There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental or having positive sentimental attachments to stuff.

(Insert pause to give you time to jeer and throw rotten fruit. Got that out of the way now? Good!)

The problem is that too many of us have what I would consider an inverted sense of sentimentality.

The whole point of sentiment, which is the root word of “sentimentality”, is that you experience a feeling. Sentimental attachments to stuff, therefore, manifest as either a positive or negative feeling associated with an object.

If you have an ongoing positive feeling about certain things, there’s nothing wrong with having them in your space. This is positive sentimentality. But you can’t have ongoing positive feelings toward piles of crap in a back room that you never get to go look at. And when those things inspire guilt when you go to get rid of them, that’s the sort of “sentimentality” that seems to land us all in hot water, because we’re not capable of getting rid of things that really need to go.

Oddly enough, you can break negative sentimentality by reinforcing positive sentimentality. For example:

  • Rather than feeling guilty about getting rid of all of Grandpa’s record collection, you can honor Grandpa by picking out the three records you and Grandpa loved the most and displaying them in your living room. You could even play them at the holidays – record players are making a “retro” comeback!
  • Rather than keeping all of Grandma’s pots, pans, and kitchen tools, you can honor Grandma’s memory by keeping (and using!) her cast iron skillet. Or the spatula she let you use the first time she taught you to cook.
  • Rather than keeping all of your favorite dog’s items long after the dog has passed on, you can put together a shadow box for your wall featuring a few of your dog’s favorite items, as well as some of the best photos of your dog.
  • Rather than keeping all of your mom’s decorations, you could choose your favorite items for each season and store those, to be brought out at the appropriate times.

The key here is that boxes in closets don’t inspire, but thoughtfully-selected items being displayed or even used – where you can actually see and touch them every day – can easily inspire positive feelings. And sometimes, if you have a hard time choosing which items to showcase, you can keep a small selection and rotate them.

This will look different for everybody, and there’s no “right” way to handle this. But no matter what you do, the key is that if you consciously sit down and consider how to honor the person, pet, or memory, that will almost certainly push out the nagging guilt that’s causing you to need to hold on to the extra stuff.