The Sinister Six, part 5: Guilt and Obligation
“If a gift has come to you wrapped in obligations and tied tightly with a ribbon of guilt, then it’s not really a gift at all. It’s a manipulation.”
-Peter Walsh, author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight
Previously, on the Sinister Six series…
This week let’s talk about why we hang on to things for too long, based on feelings of guilt, or a sense of obligation.
Maybe, as you’re decluttering, you come across an item that you’d have no regrets of never seeing again. But you have those in-laws/that great aunt/that friend who is going to come over and actually ask, “Hey where’s that thing I gave you?”
(Side note: Please don’t be that person. Don’t put people on the spot like that.)
Anywho, so now you rethink things, and decide not to donate the item- better keep it in case that person comes over with their polygraph. And in our crazy culture, it’s very common to keep things to spare somebody else’s feelings. But let’s question that for a moment: Is that healthy? Is it okay to just accept the current “norm” that others need to come before us all the time, especially when it comes to a space that we live in, that they don’t?
Sometimes it’s more complicated than that though- what if the item was given to you by somebody in your own home, who will notice its absence? I work with a lot of amazing mothers who question the quality of their parenting when confronted with recycling a portion of their child’s art and school projects. Some think that they are “bad moms” for even thinking about trashing those funny, scrawly little letters from their offspring.
When did “the person who keeps everything” become equated with “good person”? We glorify the person in the family who takes on all the burdens, and we clap them on the back, but do we stop to really ask the toll that it takes on them? If YOU are this person, you might have clashing feelings… On the one hand, it feels good to feel needed (helloooo, Identity Clutter) and on the other hand, it might really piss you off that you’re the one who either has to be the suffering saint beneath the load, or the thoughtless villain who just doesn’t care about anybody but themselves (puh-leaze).
Sometimes guilt clutter looks like allowing one’s adult children to store all of their crap at their home. If this is you, then this is the post for you. (By the way- my parents in NJ will be downsizing in the next few years, and I will have to move or donate my stuff! It’s not in their way right now. WHAT? It’s not.)
Things we say when confronted with Guilt and Obligation clutter:
- “My siblings will kill me if I get rid of that.”
- “My son lives in a tiny New York apartment, so we have to store all of his stuff.”
- “I’m worried that if I donate it, my mother in law will come over and ask where it is.”
- “I don’t really like genealogy projects, but nobody else in the family will do it, so I just store all that stuff here.”
- “My parents just downsized and gave me all this stuff that I didn’t ask for.”
Items frequently kept based on Guilt and Obligation:
- Genealogy items and heirlooms.
- Children’s artwork or school work, if it’s getting in the way of living comfortably in your home.
- OTHER PEOPLE’S THINGS.
- Well intended gifts that just aren’t your thing.
What we are really saying when we keep what doesn’t serve us based on Guilt and Obligation:
- It’s okay for others to inconvenience me, or disrespect my boundaries.
- It’s all up to me to bear the burden- if I don’t keep it, nobody else will.
- I’m an ungrateful parent/friend/child/sibling if I give away these things that were given to me.
What I have kept too long in my own life, based on Guilt and Obligation:
- Silver engraved baby cups that somebody gave me when I was born. I don’t even know who gave them to me. It took me forever to get rid of them, but… Why keep them? If I don’t know the giver, and I can’t safely drink out of them… Ohhh, baby gift trends of the 1980’s…
- T-shirts or clothes that people bought for me that weren’t really me, but I felt bad giving them away.
I admit that these might be lame examples, but I haven’t had as much of an issue with Guilt/Obligation clutter as I have with, say, Control/Perfectionism clutter.
More thoughts on Guilt and Obligation clutter:
Just because I list it above doesn’t mean it’s automatically clutter- if you love being the designated genealogy person in your family, then the heirlooms aren’t clutter- but if you feel guilty or obligated to that item, it may be time to examine those strings that came attached to the item. Clutter is a material clue that something needs to be emotionally released. So while the item in question is what we call “clutter”, it’s actually the guilt behind the fear that needs to be trashed.
Once a gift has been given, it has fulfilled its purpose. Gesture is everything. “You matter to me” is what it says… Or what it’s supposed to say. Gifts are simply vessels of love or gratitude.