Of all the emotions I deal with helping people declutter and organize their homes, guilt is one of the most prevalent (and destructive).

If there are items that are cluttering up your home because you feel too guilty about letting them go, take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. In fact, SpareFoot recently conducted a survey that found that about 22 percent of Americans said that guilt was the main reason they were holding on to some items.

Think about this for a moment: do you have things in your home that are there, not because you love them or need them, but because you are somewhat (or very) overwhelmed with the idea of letting them go?

dont be driven by guilt

Don’t Be Driven By Guilt

You know what I’m talking about: that totally awful vase your mother-in-law gave you but you know she’ll look for every time she comes to visit. Or, maybe it’s a family “heirloom” – anything from that huge curio cabinet you inherited when a relative passed away. Maybe it’s the finger paintings your 17 year old did way back when he was in kindergarten. How about the wedding gifts that have sat untouched in the hallway closet or basement for 10 years?

Not wanting to hurt another person’s feelings is a really wonderful and totally reasonable emotion. But there are times when holding onto an item purely because of guilt is really the wrong way to go.

Our homes should be filled with things we love, with things that are beautiful, and with things that make us smile. Guilt has no place.

Spare Feelings With Honesty

Hang on a minute. While guilt is an emotion that I don’t support, we do need to get practical here. Not everything that you’re holding onto for guilt reasons necessarily needs to go. When your 92-year-old grandmother has taken the time to give you a gift – any gift – I think you should probably keep it.

You tell her you love it, you can’t live without it, and let her enjoy the moment of giving you that gift. And, then, of course, if it’s really not in line with the vision you have for your home, you quietly put it aside somewhere so you can bring it out only when she visits.

However, if your husband’s stepmother has signed you both up for ‘Ugly Pottery of the Month Club’, then it’s definitely time for you to have a conversation with her.

woman gets an unhappy gift

Be Straight Up About Gifts

Here are some of the ways I deal with discussions about gifts I don’t love, want or need.

First, understand and focus on the fact that these kinds of gifts, while not things you really want in your home, are given out of a sense of love and affection. So start there. Thank your stepmother-in-law for the wonderful gesture, explain to her that you cherish your relationship with her and then gently explain that your home is already a magnet for clutter and you’d prefer to have a shared experience with her rather than accumulate more stuff.

In fact, long before you receive a gift there’s an important need for you to establish what your position is when it comes to gifts. If you’re having a party, make it clear that it’s a no-gifts-please event. However, if there is an occasion where gifts are expected (a shower, a wedding, etc.), steer people in the right direction with suggestions, recommendations, or gift registries.

Try This Line

My family knows I’m not big on clutter – so I’ve made it really clear that I prefer to give and receive ‘experiences’ rather than material things. I’m all about going to a restaurant, a play, a museum, or anything that we can do together.

What do you do when you receive a gift that you know you don’t want to keep? First, know that the giver most likely wants you to enjoy whatever it is he gave you.

So try this sentence out on them: “Please don’t misunderstand this, you know I cherish our friendship, but would it upset you greatly if I exchanged this gift for something that I really need and could use – and which every time I would look at would make me smile and think of you?”

I mean, who would say no to that? That takes a little bravery I know. But if you lead with the respect you have for your relationship with that person followed by an acknowledgment of their generosity, you’ll be surprised at how well it works.

grandmother says

Remember What Grandma Used to Say

Finally, there are definitely times when you just need to suck it up though.

Smile a little when you look at that awful thing and put the gift in a cupboard somewhere where it does no harm or wait a reasonable amount of time and pass it on. We all have friends with idiosyncrasies and tastes that are not our own. Sometimes it’s better to be the bigger person, accept the gift knowing that we have a strategy: hold onto it knowing that there might be a little guilt, re-gift (only after checking there’s no identifying cards or notes in the gift) or wait a reasonable amount of time and donate the item to someone who will love and use it.

Whatever your strategy, smile, shake your head a little and remember what my grandmother used to say: “It’s the thought that counts!”

Peter Walsh