Two days ago – after going at this for a solid month – I hit my first big emotional roadblock in the decluttering process.

To be honest, I’d expected it to happen a lot earlier. It almost happened while going through the box of high school stuff (where awards and old standardized test scores filled me with the fear that I’d wasted my potential) but talking things out with my mom cleared my head and I was back at it within an hour of stopping. But instead it happened while going through something completely unexpected: old greeting cards.

I suspect now that it wasn’t the cards themselves so much as it was two other things. One was a buildup of a lot of thoughts and emotions I’d been suppressing through the whole process, about crushed dreams and past traumas as well as lost friends, pets, and relatives. I also saw clearly for the first time how I’d talked myself into believing that I was terrible at things I was, in reality, good at and used to enjoy – art, drama, music, poetry, math, tech, and science – and wondered if I’d ruined my own life as a result. But did I let myself feel that? Of course not. I had work to do.

Feel the feels

It reminded me of a Lemony Snicket quote I’ve always liked about how refusing to entertain a certain idea is even more dangerous than refusing to entertain a pack of wild hyenas, “because nobody knows what an idea will do when it goes off to entertain itself.” Ignoring all these unpleasant things hadn’t made them go away; it just pushed them to a place in my mind where they could wreak all kinds of havoc until I finally paid attention to them.

I do this over and over yet, somehow, every time I’m surprised that the result is always the same. “What’s happening? Why am I so upset for no reason? WHO PUT ALL THESE TEARS IN MY EYES?”

So for both you and me, I offer this advice: if you’re sorting through old things and find yourself overwhelmed by emotions, stop and let yourself feel them. Take a break and have a good cry. Do whatever you need to do. The important thing is to just sit with these emotions and see that feeling them won’t cause the end of the world. If you think you don’t have time to do that, consider this: how long will you need to walk away from this when your feelings inevitably catch up to you? Trust me, it’s much more efficient to stop and cry for an hour than it is to stop for a whole day so you can recover from a total emotional meltdown.

One size fits none

I mentioned earlier that I suspected two things were at play when I hit that emotional roadblock. The second thing was my reliance thus far on outside advice to get me through this process.

If you’re anything like me, the first places you go when you need specialized advice are either Google or a book on the subject. And when it comes to advice, both sources are probably fine. The only problem is that a lot of decluttering advice seems to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Do this with books. Do that with mementos. Keep just the best example of anything. Reduce everything by a certain amount. If you’ve looked for decluttering advice, you know what I mean.

But every problem is different. You’d think that would be obvious, but it wasn’t something that occurred to me until I was going through that stash of old greeting cards. They already seemed to have been carefully selected – if not by me, then by one of my parents. Unlike almost everything else I had gone through, these hadn’t been kept indiscriminately.

20170208_131835There were only enough cards to fill one shoebox – if that.

All the advice I’d found for dealing with greeting cards hadn’t taken a situation like that into account; they were written as if the person hearing it had never thrown away a single card in their entire life. And yes, that does happen. But when you’re facing a batch of carefully curated cards, “throw everything older than a year away” or “cut them up and reuse them in crafts” doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense.

For some reason, I felt like I had to follow the advice anyway, as if there was some invisible authority waiting to judge my efforts. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not to the school valentines from friends I’d long lost touch with. Not to the “get well soon” card from my late grandmother. Not to the silly birthday card written by my mom as if it had been sent by our two now-dead cats.

I started to get angry at all the bloggers I’d taken advice from. Who the hell did they think they were, anyway? They couldn’t tell me what to do! So I had a mini-meltdown on Facebook for all my friends to see. (The phrase “disgustingly perfect minimalist monsters” entered the fray at some point.) Eventually I calmed down and decided to take a break from the whole project for a day or two until I got things back into perspective.

What I’m getting at is this: apply decluttering advice with caution. Including my own advice. And including the very piece of advice I just gave you. There’s no such thing as a single answer to fit every situation.

Keep the cards if you want to. I know I will.

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