Why is decluttering so emotionally fraught?

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 16, 2021

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Bonnie Miller Rubin

Last March, when most people were wringing their hands about the shutdown, I felt positively giddy at the prospect of finally getting organised. Time - the rarest of commodities - was now being served up on a silver platter.

So how can it be that, almost a year since the pandemic began, the basement, attic and garage remain as overstuffed as ever?

Why can't I empty my empty nest? I have to confront an uncomfortable truth: It's not about time; it's about me.

Although the story about how younger generations have no use for their boomer parents' stuff has been well-documented, my lack of progress has nothing to do with dining room tables with seating for 12 or display cabinets.

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It's the photo albums, the well-loved baby blankets and the shoe boxes full of letters that have left me paralysed.

Follow me into my cobwebbed basement, and you'll find a museum of memorabilia still untouched, despite a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. The bedroom set is a lot easier to shed than the 17-by-20-inch wedding portrait of my mother, who has been gone for 10 years now. It's too massive and shrine-like to put anywhere else, and yet, how can I just cavalierly toss her in the trash?

Likewise, I can't let go of a huge scrapbook of every story I ever wrote, kept by my dad up until his death in 2014. The thought of him meticulously taping hundreds of those now-yellowed clippings onto the pages tugs at my heart. No one will ever refer to me as "my daughter" again or chronicle my achievements. Hauling around this bulky book is tangible evidence that, even in the fog of old age, I will never forget his pride.

I could easily throw out the Lladró figurines and other pricey collectibles, but not so much the personal letters and drawings, which are far more valuable. What parent wouldn't save a handmade valentine from a now 40-year-old son? The one that simply says, "I love you, Mom," written back when he was a first-grader and still generous with his hugs and kisses.

I pluck another piece of paper out of the pile. Unfolding the fragile stationery, I see it's dated 1972, and I'm transported to a Miami Beach hotel, checking in with my family. The desk clerk handed me some mail from my boyfriend - now husband - who surreptitiously found out where we were staying and timed his letter to my arrival. Seeing his precise penmanship reminds me of the thrill of being courted (a word even more quaint than "penmanship").

A year has passed and coronavirus vaccines have been developed, but I'm still stuck. What keeps me in this perpetual state of inertia?

"It's not about time management. It's about avoiding negative emotion," said Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, who has studied procrastination for 27 years. "Putting off the task allows us to put off the emotions."

What appears on the surface to be just an item on the to-do list is really a land mine of complex feelings, such as frustration, anxiety and fear, he said. You know that whatever you do, you're going to lose something precious. "Human beings are much more sensitive to loss than to gain."

So although it would certainly be nice to have a garage that actually has room for a car (something that has eluded me for three decades), the benefit is still not enough to offset my fear of making the wrong decisions, of losing the connection to loved ones who now live only in my memory.

There are other factors ready to sabotage good intentions, too, such as perfectionism and a dissonance between words and actions, Pychyl said. You may say you would like a Zen-like home, but it's just not that important, otherwise you would make it a higher priority. You realise that you're not the person you think you should be.

"Do you see the complicated web here?" Pychyl asked. "We started with the simple stuff - that it's not about time, but emotion regulation - and suddenly we're into deep parts of our psyche. Is it any wonder why the whole body screams: 'I don't want to. I don't feel like it. I'll feel more like it tomorrow?' Those are the lyrics of the procrastinator's song."

Everyone has their own purging strategies. One friend holds to a hard-and-fast rule: If you haven't looked at it in 20 years, get rid of it. But to me, the opposite is true; the older the mementos, the more precious they become. I still have my dried, brittle wedding bouquet - the one I carried down the aisle 46 years ago. Would it be so terrible to hang on to it as my world gets smaller? As I start this inevitable downward path from suburban home to city apartment to assisted-living facility?

Perhaps there's a better way to handle this wrenching task. Another friend shared how his parents, both in their 90s, flat-out refused any offer to clear the clutter out of their condo. No amount of pleading, bribing or cajoling could motivate the couple. "We did it for my parents," insisted his father, "and when we die, you'll do it for us."

As tempting as that solution might be, most of us don't want to leave such a burden for our relatives, especially unsentimental adult children - you know who you are - who would blithely fill up a dumpster and roll it out to the curb.

Still, it's comforting to know that even experts such as Pychyl are not immune to dragging their feet. When his father died in 2016, the psychologist found dispensing with his dad's personal items too overwhelming, so he stashed everything in bags and brought them home - until recently, when winter break and the new year pushed him to finally sift through the contents.

"I would say that I'm glad that my dad isn't around, because if he saw what I did with his stuff, that would have killed him," he said.

As for me, I'm determined to do it myself. I just need a bit more time.

* Bonnie Miller Rubin is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

The Washington Post

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