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Why People Hold Onto Stuff

Confessions of a professional organizer.

"Y is a crooked letter."

This was my grandfather’s standard response to the basic question of childhood, “Why, Grandpa?" My interpretation of that expression is that the answer is complicated. When it comes to human behavior, it almost always is.

Why do people hold onto stuff?

The answer is complicated because there are so many different kinds of stuff and there are so many different kinds of people. No two individuals are alike. No situations are alike. Each is unique in their environment, and although you may empathize, you cannot compare your situation to theirs, nor can you judge them.

You, the reader, may suggest "Why don’t they just toss it?"

These are some of the reasons:

  • Lack of permission
  • Lack of instructions
  • Lack of knowledge
  • I didn’t know it had a deadline
  • Not aware of an alternative
  • I borrowed it, and don’t know if they want it back
  • Out of sight, out of mind
  • I may need it someday
  • Can’t waste
  • Someone else may need it
  • Sentimentality
  • Overwhelmed
  • Don’t know where to begin
  • Unable to bite off small pieces to downsize
  • Not ready; waiting for the right time
  • Not a priority
  • Fear of letting go
  • This is not the first thing on my agenda

I remember a client who once received an envelope in the mail marked "Do Not Discard." She didn’t know why she “couldn’t” throw it out and asked for my direction.

The envelope dictated "Do Not Discard." The envelope contained a promotional offer which she was not interested in, but the envelope dictated to her "Do Not Discard." Most people would ignore that demand, but she was confused. The instruction "Do Not Discard" meant do not discard, period.

It’s a real story, yes!

So, you don’t believe that there are people who could think that way? This case may be extreme, but it’s a perfect example of the No. 1 reason why people hold onto stuff. Many people simply don’t feel that they have the permission to get rid of things. They need to be reassured that they are adults, and it’s their stuff to do with as they like.

Clearing out a garage, a closet or a home often requires empowerment.

I had another client who presented me with shopping bags filled with mail (some unopened) and assorted papers. She couldn’t decide WHAT to do with each piece, and asked me to explain what they were, so she could make the decision to keep or toss. Lack of knowledge ("something might be important that I’m not aware of.") or instructions (offer expired last month) kept her from making decisions.

And, this is the No. 2 reason why people hold onto stuff. They simply can’t imagine how to do proceed—it’s overwhelming.

Attics, basements and garages are filled with boxes of past taxes and paid bills because the owners don’t know when they can discard or shred the material. Pantries, refrigerators and bathroom cabinets are filled with expired food items, medicines and cosmetics.

Where do I start? What’s important? And, might I make a mistake?

The future is a mystery to everyone. "I may lose the weight, and get back to that size." "What if I gain weight again, and need the larger sizes?" "What if I need it someday?" "I once wanted to travel to those destinations." "I used to like to participate in those hobbies."

These are familiar comments and questions from those who hold on to old clothing, accessories, papers, books, and household items. Closets, cabinets, files, and drawers are filled with hope and future possibilities for many.

The environmentally conscious individual will always be concerned about waste. They wonder if someone else could use the items they own. Therefore, they will hold onto their stuff until they know the answer.

Some individuals cannot distinguish whether a book or collection is clutter or a treasure. You might think of clutter as you might consider a weed in the garden. But, some people enjoy weeds, aka wildflowers. Defining irrelevance is not cut and dry.

And some people struggle with real psychological issues that disable them in the face of uncertainty. In addition to professional counseling, taking a constructive step to reorganize may be part of their healing. There's dignity in confronting something that may feel so big.

My grandfather knew that education is a necessary response to most tough questions. The answer to "Why" is complicated, and helping someone to let go of their stuff (or to organize their belongings), begins with learning more about themselves.

It’s a virtuous cycle. Clear your mind and then reorganize.

Reorganize, and in turn, your mind will feel clearer.

Plus, you may even remember where everything is!

This piece is by a new guest blogger, Marcia Sloman, who is a professional organizer in Westchester County, New York. Marcia can be reached for consultation at

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