Dr. Allyson Maida, LCSW

The Emotional Assignment of Stuff (a.k.a. I can't get rid of that because...)

Where did that “stuff” come from? 

George Carlin’s well-known skit A Place for my Stuff is thought provoking. "That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is - a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. " This rant has become a mantra for those who know that they own more than they need or want. There are greater reasons for having these items and a roof to contain it.

First, think about where that item, or items, came from. Did you purchase it? Was it given to you? Was that the first spaghetti pot from your first apartment? Was that centar statue an item that you inherited during the clean-up of your beloved, departed great cousin’s house, (which ended up in her house after having been passed between other relatives who did not want it)? Is this really just stuff?

There are programs and professionals that help people organize, prioritize, purge, donate and dispose, but why, oh why, is it so very hard to do this ourselves? Why do we become frustrated when other people tell us we should let it all go? Of course, you can use that ashtray for a candy dish or paperclip holder. Really, what are these “helpful” people thinking?

Think about it: Do you own your things, or do they own you?  Obviously, your 1950’s martini set can’t own you. Or does it? Is it possible that although our things do not literally own us, our minds perceive that they do?  If our mind (our brain) assigns a specific value or meaning to an item, it can take on a personality of sorts. Kind of like what we do with our pets. We give them voices as we speak for them (why is it always in baby talk?). We assign humorous traits “Did you see that? My dog does impressions. She makes a Humphrey Bogart face!” Similarly, we assign a meaning to our stuff. We look at that set of wine glasses and remember the wonderful family meals. We look at that chair and recall the talk with our children as they sat there swinging their little legs back and forth. These items have meaning. They are relevant and most of all, they are a declaration of our history. Our brains preserve our history. Having history allows us to be a part of a bigger picture, feel relevant and have a foundation to build upon.

When our brain assigns value to something, it is like an announcement that our mind has an investment in that item. (Investments establish ownership, so it looks like our stuff may own us after all.) This investment is based upon material items that speak to who we are, who we were and moments in our life (good, bad and otherwise). They are pieces within our self-portraits, a rendering of our landscape, evidence of this is who I have beenThis is proof of my success.  If I let it go, what proof is there that my life was as it was? I am relevant, so my stuff is relevant. You will not know me (as I see myself) if my stuff is gone.

It is likely that there are some things you will never use, never look at or know that you can move to another home through gifting or donation. There are other things that you use repeatedly but know that the time has come to part ways.  Ask yourself, “Why do I have this?”. Chances are you will come up with answers like, “Well, I like it. I have had that solar lighter since my teens. Solar is in anyway.”.

Next ask yourself if that item is necessary to define you.  Do you need this to let people know who you really are? You might think this is ridiculous, but is it true? Do you need this item to tell your story? We do a lot of things that, at first thought, make no sense. Does that set of children’s golf clubs remind you of when your 6-year-old son said he would grow up to become a successful business man who played golf? (Your son is thirty. Unless you play golf on your knees, there is no use for those golf clubs.) What if you reassign the meaning of these items to what they truly are? When you remove the given label from an item, you can see things for what they truly are. When you change the meaning you are free to keep the items that make you happiest without feeling guilt for rehousing others. This helps you to scale down and keep your preferred selection of belongings that trigger your memories.

You are exactly who you are – stuff or no stuff.

It takes a certain amount of bravery and self-confidence to say that you are exactly who you are – no matter what others see.  From almost the beginning of time, we have used symbolic interactionism (displaying our stuff, even if only at home) to assign a definition to who we are so that others can see us as we desire. This is not only about others, but it is also about how we see ourselves. Again, our stuff reaffirms our self-reflections and how we choose to lead our lives. Therefore, the need to use belongings to define ourselves is not so ill-conceived.

Want to downsize, lighten the load, change your décor, or move items out to make room for new? With unabashed honesty, look at your belongings. Ask yourself, “Exactly what is the function of that item?” Think about your perception of who you are and how you want others to see you. Perhaps you need this item to help you become the person you want to be. This is not a call to get rid of all of your belongings. The flatware, sure, keep a few great pieces because you feel great serving people with them. That is who you are, the host with a beautiful table setting, great food, and happy guests. Yes, keep that hood ornament. It is a great reminder of your earlier years, friends and the creativity that your poured into restoring that yellow van.

Afraid to lose the connection to your memories? Take photos of items that you are willing to move on. All your brain needs is to see the item, in person or in a photo, your recall will be the same. Oh, and that centaur, I took that photo. I am keeping it. Be you, inside and out.