were purchased in a local jewelry store. The name on the back says Port Meirion. Hope that helps!

  21. 22
    Susanne says

    I am so horrible about guilty clutter. On both sides of our family we have had stuff handed to us, some of it totally ridiculous, that people didn’t want anymore but couldn’t bring themselves to trash, so they felt better passing it off. After years of not being able to say no, and living with it taking up precious storage space, we finally just told ourselves that if the person couldn’t trash it for themselves we’d do it for them. We were not going to keep it out of guilt. No ones ever asked how we are enjoying their old giveaways and we don’t tell them we threw it out. Now if it came to something like wedding china I might offer it back but make it totally clear that if they don’t take it back it won’t stay with us.

  22. 23
    Rebecca says

    hmm what about other peoples things that are taking up room in your house. My son has his own place and has taken his stuff.
    My daughter lives with her in-laws in another city, that house is already full of clutter and people. There is no way any of her things that she has left behind will fit. She went through some stuff, but not all and well already last summer I was accused of going through her things.
    Hubby works away from home, he always come home with more than he took and his thoughts are “we might need it again”
    I too have my Mom’s stuff – some of it is worth money, but the market is not there at the moment.
    Yep very guilty feelings, as I am always told I have given someones stuff away


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