The determination of value is somewhat subjective.  Consider the various television programs where an individual brings their item in to be appraised by a professional (Antiques Roadshow, Pawn Stars).  There is a price range given, not one absolute price.   Even that range is negotiable, depending on the venue through which someone chooses to sell (private sale vs. auction).  One of the challenges faced by an appraiser seems to be that of explaining why an item is not worth as much as the owner believes it should be worth.  Perhaps it really is not one-of-a-kind or collectible.  The history of the item may not be as meaningful to a prospective buyer as it is for the current owner.  It can be quite distressing to be told that the cherished, highly valued item is not of interest to anyone else and probably ought to be thrown away.  As the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  So how does one explain the type of value seen in a given item?  There are three categories that seem to cover the range of values that may be applied to any given item.

Instrumental or Utilitarian Value.  This item can be used in some way.  It’s a tool.  While many items have readily identifiable uses, it is likely that someone who hoards has less typical uses in mind for possessions.  A mug can be utilized in a number of ways beyond drinking the morning coffee.  It may be put to use holding pens, scooping kitty litter, or catching drips under a leaky sink.  Similarly, a water bottle can be refilled for future drinking.  Creatively, it can be turned into a bird feeder, a vase, a pencil cup, a planter for seedlings, or even a flowerpot.  There is often a strong rationale when explaining the intended uses for the many items in a given space.  It can take a little creativity to see the potential uses that an item may hold.

Sentimental Value.  This item is attached to a memory or a relationship.  Some items are generally accepted as having sentimental value – a baby tooth, a wedding album, or Grandma’s pearl earrings.  People who struggle with too many belongings often attribute this sentimental value to a wider range of items and experience it more intensely than others may.  A mug from Father’s Day may be a reminder of when the children were little but what about the box that the mug came in?  Or the paper that it was wrapped in?  A water bottle could be a reminder of the day spent hiking with good friends.  Is that reminder as clear when it is a seemingly generic disposable water bottle that was partially crushed in the bottom of the backpack?  When addressing the sentimental value of an item, the value is not based on whether or not the memory is worth remembering.  Individuals who hold onto too much stuff may have an exaggerated level of attachment and may be more sensitive to the symbolism that a particular item holds.  Even a receipt has the potential for sentimental value – it may record the flowers that were bought or the special dinner.

Intrinsic Value.  This item is not important for any particular reason.  It doesn’t have a use or purpose.  It isn’t tied to a particular person or event.  There’s just a certain something about the item that keeps it lingering around.  The purple mug may be favored over the other mugs, just because it is purple.  Maybe the mug has been in the cabinet since time immemorial and just belongs in that back corner now.  People often have their preferences but are not always aware about how these can influence the tendency to hold onto things.  Habits and the status quo are powerful – if the stickers peeled off the bananas have always been kept, it is likely that those stickers are going to go on being kept even if there’s no clear rhyme or reason for doing so.

If an item doesn’t have use or value, then why is it so difficult to let go of it?  This impaired ability to discard items is associated with strong urges to save items, even those that are readily identified as not being of use or of value.  The individual may experience significant distress over the idea of letting go and, because of this, avoid the discarding process all together.  Once someone has decided to clear out a given area, it can be difficult to then decide what to do so that the space is actually cleared out.  There can be a lot of indecision and second-guessing regarding what to do.  Should the book be given to a friend, donated, or perhaps just thrown away?  Should the business card be let go of or should the information be entered into an address book first?  Which address book and where is it?

Value Exercise – Why does it matter?

“You can’t see the forest for the trees” refers to losing sight of the big picture because of getting too preoccupied with the finer details.  By attaching such strong value to individual items, it is easy to lose track of the larger clutter caused by the accumulation of these items.  Is it possible to determine what individual items amidst the forest of clutter actually holds value?

  1. Pick a small area. A SMALL area – maybe a square foot on the coffee table or half of the bedside table.  You’d be surprised how much stuff can be packed into such a small space.
  2. Pick up the first item. Only one item at a time. Trying to look at a collection or stack of things can get very overwhelming.  This makes it easier to lose focus and get distracted, leaving the item and the exercise all together.
  3. Question yourself about this item. Here are some helpful questions to guide you through the process of determining value:
    • What is this item?
    • Where did it come from?
    • How long has it been here?
    • Why was it kept?
    • Is there a plan for this item (how to use it, where to put it, who to give it to)?
  4. Check in with your reactions to the item. What emotions are coming up?  Warmth and happiness?  Sadness?  Regret?  Guilt?  How strong are these feelings?  What feelings are associated with having the item?  With considering letting it go?
  5. Decide what to do with the item. This is not a commitment to taking a particular action, but more an identification of what that action likely would be.  Would you keep it?  If so, how and where?  What would you do with it?  Might you let it go?  Gift it to someone?  Donate or sell it?  Discard it?  Recycle?  Pause and think about what you would do, why you haven’t taken that action yet, and what might be a barrier to your doing so now.
  6. Move on to the next item. Make a note of your thoughts and feelings about that item and then shift your focus to the next.  Start with a blank slate as you consider this new item.  Continue the process as you work through the items in this small area.

Were there any themes as you worked through this area?  Did you distinguish between things that were of higher value and those that were of lesser importance?  Were there certain feelings that came up in relation to particular items?

Sometimes it can feel as if everything is important and of value.  By checking in with your thoughts and feeling associated with an individual item, it can be easier to hone in on specific experiences rather than feel overwhelmed by the entire collection of stuff.  As you practice identifying the type and intensity of value associated with individual possessions, you can find yourself better able to take action on some of those items.