One of the first things that we often hear when we’re advising people to not only de-clutter but, more importantly, start to separate emotion from “stuff” is that many of their things are heirlooms. We don’t deny the importance of heirlooms at all. In fact, we wish more people were passing things down and using them rather than just buying new things with every generation (or because they got bored). But we’ve also seen the idea of “heirloom” used as, well to be frank, an excuse. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at the concept of heirloom versus clutter and what truly, truly defines each one.

Let’s Begin with the Pure Definition of Heirloom

Just in case we’re not entirely on the same page about what an heirloom is, let’s begin by settling on the official definition. No matter where you look, the definition is the same.

  • According to Google: A valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations
  • According to Merriam-Webster: A valuable object that is owned by a family for many years and passed from one generation to another
  • According to A family possession handed down from generation to generation.

Before we go any further, we’re going to concede two things. Firstly, and especially true in our current era, family can mean many things. An heirloom can be something that is passed down from somebody entirely unrelated to you but who has a family-bond style relationship with you. The second thing that it’s important to remember is that “valuable” is a definition with sliding scale. But it’s also a significant part of the concept to keep in mind when we later try to differentiate between “stuff” and heirlooms.

Next, It’s Most Important to Understand the Intent of Heirlooms

We actually think that the most important part of understanding the difference between an heirloom and “stuff” that you’re just holding onto is to understand what the intent of heirlooms were. The first intent was that, presumably, each generation as they got married and started out on their own was not as financially sound or established as their parents or prior generations. So heirlooms were passed down to give them a healthy start in establishing a home. This has certainly changed over the years. As mass consumerism took over and “stuff” was produced more cheaply or available on credit, new generations no longer relied on the possessions of older generations. So the utilitarian purpose of the heirlooms became less and less.

The second purpose of heirlooms has to do with that vague concept of “value” that we talked about above. If a family has something of monetary value, it could be an heirloom to keep the wealth in the family or to give a financial boost to a generation that hadn’t gotten as financially established as the prior one. This element of heirlooming hasn’t shifted as much over the years. It may be the most intact reason that the passing of heirlooms still exists.

Finally, there is an element of family history and heritage included in the passing of heirlooms – but an important distinction to make is “what items have family history” and “what items are just stuff?” For example, certainly a wedding ring has family history attached to it. But (in most but not all cases) a set of cooking pans does not have family history attached to it. This is going to be an important distinction later.

Sorting Heirlooms from Clutter in One Easy Step

All that you need to do in order to sort your heirlooms from your clutter is pick up the item, look at it and ask yourself three easy questions:

  • Am I actually using this item? (If not, then it wasn’t passed down to help you create and fill your home.)
  • Does this item have financial or monetary value? (If not, then it needs to fulfill one of the other two requirements.)
  • Is this item imbued with family history?

The third one is the hardest one, and it’s where you may need to be a little brutal. Because this is the area where assigning emotions to “stuff” can play with your head.  Using one of the examples from above, you may have a set of pots and pans that your mother used. You may think of your mother every time you look at the pots and pans, but you’re not actually using the pots and pans. They’re packed away in a cabinet. And the pots and pans don’t really have any value monetarily. And the next generation isn’t really going to want them. All they are is “stuff” that you haven’t let go of because perhaps you have yet to find a healthier way to deal with your emotions about your mother. And that is a danger zone.

This process can be extraordinarily hard though, because you have likely gone your entire life being taught and trained to assign emotion. So, for you (and many others), letting go of the pots and pans seems nearly impossible because for you the pots and pans are a physical representation of your love for your mother. You’ll argue that they do have family history because a family member used them. And we understand where you’re coming from. We do. But they don’t. The basic line that you need to use is “Do other family members consider this item or these items to be a part of our family history?” If the answer is no, then that’s truthfully just you assigning emotions to items. And that’s not healthy. And that’s a habit that you probably will want to break. And you might need to let go of the pots and pans because it’s a necessary first step in learning to do that.

Why Is Learning to Identify an Heirloom and Cut Loose Items That are Just Clutter Important?

Because you want to be happy! We’ve talked in great detail this month about how “stuff” can’t fill emotional voids. The concept of heirlooms is one of the most frequent “excuses” for assigning emotional value to “stuff.” But the truth is that much of what we describe as heirlooms are simply items that we feel emotionally attached to. Learn to separate the two – no matter how hard it may be, and you’ll be on a clearer path to true satisfaction and joy.

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Photo Credit: Madelinetosh via Flickr