A couple of months ago, I completed a progressive 30-day declutter challenge. On day one, I got rid of one thing, and on day 30, I got rid of 30 things. In total, that’s 465 things! Here’s what I learned through the process.
I was shocked when I noticed that most of the things I was getting rid of weren’t things I had purchased, but we’re things given to me by others. When I thought about it further, I realized that many of those things weren’t even bought for me, but were essentially hand-me-downs. Well-meaning friends and family would say, “I thought you could use this.” Many other things were giveaways or other free items I acquired over the years.
Getting rid of things, particularly those that are still perfectly good, can be difficult for a lot of people. It certainly was for me, until a few days into this challenge anyway. Add to that the guilt of getting rid of something that’s been given to us, and the task is made that much more difficult. There’s a question we can ask ourselves, the answer to which can free us from that guilt and help us finally declutter.
When someone gives you something, what is the intention behind it?
I’ve found the intention falls into one of five categories.
Just like you, friends and family feel guilty about getting rid of things. Well-meaning though they may be, they’re unloading their clutter onto you. Giving the items to someone helps relieve them of their guilt, but they are unknowingly shifting the burden of their clutter onto someone else.
We have a choice of whether or not to assume this burden. We can simply say, “Thank you so much. That’s very thoughtful of you.” Then, immediately donate, recycle, sell, or throw away as appropriate. What we don’t want to do is unload it onto someone else, or we’re just perpetuating the same cycle of guilt and burden. This way, the giver gets to relieve their guilt and we get to maintain a clutter-free home. Everyone wins.
Sometimes people feel obligated to buy things for us, particularly for our birthday, Christmas, or some other special occasion. They might not know us very well, or at least our tastes, so they buy us something they like, or something they think we would like. Obligation giving is how we end up with ugly Christmas sweaters, an endless supply of candles and more ties than one human being could wear in a lifetime.
Just because they feel obligated to give us something doesn’t mean we’re obligated to keep it. If we know someone who needs the gift in question or would absolutely love it, regift away, I say! The important aspect of giving is the intent behind the giving, not how much money was spent on the gift. Just keep in mind the cardinal rule. We don’t want to burden the person with another thing cluttering up their house that they aren’t going to use. Otherwise, donate the item to a local shelter or charity. If it has value, try selling it and spend the money on something you’ll actually use.
3. Shopaholics Anonymous
The giver can’t stop buying things as a way to fill some sort of void in their life. Eventually, they realize they have way more than enough stuff, so you become the recipient of their shopping spree hauls.
In my experience, telling this person that you don’t need or want anything falls largely on deaf ears. They have an addiction and, unfortunately, you’re the recipient of the hangover. If they don’t listen to your plea, politely thank them and return/sell/donate the gift.
Someone gives you a gift, with the hope of gaining something in return (approval, love, a favor, etc.). This one is similar to obligation giving, in that there’s an uncomfortable feeling involved in the process. Why are they giving me this gift in the first place?
There is the possibility here to outright refuse the gift. If it’s not that easy, make it clear where you stand, so you’re operating with full integrity. You don’t want to lead anyone on. And, again, return/sell/donate the gift as you deem appropriate.
Free promotional products also fit under this category because the intent behind these “gifts” isn’t altruistic. Luckily, these are easy to beat. Simply refuse the items. You don’t need another koozie, reusable grocery bag or keychain. We get a little jolt of pleasure in the reward circuit of our brain from getting something for free. But the hangover of having 20 koozies, hundreds of pens and reusable bags galore cluttering up our homes just isn’t worth it.
5. Pure Intention
Now to the good one, giving from a place of pure intention. These gifts are much harder to part with because of the meaning behind them. Let’s say someone uses their creative talents to make you something. It might be an article of clothing, a home decor item or a blanket.
If you love it, by all means use it and cherish it, but when the appropriate time comes, don’t feel bad about letting it go. Give someone else the opportunity to get enjoyment out of it (but only with their consent, such as through a yard sale purchase).
If you don’t like the gift that was made for you, not to worry. There is a graceful way out of this one too. You can be immensely grateful for the time, effort and thought put into the gift. You can express your deep gratitude to the giver for their effort and the thought that went into it. This is genuine, because you are speaking your appreciation for the intent behind the gift, not the gift itself. The person got joy out of making the gift for you, and they feel appreciated because you expressed your gratitude. This is your gift to them. Now you can do what you wish with the gift, guilt-free, because it’s not about the object itself. It’s about the exchange of love and gratitude between the giver and the recipient.
Similarly, someone may buy you something with the best of intentions. They saw the item in a store and just knew you would love and appreciate it. Let’s say a friend or family member buys you a dress that you absolutely love, but you already have more than enough clothes. Pick out an item from your closet that you hardly wear, you don’t love as much as the new item or you’ve gotten a lot of use out of. For every new item you acquire, if you get rid of a similar item, you’ll never accumulate more things.
Lastly, someone may buy you something you truly need. Perfect! This means they were listening. Buying diapers for new parents might not be as thrilling as buying cute baby clothes, but it’s what they need.
I’ve talked about guilt-free ways to let go of items that were given to you by others, but what about items you purchased, childhood keepsakes and other sentimental items from the past? I’ll address how to release our tendency to cling to the past through possessions in my next post. This was a huge breakthrough for me during the 30-day declutter challenge. I hope it will help you as well.