How to break the emotional ties that prevent you from decluttering

I was picking my 9-year-old, Paul, up from school on Friday when I saw him coming toward me, looking very dejected. 

As he approached, he said, “I was very sad today.”

After asking what was going on to make him feel that way, he showed me how the zipper had broken on his coat and would no longer work.

Trying to ease his mind, I said we would go to the store that afternoon and find another coat. But he was still sad. He had really liked his coat.

For the next 45 minutes, Paul tried to find ways to repair the broken zipper and make the coat useful.

After picking up the other kids, we headed to the thrift store and found a brand-new coat for $8.

When we came home, I put his old coat in the trash. But that was hard for him to see and a few hours later, he was getting ready for bed and became very emotional; he kept thinking about his old coat and feeling bad about throwing it away.

I don’t want to traumatize my kids with decluttering

So I’m not going to force them to declutter. Since he was very upset, I retrieved the coat (thankfully not disgusting yet), put it in a bag, and set it in his room. 

I told him he could get rid of it when he was ready.

We went through the weekend. He felt bad every time he saw his coat. We talked about it quite a lot, and at one point, I asked him if he thought the coat had feelings and would be upset with him for throwing it away.

He said no.

And then a breakthrough

Monday came around, and again, we were alone in the car on the way to school. 

Paul spoke from the back seat, “Mom, I sort of do feel like my old coat has feelings.”

“Oh good!” I thought, “now we can get somewhere.”

He said in one of my Declutter-a-thon events, I had said that some of our things yell at us: “You should take care of me! You should clean me! You should deal with me!”

And he felt like his coat was saying, “You should keep me and take care of me!”

“So your coat is bossing you around, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“But who gets to tell you what to do??”

“Only my parents and God.”

“Yes! So your coat doesn’t get to be your boss, does it?”

“No.”

“Good. When you get home this afternoon, you can tell your coat who the boss is.”

And he did. 

When he got home from school, he marched right into his room and said, “You are not the boss of me!”

Then I asked him if we could throw the coat away now.

Yes, he was ready.

“Do you want me to take it out to the garbage, or do you want to go with me?”

“I will do it.”

We walked out together, me carrying a bag of trash, him carrying a bag with his old coat.

He tossed it in the bin, we closed the lid and went back inside.

In the evening, he said he still had some concerns about the coat and said he was still thinking about it a bit, so we talked more, and I reminded him that it was no longer his responsibility. As soon as he put the coat in the trash can, his responsibility to take care of it was gone and if he needed to, he could remember that God was responsible for everything. Paul didn’t need to be.

It’s been a few days now; the garbage truck has come and gone, there have been no tears, and this morning Paul said, 

“I haven’t been thinking about my coat.”

“That’s a relief, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” he replied, very contented.

Sometimes decluttering is facing a lot of feelings that can be hard to articulate. 

Why do we feel mixed emotions about getting rid of things that are simply made to serve us?

We can remind ourselves:

“Yes, I feel this way, even if it’s not logical, but my feelings are just feelings. They are not facts. They are not always true. And I am the only one who gets to decide what I care for and what lives with me in my home. People outside my home don’t get a say in it. The items themselves don’t get a say in it. Only me. I am the boss of what I keep and what I take care of. If it is no longer useful to me, I get to dispose of it how I see fit.”

About Rachel Jones

Hi there! I’m Rachel Jones, and I founded Nourishing Minimalism in 2012 at the beginning of my minimalist journey. If you're looking for encouragement in your journey, I created a FREE Facebook Group - feel free to join me there: Nourishing Minimalism Facebook Group and I share videos each week on YouTube

6 Comments

  1. Beth on 03/01/2023 at 2:35 pm

    I agree with Paul that things have feelings! Sometimes when I need to release an object/clothing/whatever that I’ve had for a long time and have loved it, I thank it for whatever service it has provided in my life. Old cooking pans helped me feed myself and others. Clothes kept me covered and helped me express myself with their style and color. And coats have kept me warm and accompanied me on adventures. I feel that it’s important to honor the place some special things have held in our lives. Expressing my thanks and gratitude helps me let go more easily, and if I’m donating those things, they can serve the same purpose for others.

    Thanks for posting this beautiful story, Rachel! 😊

  2. Maura Not Laura on 03/01/2023 at 7:27 pm

    I read your blog outloud to a family member tonight. It just touched me so much…the processing of emotions so real and heavy inside Paul and your wise parenting. What a life lesson for him (and us). Thank you for sharing this with us. Although I am in my late 50s I recall vividly not being able to throw away my stuffed animals because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings!

  3. Taylor on 03/04/2023 at 6:13 am

    I understand your point of the article, but wouldn’t it have been easier for him and you, not to mention the environment, to just get the zipper repaired?

    • Rachel Jones on 03/06/2023 at 9:19 am

      I have several reasons – I know my limits and what I am willing to do. I hate replacing zippers, so I know it wouldn’t happen and I’ve learned to be honest with my children instead of promising to fix something but never fixing it. Although it would be possible to have a tailor do it, it would have been more than the $8 I spent to get one at the thrift store, and we would have had to wait for a couple of weeks to get it done. He needed a new coat to wear to the next day.

  4. ELG on 03/08/2023 at 9:37 pm

    You lost me with the “god” nonsense.

  5. Robbyn on 03/09/2023 at 7:48 am

    Great article with excellent point about emotions, but in this case I agree with commenter above: Textiles make up a staggering amount of the stuff in our landfills. A $25 zipper replacement to make a coat perfectly usable again (even if just passing it on to someone in need) seems a small price to pay.

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