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I Don't Want to Get Rid of That, It Has Sentimental Value

This past Christmas my mom gave me a Himalayan salt lamp. She packaged it in a box that had an image of Santa Claus and his reindeer drawn on top of a snowy tree-lined backdrop. The box was nice, above average quality without a doubt. If you were given this box, you might say "Damn, that's a nice box right there!" One day, in mid-January, I looked at the box and asked myself what I was going to do with it. Thoughts arose of giving it back to my mom so she could reuse it next year, keeping it and using it for storage, and recycling it. The idea of recycling this box wasn't all that attractive. After all, it was given to me by my mom on Christmas and it contained a special gift. On top of that, me discarding it felt wasteful. I was aware of a subtle hesitation rise within me as I began considering recycling the box. It was a similar experience to what it may feel like (for some people) to donate a shirt their Grandma gave them without letting Grandma know. "Not cool," said my mind!

I began realizing I have some items at home that I have solely for sentimental reasons, as do my parents. My parents have saved some of my baby clothes and old schoolwork (amongst other items) from when I was a child. This is completely normal, and behavior like this can even enrich our lives and help us be reminded of who and what is important. So, what determines whether an item has sentimental value or not? That's the big question and it's different for everyone. Generally, items connected to significant life events or people tend to carry some degree of sentimental value. When we say something has sentimental value, we usually take this to mean that the item has value that is not defined by cost but rather by meaning, feeling, and emotion; no price tag can be put on it because it doesn't operate in the realm of money. Just about anything can have sentimental value depending on the context from which the possessor sees it. For most people, sentimentally-valued items don't tend to cause problems. However, for some people they do. Some people may accumulate a great deal of items to the point it interferes with quality of life, as with Hoarding Disorder. Individuals who hoard may end up barricaded in their own space with inability to access food and water. The core principles underlying hoarding are not abnormal. As Randy Frost put it, in his 1995 paper A Cognitive-behavioral Model of Compulsive Hoarding, the difference lies within the strength of the sentimental value and quantity of items. For some people it can feel like disposing an item is like disposing a part of themselves or another person. This in turn often leads to feelings of guilt and anxiety. Reasoning behind this may sound similar to the following: If I give away the gift my mom got me for Christmas, that may mean I'm disrespecting my mom or disregarding her kind gesture. Or, If I throw away my old essay that I got an A+ on, then I may be throwing away that part of me which is disciplined and intelligent (the factors which contributed to the A+).

Sometimes this exists in its inverse. For example, if an ex-romantic partner gave me a baseball cap for my birthday one year and I wear it while I'm out with a new romantic partner then perhaps I'm being disrespectful to my current partner. In fact, just maybe me keeping the cap at all is wrong because it came from an ex-partner and not my current partner so I better dispose of it immediately. This gets a bit more into harm and relationship-themed OCD but it still involves an object being given a value that is beyond it's functional value. One may even think of it as wrong to own a movie or music album of an individual who was later found to do something immoral.

I ended up ripping the corners of the Christmas box making it flat and putting it in the recycling bin. There was a moment during the process that felt bad, like I was doing something wrong. I had to ask myself, "To what extent?" Meaning, I have to draw a line somewhere, I can't save everything. I suppose I could have given it back to my mom, but I choose to lean into making the more uncomfortable decision because I felt it was an opportunity to grow through anxiety, guilt, and uncertainty.

Fundamentally, the purpose or function of hoarding is not abnormal. Many of us choose to keep things due to sentimental value, or save an item because it may come in handy one day. It's important to keep in mind, it is an issue of extent. Imagine we see someone who has hoarding disorder; their car and house are packed from wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with objects. We ask them if they can start their recovery journey by throwing away a receipt on top of a pile of boxes. The person says that they cannot. Perhaps a little judgment arises within us. Imagine...What if the physical and emotional experience of throwing away the receipt is similar to us burning an old photo album of family members who are no longer with us?

*As I was writing this I began thinking about how our personal values can be turned from medicine to poison via a matter of dose. I can see this running rampant in those with OCD. If we value honesty, it would only make sense to want to drive back to the store where we were charged $1.50 for potatoes that were supposed to be $3.00. If we value, respecting others and being kind, it only makes sense to want to apologize or seek reassurance if we felt we may have been rude. If we value our romantic relationship, it would only make sense to want to be certain of our sexual orientation as to not lead our partner on. Values should be seen as a matter of function rather than absolute and applicable to each and every situation. In other words, are our values serving us or hindering us?

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