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How To Deal With The Pain of Letting Go

How To Deal With The Pain of Letting Go


As many of you know I'm a therapist trained as a Professional Organizer. I have a private practice in which I see clients helping them with issues related to hoarding, chronic disorganization, depression, anxiety, OCD, etc. Among the many places, I'm listed for marketing purposes is the website Psychology Today. By having a listing on this site you receive a monthly subscription to their magazine. In the August issue, there's an article titled: From Loss to Love by Steven C. Hayes PhD which really struck a chord with me.  


The article talks about ways to deal with the pain of loss. The author emphasizes that there is no right or wrong response to loss, that people grieve in various ways, and that the healing process is different for everyone. Though I don't deal with death and dying in my practice, themes of loss do abound. The loss someone experiences when giving up their belongings is real and can be very painful. 


Here are the steps in the article which can help you move forward to get on the journey of getting your life back:


1. Acknowledge Loss

Before healing can happen there needs to be recognition that there's an open wound. I encourage my clients to acknowledge the pain of losing a loved one and having to go through their belongings, the mourning that takes place when they're giving up a dream and the items that go with it or the memories attached to possessions of a happy time gone by. 


2. Embrace Feelings of Loss

Nobody likes to experience pain. Typically, we want to avoid it at all costs. Often times I find that many people avoid tackling their clutter because it brings up feelings of pain in the form of shame, guilt, overwhelm, loss, etc. If you keep postponing tackling your project, the pain will continue to pop up over and over. Rather than go through the resurfacing of these feelings repeatedly, it's best to just lean into the loss and try to tolerate those emotions. The author suggests making a list of your feelings to see if over time they diminish or your tolerance for them grows. 


3. Expand Your Scope of Vision

As you allow yourself to wade deeper into your emotional states, tune into what other feelings, possibly positive or unexpected, might come up. These could include freedom, relief, laughter, or pride. Many times once people get into the flow of releasing items from their homes there does come a sense of relief and contentment. It's as if the physical and mental weight of the objects has been lifted. 


4. Prepare to Be Overwhelmed 

There will be times that you feel like you've been run over by a truck. It's completely normal, especially in the early stages of grieving. You might have a roller coaster of emotions. Bad minutes, bad hours, and bad days are going to happen. Keep the big picture in mind and measure your progress over weeks and months instead. In my work with clients I often take pictures of their spaces, it helps to mark progress and can be a motivator for when they're feeling stuck to remember how far they've come. 


5. Watch Out for Unhelpful Thoughts 

I should be able to get rid of this stuff on my own. I should be over this by now. It's all my fault. These thoughts are part of the grieving process, but it's important to observe them with perspective. These are your reactions not actual facts of the situation. 


6. Connect with What Matters 

Despite what your mind is telling you, there is still meaning in your life. Your pain is proof that you're still alive. The nurse I take my son to tells me all the time that fever is good as it means he's fighting off illness and getting better. Similarly, your pain means you're healing. Recognize that your feelings of loss identify what is meaningful to you and use that information to shape your life going forward down a worthwhile and fulfilling path. 


7. Take Committed Action

After identifying what is truly close to your heart, take actionable steps toward it. This could mean resuming routines, reaching out to others, picking up work, volunteering, or tackling another organizing project.


The loss involved in de-cluttering a space is a very real emotion. I encourage you to acknowledge your feelings during painful times as you wade through your clutter and to recognize where you are on the healing journey. According to Dr. Steven Hayes, "The pain of loss is unavoidable, yet millions harm themselves trying to escape it. But loss has a sweet side, and when you open yourself to the pain, you open yourself to the joy."



I encourage you to share this article with a loved one who is struggling with the pain of loss. 



Categories: Mental Health / Hoarding


  • Letting go is such an integral part of life (and of the organizing process.) But pain associated with letting go is just as common. As organizers we often "talk-up" the benefits of letting go (more space, freedom, possibilities.) All of these are true, however, how often do we talk about the pain part. You've done a beautiful job describing the various emotions that can surface and possible ways to handle/manage them. The first one about aknowledging the pain and sense of loss resonated with me in particular. That's almost the starting point for any of this. Because honoring the loss, it's challenging to move forward or through.
    9/10/2018 7:03:45 PM Reply
    • @Linda Samuels: Thanks for your lovely comment, Linda. There's a saying in social work: start where the client is. And if you don't first acknowledge the pain it's hard to begin to do the work needed. Acknowledging the hurt is a big part of this process.
      9/14/2018 6:33:09 AM Reply
  • Although I'm a fairly organized person, I do have trouble letting go of certain things. Sometimes once I've done that, I feel liberated, but other times, I'm surprised to feel almost nothing at all - showing, I think, that the item wasn't nearly as big a deal as I thought it was.
    9/10/2018 10:16:01 AM Reply
    • @Janet Barclay: I do that too, Janet. I find that when I don't force myself to let go of things I think I should and just wait until the time is right I find that the releasing process isn't bad at all.
      9/14/2018 6:31:38 AM Reply
  • I like "be prepared to be overwhelmed." With my background in Health & Human Services and as a Professional Organizer, those words could not be more true. My experiences working with a variety of age groups and families over the years, I learned quickly that when people know what to "expect," it makes the process easier to deal with. And although letting go is one of those things that's difficult for many, when your honest about the process, it helps.
    9/10/2018 10:12:30 AM Reply
    • @Shannon Gibson: Thanks for chiming in, Shannon. And I agree with your point about having our clients know what to expect to make the process go more smoothly. It's that old adage: Knowledge reduces anxiety.
      9/14/2018 6:29:49 AM Reply
  • Very interesting article with lots of practical and helpful points. Love when someone does a summary of an article that I might not have the time or access to read myself! Expect to be overwhelmed is an interesting one. I honestly believe that one of the greatest services we offer as professional organizers to help manage that overwhelm. We are at arm's length from the situation, which enables us to see things unemotionally. Yesterday I was working with a client on her books. Books are a "tough one" for her (she's very well read and smart!). She was feeling the need to justify why she was keeping or shedding each one. I was able to listen and talk through it without emotion, which I think helped her. In the end, she cleared enough space to accommodate the stack from the floor - victory!
    9/7/2018 8:14:36 AM Reply
    • @Seana Turner: I find so many good articles in Psychology Today magazine. It's such a great tool for me. I agree with the piece of managing a client's sense of overwhelm. Sometimes the most beneficial thing we can do is to hold space for them to release and acknowledge these feelings. The fact that we're an impartial party helps a great deal. I'm sure your client must be thrilled with her bookshelves!
      9/8/2018 12:37:19 PM Reply

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