Paralyzed by Your Possessions? Read On

Dealing with the accumulations of a lifetime can become an assessment of life itself.

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Downsizing a household is a challenge often made much harder by the emotional tug of belongings and mementos. Some people are heartbroken at auctioning a cherished item on eBay or selling it on Amazon; others are in denial, and either refuse to move or cart their very own Mt. Memorabilia to a new home. There, the prospect of its eventual disposition looms ever larger, while the abilities of many aging homeowners are moving in the opposite direction.

Experts say downsizing requires the same type of careful planning and execution as a retirement plan. Because most downsizing efforts are tied to the sale of a home, it is wise to begin the downsizing process as much as a year before you sell your home. "In order to sell a house today, you have to stage it," says University of Kansas gerontologist David Ekerdt. "You have to downsize and take the clutter out of the house before you even put it on the market." Ekerdt oversees the on-going Household Moves Project, which identifies people who have downsized or are thinking about it, and interviews them at different times to better understand the process and pressures it brings. While downsizing involves shedding physical possessions, it's the emotional baggage that people most often have trouble letting go of, Ekerdt says.

"Encountering your possessions is really an encounter with yourself and your identity," he says. "And so, you need to decide who you really are, and I think that's the hard thing to face." Are you, for example, ready to be the person who can let go of a wedding gown? "Psychologists call it the 'possible self,'" Ekerdt says. "If you have walls and walls of books, you might have to let go of the possible self that is going to read all those books." To successfully downsize, he says, "something in the individual has to change, and that's the elusive thing we're trying to look for."

Disposing of possessions is risky because it exposes people to judgments of other people that can be painful, he says. "You risk a judgment that the things you value are not worth money" to another person. "You can give them away but there's a risk the receiver won't value them." Hardest of all are the family possessions that are rejected by sons and daughters. "And that's what makes this research entirely interesting," Ekerdt says. "It's about people's stuff but it's really about their attitudes and values."

The involvement and support of family and friends raises the odds of a successful downsizing experience. Disposing of possessions also frees a person from concerns that treasured items will be figuratively or literally dumped on the street after they die. Or that their children will be forced into an involuntary and unpleasant triage process for personal items and household goods. After downsizing, Ekerdt notes, most people are both happy and relieved. Properly done, letting go of the past can create a more open future and also a healthy commitment to look ahead, not behind.

Ekerdt contributed to a list published by of 10 "sticky" possessions that are hard things to let go of:

1. Family photos
2. Books
3. Collections
4. Antiques and favored furniture
5. Symbols of other life stages.
6. National Geographic magazines.
7. Family heirlooms.
8. Souvenirs and mementos
9. Clothing.
10. Stuff you'd planned to use in the future.

Let us know about your sticky possessions or other downsizing tips.