Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight (7 page)

BOOK: Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight
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At first glance, this may seem ridiculous. But haven't all of us at some point held on to an object that meant far more to us than the physical thing itself—often for reasons we couldn't fully articulate? The stuff people own has power, and they feel many reasons for not letting it go, even when they know they should.

You don't want to be wasteful.
David Tolin, PhD, is a longtime colleague
of mine and one of the preeminent hoarding researchers in the world. He says he has spoken to many clients who feel that “if they let go of something without finding a good use for it, they're being wasteful. By extension, they worry that if they're being wasteful, that makes them a bad person. The irony is that they don't then follow up with actually
the object. Creating a landfill in your home does not mean that you're saving the environment. You just moved the garbage. It's no less wasteful to do that in your own home.”

I vividly remember working with a teacher who specialized in environmental education for elementary school children. She taught a wonderful curriculum that focused on respect for the environment, recycling, and responsible use of resources. She felt wasteful letting go of anything and thought she should be personally responsible for the recycling efforts of her whole neighborhood. Her garage was overrun with cans, bottles, and all manner of recyclables because she didn't trust the city recycling program. Her intentions were wonderful, but her overzealous sense of responsibility for avoiding waste left her buried in clutter.

I see this all the time. People bring stuff into their home and then keep it forever because:

It cost money. Who wants to throw out or give away a perfectly good appliance? I paid good money for this!

It was free or a bargain. How could I pass up such a great deal? I'm an incredible shopper for snagging this before someone else got it!

It would just become more trash on an overpolluted planet if they threw it away.

It has significance for someone else, so it should have meaning for them (even though it doesn't).

You feel guilty.
Someone thought enough of you to buy you a clever T-shirt from a catalog or a concrete statue of a squirrel for your garden. Your mother drove hours to bring you her suits so you could wear them to interviews when you were between jobs. Your grandmother left you her teacup collection in her will.

Our homes are filled with things that loved ones, friends, and co-workers gave us. You probably don't go more than a few months without receiving a gift you never asked for. And when you think about giving it away, you picture the gift-giver's face falling in sadness. Even worse, what if they come to your house someday and don't see the gift displayed? What if they ask when you're
going to wear that tie? What if they go to Goodwill and see the grandfather clock? How disappointed and hurt would they be?

This misplaced sense of obligation is very common with my clients. A close friend of mine recently asked my advice for dealing with his mother-in-law. Despite repeated requests to stop, every time she visits my friend's home she brings gifts for his son. Birthdays and Christmas see a virtual flood of presents. He loves his mother-in-law and feels guilty letting anything go. The result: His home is overrun with toys his child doesn't enjoy.

My response to questions like this is simple and direct, but tough. If a gift has come to you wrapped in obligations and tied tightly with a ribbon of guilt, then it's not really a gift at all. It's a manipulation. A gift should be something freely given that enhances your life and reminds you lovingly of the giver. If it's not, you simply should not give it a place in your home.

I understand that you're a nice person who doesn't want to hurt others' feelings, and so you hang on to these items for longer than you should, even if you don't like them. But such behavior doesn't help create the life or home you want.

Your sense of guilt can pressure you to hang on to the most worthless of items. Dr. Tolin recalls his wife feeling torn over what to do with a flyer asking their kids to collect pledges or names or
for a fund-raiser. “We've done like 8 million of these for every organization the kids belong to, and here's one more and my wife said very clearly, ‘I don't want to do this.' So she puts it on a stack of papers, and I asked her, ‘Why aren't you throwing it out?' She said, ‘I feel too guilty to throw it away right now, but I will later.' When you hang on to something, it allows you to feel like things are different from how they really are. It's almost a way of tricking yourself,” he says.

You think a thing has more value simply because it belongs to you.
Experts called behavioral economists have noted an issue they call the endowment effect, Dr. Tolin says. Merely owning an item causes you to exaggerate its value, or “endow” it with more worth. One common example is when people want to sell their homes for more than they're worth. But the endowment effect can make even insignificant items feel more important to you.

“There was a great study where the researchers got a bunch of people in a room, and they showed them all a coffee mug,” Dr. Tolin says. “They asked, ‘Would you please tell us how much you would pay for this coffee mug if you were to buy it from us?' Everyone wrote down a figure. Later on, the researchers actually gave them the coffee mug as a present, but they added, ‘We're interested in buying it back from you. How much would you sell it for?' And everyone's numbers went straight up.”

I see this all the time. Even when people don't talk about feeling responsible for an item and they don't feel guilty or wasteful at the thought of parting with it, they simply feel like the item is too important to get rid of because it's
—and that's all there is to it.

I recall one woman I worked with a few years ago. Soon after her daughter was born, she began carefully collecting a certain brand of dolls with the intention of one day selling them to finance her daughter's college education. By the time I met this woman, her daughter was well out of college, yet more than 2,000 virtually worthless dolls were stashed in a spare bedroom, gathering dust.

Though a quick check of an online auction site clearly showed the value of the dolls, she refused to believe the facts or get rid of the dolls. The collection had taken on a value that had nothing to do with market rates or sale prices. These dolls were valuable—more valuable than anyone could possibly appreciate, as she pointedly told me—because they were
. End of story!

Extreme? Maybe. But stop a moment and look at your own behavior. Aren't we all a little like this on occasion?

You have an emotional connection to the stuff.
We tend to connect our memories of the important moments in our lives, the places where we lived, and the people we loved to
Seeing these things allows us to replay and refresh those memories.

There are a few downsides to attaching memories to possessions. Often people feel that if they part with an object, they'll lose the memory attached to it, along with a special moment in their life. Or that a person now only living on in their memory would be forgotten completely and disappear forever.

A few years ago at a speaking engagement, a gentleman in the audience told me that he had 22-year-old twin boys in college. He was obviously very proud of them. He had kept—and stored in every available nook and cranny in his home—every single piece of schoolwork his sons had ever done.

Every test

Every quiz

Every project

BOOK: Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight
3.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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