Reflections on Downsizing: Where Is Your Regret-o-Meter?


Me in a moment of no regret at my favorite thrift store (St. John’s of Norwood Op Shop) in Bethesda, Maryland. (I had a few little regrets later. But I got over them!)

Downsizing and decluttering the home is for most people not just a one-time thing: it is a constant process, and most people go through several episodes of “extreme decluttering” in their lives as they downsize in the process of moving from a large house to a smaller house; a small house to an apartment; an apartment to assisted living, and so on…

And I’ve just been through another round of radical downsizing.

As some of you may already know, my coauthor and I have pointed out in our book, and also frequently on this blog, that the world divides roughly into “keepers” and “throwers.” Both of us are on the “keeper” side of the spectrum, and we both come from families that had a lot of  keepers also.  While some people find this ironic–a couple of downsizing experts identifying themselves as “keepers,” I mean–I actually think this is one of the biggest strengths of our book. Because being who we are, and coming from the families that we come from, we know that keepers need sympathy, respect, encouragement, and helpful tips (helpful tips that work even for keepers!), not criticism, shaming, or being bossed around as they go through the process of downsizing.

We also know that no matter what anyone says, there’s really nothing all that easy about downsizing and decluttering, at least not for keepers. So we don’t try to make anyone think it is: we just share ideas for how it actually is possible, even for keepers. (!)

So, here is the latest piece of advice I have to share with the keepers of this world, after my latest round of downsizing. If you are a keeper, every once in a while during a process of extreme letting go of items, you should check your “regret-o-meter.”

What is a “regret-o-meter”? Well. That is just a term I thought up the other day when I was taking a walk and reflecting on some of the things I had given away during my last round of aggressive downsizing. (A quick Google search shows that I am not alone in having thought of such a term, though I don’t know if anyone else has used it to talk about downsizing before.)

In any case, here is the advice that occurred to me in that same stroll around the block. I hope it will be helpful for some “keepers,” and that maybe it will give any “throwers” who happen to love them some insight into how keepers think, and what they may need to do in order to stay with the task.

  1. If you are a “keeper” and you have NO  regrets AT ALL about having gotten rid of some of the items in your household, you are probably not moving quickly or aggressively enough.  Think of the regret-o-meter as a device with a needle, like a compass. On the “high” end of the dial is “deep and painful regret about many items you’ve gotten rid of.” On the other end of the dial is “no regret at all.” When you are involved in downsizing and decluttering, you really want the needle to be somewhere in the middle: which means (at least for keepers) that you will probably feel some wistfulness or regret about some of the items that you kind of wish you would not have given away, at least not yet. But you will NOT go back into the garbage (or the thrift store, or wherever you placed this item), to retrieve it. And you will most likely get over this “pang” of regret relatively quickly, say, within a few days. Because you will know that although you fundamentally wish you never had to make these decisions, and that to be perfectly honest, you’d prefer to pretty much keep everything forever, you know that you CAN’T do that and also have a functional, healthy, smooth-running, visually pleasing home. You just can’t. So you remind yourself of that, you take a deep breath, or a walk, or go do something fun, and the next time you think of the item, whatever it is, the “regret’ needle has slipped a bit down on the dial. If it hasn’t, or if it has even moved up the dial, remind yourself that you can always go to the thrift store (or wherever you left it), and see if it is still there. And if you do this and you find it is no longer there, remind yourself that that’s okay. It’s gone. It was something you liked, you enjoyed it, and now someone else has it. People lose things they like all the time. They get over it, and you will too.
  2. If the needle on your regret-o-meter is on the “high” end of the scale, you’re probably moving too quickly. And you are probably not giving yourself time to do the “leave it overnight” or “leave it til next  week” test for those items you’re really reluctant to give up, but think that you probably should. (Often this test can help “keepers” separate from their cherished items gradually, rather than suddenly and abruptly; and in such a way that is not as likely to cause future regret.) It can also help ensure that some of the items you can’t keep anymore get to places where they can be treasured, used, or kept for historical purposes rather than just being tossed into the trash in a fit of desperation.

I promised in my last post to tell you about my strategies for dealing with my Inner Archivist and my Inner Collector, two of the aspects of myself that can tend to obstruct the downsizing process. I also want to tell you about how successful our book has been in getting my Inner Sentimentalist to be much more able to get rid of those things that represent special memories than I used to be. Our method really works!

So stay tuned for all that–and to those of you who are downsizing, watch that dial! Don’t let the fear of regret keep you from doing the job. But don’t drown in regrets, either. There is a fairly comfortable middle ground, and if you and those around you are patient and persistent enough, you can find it!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of  Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.


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