what our stuff means to us

Life coach and organizer Jo Bennett collects stories about what stuff means to different people.

As a Life Coach, I accompany clients as they emotionally and mentally ‘declutter’ and the topic of physical disorganization comes up as an additional barrier to engaging meaningfully with their life work. This lead me to pursue over the past year training courses with The Professional Organizers of Canada (POC) to provide me with additional context and understanding. While reviewing my POC class notes, I was reminded of several reasons why we are so attached to certain ‘things’ and therefore it may be difficult to let them go. I decided to post a discussion about this on my Facebook page and it proved to be a hot topic! I mentioned that certain objects may:

  • provide a sense of security,
  • portray status,
  • contribute to our identity,
  • represent family/friends/memories.

I asked my friends and colleagues to reflect on these points and, with their permission, here are several of their responses:

1. A very creative friend with many ideas!:

I have copious amounts of craft stuff. There are a lot of pieces of fabric, beads and wool that I’ve had in stock for so long that have never turned into what they were supposed to turn into. There’s some part of my imagination that doesn’t want to let these creations release themselves from my brain. I sometimes feel like I’ve failed myself for not completing everything I’ve ever dreamed of making. I am learning that these things are only bits and pieces, and the things I really want to create now will come if I make room. And to be able to do this I have to make room by clearing out the detritus. So many ideas!!! I want to see all of them fulfilled!! But without focus, none of them will be! I have to accept that I’m only one person and can only do so much.

With the idea of scrapbooking, things are at least kept in an orderly fashion. And it’s fun to do something with my kids. We want to set aside a night to do this together. We will think about summer camps, friends, events. This is so important right now, because we’re going through such turbulence. We’ll have the opportunity to talk, and that is ultimately more important than keeping the stuff. The exercise creates bonding and a sense of belonging. I really need this with my kids right now. But keeping one or two things from each age are sufficient.
I learned when my mother died that there’s no need to pass a lot of sh.. on to the kids. Some photos, some nice furniture. Otherwise, all that stuff is just a bind. So I’m going to start now with deciding that my kids don’t need my junk.

2. A colleague’s collection contrasts childhood experience:

I tend to keep memories from stuff; events, concerts, plays, running certificates/medals, etc. They are in two tote boxes. Every once in awhile I open them and look through them. I am scared of having memories slip away. I actually made a table that has a glass top so I can view my most recent memories in there.  Over this string of conversation I realize that I keep stuff because my mother didn’t. We used to have garage sales all the time and she never kept any thing from my childhood; my brownie badges, anything from school that I might have made for her or my dad, cards – nothing. So, I think I hold on for myself. I used to over keep when my son was small to compensate for my mom so he would think that things were important and the memories worth saving but now he has moved so I wonder how much of that he has kept for himself.

3. A friend with a condo in the city and a cottage out of town:

Cottages can definitely become dumping grounds. My garage is an excellent example! I think everyone needs a “chaos space” to deal with the constant overflow of life. In my condo it’s one small drawer, but it is a scary drawer! At the cottage, it’s an entire garage. No sooner do I get cleaned out then there is a inflow of stuff from family and friends that needs storage. I’ve learned not to stress about my chaos spaces – they allow the rest of my space to be clutter free! As I’ve gotten older, I’m finding less and less that I need to hold onto certain things. It’s just stuff. It’s stuff I love, but can I live without it? Certainly. Places and people seem to mean more and more.

4. An artist’s materials:

As a sculptor, I can hang onto raw materials for years before I decide what to do with them. Sometimes they are tucked away in the attic, other times I have to see them in my space and live with them for a while to figure out what to do with them. You mentioned objects can contribute to our sense of identity. I think as an artist, that is why I hang on to things that are potential sculptures.

5. A friend who recently moved/downsized:

Down sizing and shedding so many material “things” was the best thing I ever did! It’s weird but my life is now bright in so many ways….I come home in a better mood, the cleaning is done much faster and I even look at colours for clothing (not just black-this freaked me out the most!) It was a challenge that’s for sure and so many people where horrified we downsized to a mobile home. Well….I am just about out of debt, have a lot more time, can save to travel with the kids, nicer furniture, more organized (my favorite thing), time to relax, less yard work & I am at peace with myself. Plus I can manage my new home easily on my own without stressing about repairs. The kids seem to be adjusting fairly well……they have noticed mom is not nearly as stressed out. Which is so much more healthier for me!

6. A real estate agent sees many reasons:

I have experience working with people who want to hang onto things because they have attached their memories to them, they think they might need them some day, they might want to pass things down to someone else at some point, & sometimes they think the objects might have financial value (more often than not, it turns out not to be the case, even lovely things, in perfect condition, that are very old are not necessarily going to have any value in today’s market). I think for some, they feel that their lives are somehow contained in their belongings.

7. Another agent gains philosophy from client struggles:

I just finished helping a wonderful couple in their 80s declutter a 5 bedroom home. It was very stressful and energy-draining for them. They said repeatedly if they didn’t have me helping them go through it all (an unbiased third party) they’d never get it done, and I believe them. I took stuff to second-hand stores, donated boxes of books and such, repurposed furniture… the list goes on. The reality of our ‘stuff’ is that we have attachments to it that are not rational to anyone else, and though we may know it intellectually, it doesn’t make it easier to get rid of. I love the idea of decluttering (physical, mental, emotional, you name it) but unfortunately one never finds the time. Further, the more we do in life, the more ‘clutter’ we create; we should simply learn to prioritize it all and realize most of it really doesn’t matter in the end, like my downsizing (smart-sizing) elderly clients discovered. They are so happy now – but I don’t think it was getting rid of the actual stuff that did it. It was the feeling that they didn’t have to face the task alone.

8. A friend in another province asks why must we let go?

“Sure, get rid of stuff you don’t need or don’t want….perhaps one needs a reason to UNacquire. If you can’t state that reason ($, boredom, tired of it, painful) then why change?”

I replied that definitely it depends on the individual. As a minimalist, I don’t advocate to throw stuff out for no reason. I personally require attention to balance, hence why I check in with myself about what is useful (emotionally, physically..) and what is in my way. I use minimalism as a mindfulness exercise: If being surrounded by my possessions doesn’t elicit any negative feelings or experiences, then all is well. And then some day a need or want may be triggered and therefore I will send things away.


Giving away/tossing/fixing things slowly can be less jarring, therefore perhaps a bit more emotionally easy. I know several friends out there who have downsized their parents’ houses in a big hurry…if you share this experience and found it to be stressful, then come up with some advice for yourself now so you don’t end up in a similar scenario when you are much older.

I have been paring down for 15 years so each year I make a few changes. Feeling comfortable with the number of my possessions, I now focus more on time pressure management and motivation issues. My latest improvement has been to do less (reduce the number of projects I am involved in) so I can better focus on what I want to accomplish now, plus I am attempting to multitask less, working for days or weeks on just one project at a time. My minimalist strategies reveal to me the truth about myself – nothing to hide behind. On a broader scale, I am glad to be in a place of clarity and understanding – when life gets seriously complicated (illness, death, change in employment..) I will be able to cope without tripping over any unnecessary baggage.

What have you decided to reduce in your life but found difficult to shed and why? How were you able to move forward?