Photograph your sentimental clutter and let it go

The cute little plastic dogs in this photo are the kind you may have been given as a child. But do you really need to keep them all your life?

Photograph sentimental clutter

If the thought of parting with such items as this tugs at your heartstrings, there’s a very simple solution I offer for this dilemma in my book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui:

If you have particularly fond attachments to things you no longer use that date back to your tender childhood years, here’s something you can do that many people find very satisfactory and liberating: photograph them for posterity and then let them go. The photos will retain those heart-warming memories for ever and can be stored digitally, taking up no physical space at all.

This technique works for all types of clutter, large and small, and especially the sentimental kind.

Sentimental items

Many sentimental items are kept as a reminder of a person or event they are associated with and are never used in any other way. In some homes, this amounts to a small box containing a few treasured objects, but in others it can take up enormous amounts of space, often overflowing into attics, basements, garages, sheds or rented storage lockers.

One man I know was so attached to the first motorbike he ever owned that when it became unusable, he refused to send it to the scrap yard. It sat in his garden for many years, rusting away and sometimes acting as a drying rack for small items of clothing. Finally, he cemented it kitsch-style into his garden wall so that just one side of the bike was visible, and there it is to this day. He’s had many cars and motor bikes since then, and has happily let them come and go, but that first one was so special to him that it’s there to stay.

Thankfully most of the things people hang on to are smaller than this and do not require permanent enshrinement in stone. But when you add them all together they can still take up a lot of room. And because they are never used in any way, except perhaps for occasionally being taken out and looked at, there are layers of stagnant energy that accumulate around them that will have a correspondingly stagnating effect on your life.

Let go of the past to live fully in the present

An exercise I often invite people to do is to calculate the percentage of items in their home they are actively using now compared to the percentage of items they are keeping to remind them of the past. When the balance is more than 50% from the past, that’s where you are living, and this makes it very difficult to really enjoy the present or create a joyous tomorrow. When you let go of some of the things from the past, it allows space for new experiences to come into your life now.

Modern technology means that these days most people have a cell phone or digital camera that can take photos, so an excellent solution to this problem is to keep a photo of the item and then let it go. For things you never use, photos are often all the reminder you need, and they take up a heck of a lot less room in your home, or none at all if you store them digitally.

You can even set your photos to display as a screensaver or slideshow on one of your devices, if you want to, which means you will see the items much more often than you ever would before. Make sure you have a reliable backup system, of course, and keep more than one copy so that if it fails, you will still have the images.

Keep the memory but not the possession

Perhaps they read my book or perhaps they came up with the idea themselves, but a 2017 study by researchers at Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas Universities used this idea as the basis for a study. Concerned that ‘consumer reluctance to part with possessions with sentimental value causes a specific bottleneck in the donation process’ for charitable organizations, they ran two ad campaigns aimed at students.

The ads were timed for the period when all the students would be packing up their belongings to return home at the end of the study year. One group received a flyer saying, ‘Don’t pack up your sentimental clutter. Just collect the items and then donate’. and the other group’s flyer said, ‘Don’t pack up your sentimental clutter. Just take a photo of it, then donate.’

The carefully monitored result was that the students who took photos donated about 14% more than those who didn’t. They also researched if it made any difference if the person who owned the item was in the photo or not, and it didn’t. What was important was having a record of the item itself.

So there you have it. Scientific proof of something that I’ve recommended to countless people over the years. If you’ve never tried it, find a sentimental item in your home that no longer has any purpose and create the space for something new in your life by photographing it and letting it go. And if you can donate it to a charity shop where it can be sold to someone who will truly use it instead of just keeping it stored away forever, then so much the better.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2013, updated 2022

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How to let go of childhood memorabilia
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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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10 Responses to Photograph your sentimental clutter and let it go

  1. Hi I have several boxes of things holding photos and writings from my past some of which my Mother gave to me when she was gravely ill almost 10 years ago and I am finding it difficult to even open them. They were in storage until I bought a house and now they are in the middle of my art room. What can I do?

    1. Hi Pauline – The important thing to understand about clutter is that it is always a symptom of underlying causes. In this case, these items remind you of your mother and just thinking about opening the boxes causes feelings of grief to well up. The issue is therefore not the photos, but unresolved grief, so that is what you need to address. Fortunately, there is a wonderful resource available to help with this, as this article explains: The Grief Recovery Method.

  2. I would find it real hard to let go of such cuteness in the pic <3<3

    By the way, what does it mean, "things from the past"? Is it things you don't use or those that remind you of the past?

    For example, would my desk be a thing from the past? It was gifted to me when I was 6, used it all through my teenagehood, stored for a dozen years and then refurbished and put to use when I needed a desk again. I actually wanted something new, but this one is made of some excellent quality Japanese wood that's much better than anything I could find nowadays in the market. Still, it is my desk from the past but I'm using it in the present so it's not really from the past…?

    1. Sentimental clutter consists of items that have no use but are being kept as a reminder of the past. Your old desk has been refurbished and is being put to good use so it sounds like your reason for keeping it is not primarily sentimental.

  3. Hi Karen,
    I use this technique for some time now. I make a photo of the sentimental item and throw the item away.
    I noticed that when I look at the photo later, I often realise that I don’t have any emotional attachment to the item anymore. And I might then through the photos away too. Strange is this, sometimes.

  4. Karen, my boyfriend and I live together and one day he brought home a big, shiny, used gold clock with a horse decoration attached to it. I’ve heard clocks with hands represent time passing by without excitement. The clock stopped working, and is stuck at 5pm. My boyfriend doesn’t believe in feng shui and I don’t think he’ll get rid of the clock, but is it better energy to fix the clock and keep it, or keep it stuck at 5pm and don’t fix it because of what the clock represents? It is bothering me because at least before we had a clock that worked.

  5. Karen, when we use your techniques to cleanse a space of former occupants’ debris, isn’t that clearing some real remnant of their spirits? I keep (or don’t) certain things because they seem to be imbued with the essence spirit of a loved one.

    I don’t feel that all objects are. But some do seem to carry a trace. Is this so?

  6. Today I donated 80% of the items in my China Cabinet including all my wedding China. I felt that I had moved on but these items were holding me back. Thinking I might paint the dated cabinet, I stopped myself and thought “ why?” So quickly called a pick-up service and donated that, too. I love the extra space ❤️ And I’m still happily married without the extra dishes to store!

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