Navigating Emotional Land Mines As You Declutter Your Home

Navigating Emotional Land Mines As You Declutter Your Home 2
Note from Rachel: This is a guest post from my friend Jennifer, a real life friend in fact! We’ve known each other almost 20 years now. Jennifer is on her own minimalist journey, one that led her to liberate her library and delve into other clutter problem areas.

Energized by the changing seasons, I decided to tackle my craft dresser. I have a large upright chest of drawers filled to the brim with fabric and craft supplies. Following best practices, I unloaded everything drawer by drawer, piling like items with like. I designated keep/toss/donate piles. Then I exercised some tough love, sorting out long-unused fabric for donation.
And that’s when my good intentions were blown apart.
In the bottom drawer, at the very bottom of the stack, is material I purchased for baby quilts. Still crisp with sizing are fabrics I lovingly selected and carried from home to home for the last 15 years.
I bought this fabric and stitched it together with hopes and dreams. But like many people, my life hasn’t been the linear storybook I’d planned. Instead, my path has been twisted and turned by failed relationships, relocations, changing jobs, and health concerns. I have not had children and, given my circumstances, am unlikely to do so.
My practical self told me it’s time to let the baby quilts go.
My peace-maker self offered a gentler solution, reminding me that the quilts would make nice gifts for family and friends. Then I’m not “throwing away” those hopes and dreams, but instead letting them warm someone else’s child and, in the meantime, the fabric could stay in the drawer. My peace-maker self has a strong rationalization streak.
And my grieving self howled at the unfairness of it all.
Switching my attention to a trunk at the foot of the guest bed revealed more landmines. My christening gown, hand-made and hand-embroidered, with tiny gossamer accessories was tucked into its custom case next to two boxes of baby clothes, things my mother saved for me. Then there were hand-crocheted blankets made by long-dead female relatives — I could imagine how each was given to my mother along with stories about labor and colic. The collection was rounded out by dresses worn for childhood Christmas programs and a pile of toys.
So many, many things I thought would be in use by now. A whole identity in storage.
In my experience, decluttering is as much a healing exercise as it is housekeeping. Often we keep things because of the emotional content rather than the functionality. When we question the functionality of an item, we may unintentionally confront that emotional load. Maybe your clutter landmine isn’t baby quilts but a wedding dress, sports gear left idle since “the accident,” or a deceased loved one’s belongings.
You can integrate minimalist practices as part of your healing process. Apply the 5 Whys to sentimental items. If embracing a cause and volunteering helps meet your emotional need, then do that rather than holding onto objects. My own little version of cognitive-behavioral therapy — engaging in rational self-talk peppered with positive affirmations – helps me let go. You can also hold a  ceremony, journal about the items, or take photos as part of your process.
It’s okay if your healing — and decluttering — is small. It can be incremental. It can be the best you’re capable of right now.
Here’s what I did. I kept two quilt tops. I kept the christening gown with a note from my grandmother tucked in its folds. I kept the worn-through moccasins my mother hand-made and beaded for me. I couldn’t do it all, not this time. But the piles of baby flannel and pastel fleece and ‘70s-era layette sets went to donation.
I didn’t feel triumphant as I often do after a good decluttering, but I did feel unexpected relief. I’m not at peace, but I think peace is possible. And I acknowledge that I’m not done yet. There’s still more work to be done in my home and in my heart.
What’s that saying? “I’m not telling you it is going to be easy, but I’m telling you it is going to be worth it.”
And it is.

About the author: 
Jennifer is a former journalist and editor working toward a life with less since 2007. She and her husband live in South-Central Montana with two bad cats and too many DIY projects.


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About Rachel Jones

Hi there! I’m Rachel Jones, and I founded Nourishing Minimalism in 2012 at the beginning of my minimalist journey after I'd been doing a yearly decluttering challenge for 4 years and started to see a change in my home. If you're looking for encouragement in your journey, please join our FREE Facebook Group: Nourishing Minimalism Facebook Group


  1. Karen T. on 03/16/2016 at 9:06 am

    Dear Jennifer, what a very wise and moving essay. It can be so very hard to move ahead into a life you didn’t plan, leaving behind your expectations. You’re brave to do that. I pray that you will find peace and hope in your life ahead.
    And you didn’t say this, but it’s really true: if you can let so many long-kept items go to those who can actually use them, then so can the rest of us. I’m ready to declutter a few more of the sentimental items I’ve been hanging onto for too long.

  2. Suzi on 03/19/2016 at 1:14 pm

    Mine wasn’t a journey of longing for children…I was one of the lucky ones. I got mine…and now 2 precious grandchildren. The emotional landmines lurking in my drawers, cabinets, hanging on my walls were those of painful family relations that had festered for years and finally came to a screeching halt about a year ago…just about the time I started my decluttering. As I began to come to terms with the lost relationships I found it easier to release many, many items that I thought would always be in my home. So very glad I found Rachel and Nourishing Minimalism…I’ll add Jennifer to that list as well now. My life is much simpler now, I hope you find healing as I have as you continue your journey…

  3. Kim on 03/21/2016 at 6:25 pm

    Thank you Jennifer for sharing your inspiring journey. It does help to know that there are others out there who also struggle to part with past projects and dreams and it’s good to know that you can survive this and come through it with some pain but a lot of accomplishment too.

  4. Lisa on 03/21/2016 at 8:58 pm

    Jennifer, adopt!!! Greatest blessing of our lives! And it could be yours as well.

  5. Anna on 03/21/2016 at 9:14 pm

    Dear Jennifer-Thank you so much for your post and sharing your story. It touched my heart and I am sending you a prayer. You are helping me to move forward as well. For me it is about letting go of ideas about how I thought my life should be and the things or props or symbols that I believe/believed I need(ed) to go with the life I thought I wanted. It is so easy to ‘decide’ what life ‘should’ be -and it just doesn’t turn out that way! I am definitely a work in progress and still trying to let go of the ideas about how my life should look. The joy minimalism brings in a large part (for me) is the freedom from things and the open undefined future it brings. Thank you again and Blessings to you and the other 3 gals who commented.

  6. Amy on 02/23/2018 at 1:14 pm

    As I take Rachel’s Practicing Simplicity course, I keep coming back to this truth about the emotional impact of things. As I grieve the death of my husband, some artifacts take on a heightened meaning. Most of all, as I declutter, I see the many joys in my life and I am able to share those with my decluttering cohort, and with my family in happy reminiscing. As the rooms become more orderly, so do my thoughts. As there are fewer ‘stuff’ distractions, I find it easier to work through some of the tasks that life is throwing at me, knowing too, that I can ‘rest’ in my home as needed, without jumping up and down in the distraction of ‘cleaning up’ because it the largest sense most of the cleaning is done.
    I know I will come back to this wise essay for help, especially with my book collection!

  7. Kiki on 02/27/2019 at 1:02 pm

    Loved reading your touching article and all the responses. Thank you!
    I’m still stuck in a dark place, full of STUFF. Hoping this inspiration will help me to make a start. xxx

  8. Kristyn on 02/27/2019 at 7:25 pm

    I run into these landmines as well.
    I am struggling with my craft stuff, but slowly keep going back and re-evaluating. I also struggle that life was not the storybook filled with children as well. So I focus on other things. This last weekend I gave my grandmothers sewing machine a new home. I knew it was going to someone who will love it, but I still cried after she left with it and still struggling a little. I only passed it along because my mother got me one for my birthday so we could go to classes together. Still feel sad about it.

  9. Kathi on 06/04/2023 at 8:33 am

    Wow, what a thoughtful essay!! Isolated for 38 months now because of hubby’s blood disease, we were stopped totally in our tracks by covid. Already long retired, our small life in the deep woods has become constricted and makes more apparent the need to declutter. Facing the rather sneaky emotional attachment is mind-boggling. Two masters degrees worth of boxes of essays and books are mouldering in the attic, though my intercultural workshop days are through.

    I was orphaned at 12 and 13, and shipped to distant family in CA. Working my way up through academia, I dutifully got into Stanford, and it was a quirk of something I ended up in the first coed dorm they ever had…well, marriages and decades passed, and I, childfree by choice, never regretted THAT decision!!

    Oh, this is rich…what a useful, provocative & interesting way to process all the crap and detritus life slings at us!! Or maybe what sticks, through family socialization, school friends, employers, etc. Thank you for un-boring my isolated summer!! I’ll stay tuned!

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