The Psychology Behind Memorabilia

I’ll admit, minimalism captivates me.  On numerous occasions, I have thought about how cool it would be to sell everything and travel from city to city, completely unencumbered by stuff.  I love absorbing any and all information about minimalism, decluttering, living with less, simplifying.  It’s so cool to think about the WHY behind stuff.  Why do we buy it?  Keep it?  Store it?  Why do we feel overwhelmed by it?  What would our lives be like if we reduced our possession by 30% 50%?  80%?  I love thinking outside the norm and challenging the status quo.

In today’s blog post, I want to dig deeper behind one of the toughest categories of stuff:  stored sentimental items.  Yup, we’re going to go there.

I have an example that will help illustrate my points: 

Your grandmother knits a blanket for your first baby.  You don’t love the colors or material, but you love that your grandma spent the time knitting something special for your child.  You love your grandma so much, and every time you see the blanket, you are reminded of her.  A few years after your baby is born, your grandma passes away.  Now, when you look at the blanket you are filled with emotion because you were so connected to her.  She was a very important part of your life.  

How could you possibly get rid of the blanket?

Let’s look at the different components here:

  1. It was a gift.
  2. It was made by someone special to you.
  3. It was a gift that commemorated the birth of your first born.
  4. The person who made the gift is no longer alive.

There are a lot of moving parts happening behind this blanket.  I think this is about as emotional as it gets.

But…why do you have to keep it?

The knee jerk reaction here is – “Oh my gosh, Jill, you could NEVER get rid of that blanket because it represents your grandma!  She spent a lot of time making that for you!  It is such a special, special blanket that you have to hold onto forever!!”

Sound familiar?

Now, please do not mistake my questioning and analyzing for lack of sentimentality.  I am totally a sentimental person.  I keep things for emotional reasons.  I see people in things.  We are human, and we have used objects to represent things for eons.  

BUT

What if that blanket is never used?  What if it sits in a box, in the back of a closet for…years?  Decades?  Maybe you pull it out once every few years when you’re reorganizing, moving, or looking for something.  When you do, you remember your grandma, you think about her and talk about her.  You tell your child about her.  It becomes a talking point.  A piece that inspires conversation.  The physical blanket is a trigger that evokes memories and conversations.

SO

Is it the blanket that matters?  Or, the trigger that it provides?  Now, if you’re actively using the blanket (i.e., your child sleeps with it, it’s used during the winter, it’s a toy your child plays with)…that’s a different story.  Now it’s an item that is used (and, presumably, liked).  But an item stored away in a box is not used.  It’s stored until it’s resurrected and used as a talking point.  Maybe it’s out for 10-20 minutes, but then back it goes, into the bin, into the back, into the dark.

I think about this with photos, too.  How often are we looking at photo albums?  We spend so much time curating albums, photo storage boxes, photo archive systems…to look at them…how often?  I’ve always thought that it would be a good idea to have recurring dates on your calendar to review and appreciate photo albums.  To thumb through the memories and talk about them with your family.  To have those feel good moments and a trip into the past.  To laugh and make fun of the style and comment on how clunky the cell phones were.  Once the albums are out, the fun begins.  But…are we getting them out?  Or are they sitting up in the attic, untouched for years?

I digress.  Back to the blanket.

What I start to get fired up about is the guilt, fear, and anxiety that we attach to stuff.  “I can’t get rid of this because _____.” or “My mom would be so MAD if she found out I got rid of this.”  or “It would be so heartless of me if I just gave this away.”

No, no, and no.  I don’t think that’s fair!  Right?  I mean, if I donate that blanket, or give it away…does that make me a bad person?  Does that mean I don’t love my grandma?  Does that mean I don’t appreciate a handmade gift?  Not at all.  The meaning and message was delivered the moment that blanket was handed to you.  And then it became yours.  Living under your roof, in your jurisdiction.  It passed the threshold into your home, where you are the gatekeeper.  You can do whatever you want with that item, and that does not make you any less of a human being.  You can take a picture of it, and put that picture in a frame.  Or file it away digitally.  Or not take a photo at all.  Think about it…generations from now…will that blanket still exist?  Will people know what it meant?  Will it mean anything to them?  Will you have written a descriptor and stored it with the blanket so that a great great great grandchild will understand its meaning?  Probably not.

You will not forget your grandma if you get rid of the blanket.  That memory lives deep within you.  If you don’t want to lose the trigger, take a photo.

Stored, unused sentimental items are probably the #1 most difficult category of stuff.  Sure, I can declutter my junk drawer any day.  I can clean out my pantry.  Even get rid of some clothes.  But, the stuff that sits way up high, way on the side, in the attic, in the storage unit…you know that stuff.  Maybe your “memories” are in a box at your parent’s house, cluttering up their space with the assumption that you want it someday.  That’s the stuff I’m talking about, and want to question.

Let’s try these statements on for size…

“I do not have to keep memorabilia.”

“If I get rid of memorabilia, it does not make me a bad person.”

“I am the gatekeeper to my home.  I get to make decisions about what lives in my home and takes up space.  It is OK if I want to get rid of something.”

“I am a good person, regardless of what I decide to hold onto.”

“My stuff does not define who I am.”

How did that feel?  Liberating?

One more thing.

Gift givers:  That is so kind of you to give a gift!  You are thoughtful, kind, and generous.  But please know, you are giving this gift because you think the person will like it.  Or, you are giving this gift, because you like making things for people.  Both of these statements are perfectly OK.  Please remember that once you give this gift, it is now in the receiver’s hands and life.  They get to decide what to do with the gift.  If they return it, they are so thankful for your generosity.  If they donate it, they still appreciate you.  If they throw it away, they still love you.  Once that gift has been given, the occasion has been celebrated, sentiment exchanged, energy felt. Please, please, do not ask the gift receiver what they did with it. That is their decision, and that decision needs to be respected.

Gift receivers:  Wow, that is so nice someone gave you a gift!  What an expression of love and kindness.  Thank them, write a note, or give a big hug.  That was so nice.  Now, please ask yourself.  Do I like this?  Do I want to use it?  Do I see this living in my home? Does this have a place in my life? If the answer is no, you have complete, 110% permission to say goodbye to that item.  You do not have to keep it. If the gift giver asks what you did with it, you can tell them that you gave it to someone who really wanted to use it. And that made you happy. 

So, go forth and give and receive gifts, make memories, live, and love and all of that!  But don’t let physical things be a burden.  Don’t let something you greatly appreciated give you grief because you don’t want to keep it in your life.  Move on and make room for more memories!

Author: jillmcmeekin

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