The tricky topic of unwanted gifts from parents

Your parents’ control over your environment starts to lessen as you grow up and ceases completely when you move out and get a home of your own. Or does it?

Unwanted gift

It happens quite often when I’m helping someone to sort through their clutter that they come across items that have been given to them by one of their parents. ‘I don’t really like this or use it’, they tell me, ‘but my mother/father gave it to me and asked me to look after it, so I must keep it.’

Sometimes the parent is still alive. Sometimes not. But still the person continues to keep the item. When asked why their parent asked them to look after it, sometimes it’s because it’s a family heirloom. But sometimes the person has no idea at all. They are just dutifully doing what they were told to do.


Some people reading this will be incredulous. How could anyone follow a parent’s wishes so blindly? But there are people who keep such items for years, decades even, sometimes out of obedience or sometimes through not wishing to hurt or offend the parent’s feelings.

However what most people don’t realize is that unless a lot of personal work has been done to unravel the tendrils, we all, to some extent, are unconsciously acting out, day after day, behaviours that were instilled in us when we were children. They are deeply imprinted in our psyche.

Chasing sheep

I was a very independent and free-spirited youngster, but can still find examples of this from my own childhood. One that comes immediately to mind is that on our weekend outings to the countryside, my father would promise sixpence to me or my brothers if we could touch a sheep. Encouraging children to chase sheep would be frowned upon now, but to this day, whenever I see a sheep in a field, I feel the urge to try to touch it. I never did manage to claim that sixpence but I did finally discover, near where I used to live, the beautiful sheep you can see in this photo, who would happily trot to the fence to see me because they adore being stroked.

Tame sheep

My point is that the yearning to touch a sheep was deeply ingrained in me as a child, but it wasn’t even my own yearning. It was my father’s. Perhaps it was a game his father played with him. Or perhaps it was just his way of getting us kids to run around so we’d get tired and want to go to bed earlier. I’ll never know. But this is just one of hundreds of learned behaviours that I can source back to my upbringing, all of which remain unconscious until I unravel them. And everyone has their own versions of this.

Some parental influences (values, ethics, and so on) can help to shape a person in a very positive way, but if you dig deep there are an astonishing number of fears, beliefs, and so on that are passed on from parent to child, and these can run your life without you even being aware of them. You think they are your fears and beliefs, but in fact they are not. It can be a lifetime’s work to disentangle yourself from this, and a good way to begin is with unwanted gifts.

How to free yourself from unwanted gifts

The easiest type of item to free yourself from is something your parents gave you that you once liked or used but no longer have any purpose for. If you feel the need to, you can explain this to them before disposing of it, and even offer to give it back to them if they may have a use for it themselves.

Much trickier to deal with is a gift you received that you never liked or have never used and only keep out of obligation. Perhaps you store it out of sight until your parents come to visit, then you put it somewhere they will see it, falsely perpetuating their belief that you like it. A lot of people do this.

As I explain in my book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, if you keep unwanted gifts in your home out of fear and obligation, you are giving your power away. Things you really love have a strong, vibrant energy field around them, whereas unwanted items have uneasy, conflicting energies attached to them that drain you rather than energize you. They actually create an energetic gloom in your home, which becomes a kind of museum for things that other people want you to have. How sad is that?

What’s needed here is a change in standpoint. First and foremost, it’s the thought that counts. You can appreciate being given a gift and accept the love that comes with it, without necessarily having to keep it. You will also need to adopt an entirely new philosophy yourself: when you give something to someone, give it with love and let it go. Allow the recipient complete freedom to do whatever they want with it. If the thing they can most usefully do is put it straight in the rubbish bin or give it to someone else, fine (you wouldn’t want them to clutter up their space with unwanted gifts, would you?). Give others this freedom and you will begin to experience more freedom in your own life too.

Next, go around your home and identify all the items you are keeping that you no longer love or use, and especially any that were gifts you are keeping out of any sense of obligation. Let your parents know you are seriously simplifying your life and decluttering your home, and tell them why. Explain that you are asking everyone, including them, to please check with you, before giving you anything new, that the item is something you really need or want.

This prepares them for your next conversation sometime later where you update them about the quantity of things you have let go of, how much better you feel because of it, and what to do with the items they gave you that you no longer want to keep. Or perhaps you will feel so empowered by the clutter clearing process that you won’t need to do that. You’ll just let the items go in a way that feels right to you, with no need to explain your actions at all. Ultimately, it’s your home, your life, and your decision. And if they truly love you, they will relinquish control and be glad that you are moving forward.

The bigger picture

Bear in mind, while going through this process, that we are all mortal. None of us truly owns anything. After we die, all our things will belong to someone else or end up in recycling or landfill. We are only ever temporary custodians, and we only need to have around us the things that will help us in our journey — not so many that they become an encumbrance and not so few that we are not able to do what we have incarnated here on earth to do. Getting that balance right is part of the art of living a successful, meaningful and fulfilling life.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2016, updated 2021

Related articles
Unwanted gifts. Whose life is it anyway?
A different approach to giving and receiving gifts

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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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3 Responses to The tricky topic of unwanted gifts from parents

  1. Wonderful insight into the complications of objects we have in our living space. I finally got rid of wedding gifts that were from relatives. I thought, why keep something from a person who said my marriage would not last long and wasn’t really a kind relative? Even though many other objects were beautiful and valuable, I donated many items that reminded me of past events or persons. If I could advise anyone about buying things is, think about it, research the item, see if you can buy used, can you fix what you may already own, and is it better to spend that money on something else MORE useful.

  2. I inherited a beautiful Tiffany-style lamp from my grandparents. The base is a cherub holding up an umbrella and the glass shade is the umbrella. I moved it from house to house until the time I was about to embark on a move across the country and realized that the lamp was not my style and I did not want the responsibility of keeping it intact anymore. One false move and it would be broken. So I thought about how I could keep it in the family. My cousin has a large house and six children and I knew she would appreciate having something from the grandparents that she could give one of her grown children someday, so I asked her if she would like to have it and she said yes. It fits perfectly in their home and it will stay in the family. We are all happy with my decision to let it go and I have no guilt of letting a family heirloom go – I just found the perfect recipient to carry the torch for another generation!

  3. After years of finding it difficult to declutter and get rid of stuff I have moved (temporarily?) to Spain and had to empty my house and store any belongings I want to keep into my loft and garage. The tenants now want to buy the house so I will have to move my ‘stuff’ to storage since I will most likely be buying a much smaller apartment to rent out. It has been a wonderful exercise in deciding what is important to me. I let go of masses of clothes and those presents that you talk about. Deciding what I need to keep in storage will be even better still for my decision making! The discipline of paying for space will no doubt assist the next phase of decision making. I also cleared masses of paper and files.

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