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Harriet Schechter

Shedding Sentimental Clutter
by Harriet Schechter

A vital step in the letting go of clutter process is learning how to manage memorabilia. Why? Because when you let go of objects that remind you of memories you'd rather forget, you make room for the things that matter most to you.

Let go of Clutter by Harriet Schechter

Of course, letting go of personal memorabilia, especially if you're a sentimental soul, tends to be hard.

As a sentimental person myself, I'm sympathetic to those who find the process painful. But I also know how important it is to manage your mementoes so they don't keep cluttering up your life. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming a "memorabiliac": someone who accumulates vast amounts of personal memorabilia.

The Meaning of Memorabilia

To make sure we're on the same wavelength here, I want to clarify what I mean by personal memorabilia. I'm not talking about "collectible memorabilia," which involves collecting antique (or antique-looking) knickknacks. Personal memorabilia means the things we keep that evoke personal reminiscences, pleasant feelings, bittersweet emotions, and/or a sense of historical connectedness.

It's the stuff that we think of as "priceless" because it often has value just to us; that’s why it's the stuff that's missed most when people lose everything in a fire or other disaster.

There are a number of creative ways to categorize, organize, and/or display sentimental stuff, such as scrapbooks, photo albums, and shadow boxes--none of which will be covered here. Although these options can turn into satisfying hobbies, they are more likely to become stressful "procrastination projects" for those who are already overwhelmed by clutter and commitments.

In my experience, there are three types of memorabiliacs:

Type 1 = someone who actually creates and maintains scrapbooks, photo albums, or other systems for keeping sentimental stuff in order.

Type 2 = someone who aspires to being a Type 1, but rarely (if ever) gets around to creating or maintaining those systems.

Type 3 = someone who has no Type 1 aspirations.

Which type are you?

If you identify yourself as a Type 1, that's admirable. But as time goes on, you may find yourself accumulating mementos faster than you can capture them in your systems. The rules and steps detailed in this chapter are designed to help you deal with any existing overflow and prevent more from building up.

If you are a Type 2, the most important step you can take now is to be honest with yourself about your priorities and interests.

Accept that it is OK if you never do get around to putting your stuff in scrapbooks "someday." (But you may be able to get someone else to do it for you!)

Please let go of any pressure you've put on yourself that this project is something you "should" do. There are other ways to master your memorabilia, and we'll be covering them.

Finally, if you see yourself as a Type 3, your challenges may be simpler--not easier, just simpler. It all depends on how much sentimental clutter you've accumulated so far, and how much of it you ultimately end up keeping. That's why the rules and techniques which follow are designed to help make your memento-related challenges easier.

Memories are Made of This...and This...and This...

It's easy to spend a lot of time organizing and cataloguing sentimental stuff. My objective, however, is to get you to focus on letting go of certain things so you don't have to spend as much time deciding where to put them. Of course, I do expect you to keep some memorabilia--but only those items that survive the rigorous testing procedures I'll be describing in a moment.

First, however, I want to clarify my three-part process for managing memorabilia. I'm going to show you how to:

A) let go of anything that doesn't touch you in a positive or poignant way;

B) save only what you have space for; and

C) keep your meaningful mementoes in simple, easy-to-maintain systems.

The best way to begin is by gathering together all the things you think you're keeping for sentimental reasons. However, you can also use this process on an item-by-item basis as you come across individual mementoes.

Sentimental, Ornamental, or Accidental?

Sometimes there are things we think we're keeping for sentimental reasons that are actually not mementoes at all. Such "memorabilia imposters" include:

  • Antique or old knickknacks that have no real personal history (as opposed to inherited items or gifts). By all means, keep any items like this that you really, really like--as long as you have a place to display them. Otherwise, get rid of them (sell, donate, or give as gifts).

  • Outdated but non-historical legal documents (wills, divorce papers, deeds, lawsuits, IOUs). You might want to check with your attorney before destroying any of these. In the meantime, they can be archived with your old tax papers.

  • Old resumes and appointment books/calendars. Likewise, if you choose to keep these for historical purposes, they can be stored in your archive files (assuming you haven't run out of space yet).

  • Invitations and announcements that you're only keeping as samples for design ideas. If you really think you're likely to revisit these items, set up an "Invitation Samples" file (or use whatever file name works for you) under the Personal category. Otherwise, the "round file" may be the best place for them.

A) Let Go of Anything that Doesn't Touch You In a Positive or Poignant Way.

To do this, it's useful to first inventory your sentimental objects and papers by separating them into four categories:

Happy, Sad, Good, and Bad.

Happy = mementoes of positive accomplishments, joyous personal occasions, fun times, and loving relationships.

Sad = remembrances of poignant milestones, deceased loved ones, personal transitions, & wisdom gained from painful life processes.

Good = stuff that is potentially useful or even monetarily valuable, but otherwise not particularly meaningful.

Bad = reminders of upsetting incidents, unpleasant events, or unfinished business.

Now that you've inventoried your sentimental stuff, I can finally reveal to you my Golden Rule of Memorabilia Management:

Keep only your most special Happy and Sad items;
get rid of all Good and Bad ones.

Did you think Good and Happy were a natural pair of "keepers," while Sad and Bad belonged together in the bye-bye bin?

Sentimental stuff that's "Good" tends to be a major clutter contributor. But because it has a sentimental scent to it, so to speak, it can seem harder to part with. Yet that's precisely why it's so freeing when you do cut the emotional cord--you will feel a wonderful sense of lightness, as though you've been released from bonds you didn't know were binding you.

Right about now you may be thinking, "But she doesn't know about MY stuff--my things are different/valuable/special! Also, my mother/sister/father/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin/best friend would never forgive me if I ever got rid of the (fill in the blank) they gave me." A reminder: The choice is yours. Ultimately you will keep whatever you want to keep, so don't waste time justifying your choices or making excuses. Just try to let go of anything you feel ready to shed, and keep moving forward.

B) Save Only What You Have Space for.

If you've shed your negative memorabilia (the Good and Bad stuff), then perhaps you now have sufficient space to keep all your positive and poignant mementoes (the Happy and Sad stuff). Or not. Since the Happy category alone contains options for as many types of potential clutter as all the other categories combined, you may still need to do some paring down.

Obviously, the amount of space you feel comfortable devoting to storing and/or displaying your memorabilia will dictate how much of it you can keep. (Reminder: Mementoes, like other forms of stuff, will expand to fill whatever amount of space you allocate for them. So even if you now have sufficient room for everything you've decided to save--watch out!)

Saving only the memorabilia you have space for requires making difficult choices--choices you'd prefer not to make, and that you're not used to making. But sometimes we need to shock ourselves into making choices that we're not used to making.

The Fire Fantasy

I've lost count of how many clutter sufferers have said to me, "Sometimes I wish it would all just burn up!" Maybe you've thought that, too. Of course, no one really wants a fire to happen. (I tell people, "Fire is an option--it's just not one I recommend.") But I think that what I call the "fire fantasy" is symbolic of how desperate so many people feel about their clutter-clogged lives. It's not that you really want it to "burn up"--you just wish the detritus of delayed decisions and the overflow of opportunities and obligations would simply vanish (like magic, in a puff of smoke!) so you wouldn't have to deal with them.

C) Keep Your Meaningful Mementoes in Simple, Easy-to-Maintain Systems

Back in B.C. times (Before Clutter, that is), our ancestors stored their few precious items in a wooden trunk called a Hope Chest. This, of course, was the humble, old-fashioned equivalent of our charming plastic Rubbermaid Heavy-duty Storage Containers.

How many of these modern-day Hope Chests you'll need depends on three factors:

1) how much space you've allocated for your memorabilia museum

2) the types of stuff you've chosen to keep

3) how much stuff you're planning to keep

Of course, you don't have to use plastic storage containers by Rubbermaid (or any other brand, for that matter). If you prefer, you can obtain antique or old-style cedar chests and other kinds of wooden trunks. Other options include archival-quality cardboard boxes--there are even round, hat-box-style units. Or utilize a roll-top desk, an old dresser, or any article of furniture that's appropriate and available for your purposes.

In fact, most units with drawers work well for storing many types of mementoes; it's particularly effective to assign one drawer per category, if possible. For example, a small four-drawer bureau could have one drawer each for old letters and cards (birthday, valentines, holidays, etc.), children's artwork and school papers, photos, and travel souvenirs.

The key to maintaining any memorabilia management system is to establish an annual or twice-a-year "Reminiscence Ritual." This is when you spend at least one afternoon (or whatever part of the day you prefer) to lovingly revisit your sentimental stuff, either alone or with family. Holidays can be a good time to do this, and/or summertime. The purpose of the Reminiscence Ritual is to allow you to reminisce as you weed out stale mementoes--a great way to make room for next year's memories.

Focus on keeping only the best and most representative items from the past year. If you "can't" seem to let go of enough items, remind yourself that you can keep them all if you really want to--but you'll have to figure out where to store them.

Stuff to Remember

Designate "memory boxes" or drawers for storing sentimental stuff you choose to keep. Go through the contents periodically--the process should bring up happy memories and also help you weed out anything that is no longer as meaningful. And it will help cut down on clutter elsewhere, too.

Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Let Go of Clutter (2001, McGraw-Hill) by Harriet Schechter. All Rights Reserved.


Conquering Chaos at Work by Harriet Schechter               More Time for Sex by Harriet Schechter


"Let Go of Clutter" Retreat

To help women who are seeking to transform their lives from chaos to comfort, Harriet is now offering one-on-one, customized "Let Go of Clutter" retreats at her home in the beautiful seaside village of Santa Barbara, California. For details, please visit www.organizedwoman.com.

SoulfulLiving souls can receive a $50 discount off the retreat tuition simply by mentioning SoulfulLiving when you contact Harriet (offer valid through November 30, 2002).

Harriet Schechter
Harriet Schechter (a.k.a. "The Miracle Worker") is an internationally acclaimed organizing and time management expert, author, and speaker. Dispensing equal doses of help, hope and humor, she specializes in providing effective and realistic options for anyone juggling too much stuff, too many decisions, and too little time. Since 1986 Harriet has helped thousands of people conquer chaos and clutter through her San Diego-based company, The Miracle Worker Organizing Service. She is the author of three books, including Let Go of Clutter (McGraw-Hill, 2001), which is based on the popular "Letting Go of Clutter" workshop series she has taught regularly since 1988 for the Learning Annex. She has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including Good Morning America and CNN, and has been featured and quoted in dozens of publications such as the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, Ladies Home Journal, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and many others.

Harriet writes an online advice column and offers helpful tips and resources through her main web site, www.MiracleOrganizing.com, where you can also find information on her books and workshops.



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