The Emotions of Stuff: Papers

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This is part four in a six part series on de-cluttering.

Papers  is the third category in Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, yet it can be the hardest. This is a really huge issue, so much so that it can send the most determined de-clutterer into a panic. I’ve heard from folks putting off dealing with their papers for years, just to avoid the feelings of stress.

For some it’s just the stress of managing the papers they have.

For others, there are papers everywhere and they just can’t seem to face the mountain, let alone figure out what to keep.

What is it about routinely handling our paperwork that causes us to shake in our boots and go running off in the opposite direction?

I think it’s because papers represent who we are as human beings, more so than any other possessions we have. We start with birth certificates, then go to medical records, report cards, reports we’ve written for school, yearbooks, bills, contracts we’ve signed, driver’s licenses and passports. It’s a constant progression of paperwork which is directly tied to who we are  and the choices we make. The kinds of paperwork we keep relates to how successful we feel our life has been thus far.  For a lot of us, we look at our papers and see failure, loss, and sadness.  Facing our paperwork means we have to face ourselves, right now, right where we are.

Do we have unpaid bills?

Do we have divorce papers?

Do we have college papers and notebooks we’ve saved?

Do we have bankruptcy notices, or foreclosure paperwork?

Or maybe we have letters from loved ones and we feel guilty about lost relationships.

The thought of facing all of these things is overwhelming. So what do we do? Maybe we avoid them or focus on just dealing with the bare minimum of them just to hold us through to the next month. We’re afraid to even start to deal with them. We don’t know if we can handle what we will uncover about ourselves during the process.

We are just afraid.

But what if I told you that you have nothing to be afraid of? What if I said that you already know all of the good and bad choices you’ve made in your life and that by not putting the paperwork in order, you are just creating guilt that really shouldn’t have to exist in your life? Postponed decisions just make the problem of papers worse.

There is nothing to be afraid of by tidying your papers.

I’ll say that again.

There is nothing to be afraid of by tidying your papers.

And there is everything to gain by plunging in and doing them.

The list below contains the things that come to mind for me.  You may have some or all of these feelings and you will probably have even others that I haven’t thought of:

Feeling Overwhelmed. Just the sheer volume of papers and knowing that they were in charge of me instead of the other way around overwhelmed my senses. I didn’t know how to fix it.

Feeling Afraid. It was a  big pile of papers.  I didn’t know what was in there that I’d forgotten about:  mistakes I had made, choices I regretted, and so on.

Feeling Intimidated. With my papers are out of control, I felt like I didn’t know enough to fix the problem. Things seemed too technical or just too much of a headache to figure out.  With all of the paperless billing, and identity theft, it was hard to know what to keep and what was ok to let go of. 

Feeling Out Of Control. A big pile of anything is symptomatic of a loss of control, but when it’s a big pile of personal papers, it like looking at a life off track. Getting back on track takes time. Melding the pile of papers with the thought trying to fix my world at the same time was too much to consider.

Feelings of Failure. The unpaid bills and divorce papers reminded me of things that have not gone as I planned in my life. It was painful to think about.

Feelings Of Regret. Along with the feelings of failure came the regret of my choices. I would look at my papers and wish things were different.  Thinking about the things I wished were different pulled my out of enjoying my current life.

Feelings Of Loss.  I had lost family members  Some of the papers related to them and I felt so sad when I would see them I guess I hadn’t fully dealt with my grief.

There is nothing happy or joyful about this list.  No wonder I just wanted to turn around and walk the other way. But truly, facing these feelings is the only way to get past them.When I started papers, I had all of the feelings I just mentioned. My finances weren’t great; I had made bad choices. I couldn’t find things when I needed them.  I was confused on what we really needed to have on hand.

I didn’t know what to do with the photos and letters, memorabilia,  and report cards, either.

What I ended up doing going back to my vision. What did I really want? It’s easy to say, “Oh, I just want to be organized.” But I used to stuff papers in a drawer in my office and think that because I couldn’t see it, it was organized.

We all know that I wasn’t organized.

I also had a file box where I kept most of my bills (with the exception of what was in the drawer).  Each year, at tax time, I would pull out the file to look at it and see what I needed to have for this year’s taxes. I never seemed to look at it other than to file in papers that I didn’t use.

It was what I was taught to do. It was how my parents handled their papers. My Dad worked for a finance company. In my mind he was the expert, so I couldn’t go wrong if I did what he did, right?

But I’m not my parents.  I don’t live the life they did. Times have changed and tax filing has gotten simpler. As well, my Dad loved to crunch numbers and make spread sheets. I wanted something different.

Which is where my vision comes back into play. I wanted not only to be organized, but I wanted it to be simple, fit our lifestyle, and be easy to handle each week. I also needed to know what we really needed to keep.  I knew I had to just plunge in and do it.

I decided to do a quick sort in to mini categories first: Important documents (titles, birth certificates, and such); photos; letters; bills; insurance papers; manuals;  receipts; tax info; and trash. The photos, letters, and other emotional stuff went straight into my sentimental pile.  I wasn’t ready to deal with them.  Important papers, I staged in my fireproof box, for now. I knew I would go through them again, but I figured that I would be keeping most of it.  Manuals were easy.  I found a lot of ones for things we no longer had, so those got trashed. I know KonMari says you don’t need your manuals, but we do use ours and a few of our things have manuals that are hard to find on line. So I was down to bills, insurance documents, receipts and tax stuff.

I sorted the bills and tried not to cringe at the bank statements and credit balances. But it did me good to look at them.  Once I got the bills sorted, I went on to the receipts, and tax stuff, and sorted it by year.  Then I went on line to see how long I need to keep the taxes for our situation. It was only 3 years, for us.  I had 7 on hand.  Four years of receipts and tax forms went into the shredder. I also had other receipts for things I no longer had. Some of the things I bought were on impulse. Why was I keeping those receipts? I know I had made some poor choices, I really didn’t need a memorial in paper. If it was necessary to my life now, I kept it, if it wasn’t it went into the shredder. Then  I went back to the tax forms to see what receipts we had used for each year. Most of what I had kept, we hadn’t used on our taxes. So those went into the shredder too.  Then I decided that if I was to scan the rest, I could just keep digital copies of each year, and shred the last of it.  I went back to my bill and Insurance forms pile for another look.  Then I checked back on line and reviewed our insurance and credit bills.  Everything I had kept, was available to me online.  I scanned the latest records, just because I was feeling insecure about shredding every document I had.

It felt really weird not to have this big huge file of stuff. I had never not had papers. It also felt weird because other than facing the credit bills, it was pretty unemotional to tackle the pile. I had stressed over doing papers for quite awhile so it was a shock when I finished in just a few sessions.

I think it boiled down to handling the papers in a matter of fact way.   I knew photos and letters would be tough, so I just didn’t tackle them. It wasn’t so much that I was avoiding them, but putting them In their rightful de-cluttering position which was last. I did that with anything that I found during my tidying that tugged at my heartstrings.  The more I reviewed our papers by each item, the more knowledgeable and empowered I felt. Nothing had really changed yet.  I hadn’t “done” anything about budgeting to pay things off. But I knew where we stood.  When I was ready to laser focus on details,  it would be easy to find everything I needed.

It was a place to start. I think sometimes we look at decluttering, and think that while we are purging and organizing, we also have to magically solve all of our problems at the same time.  When all we see is what we haven’t done, we ignore all of the good things we’ve accomplished to get where we are today.

Maybe that’s why we don’t start; because it all seems too much. But by coming up with a plan, keeping a vision of how we actually want to live now, and taking projects in sizable chunks, it can get done.

The more I moved through the tidying process, the more I began to realize that my hard work was setting me up for the next step: to live joyfully.  That as long as I kept going, and focused on the tidying, and not trying to accomplish every life altering task at the same time, I would get  my house in order.  It wasn’t until after I finished tidying that I tackled the budget, worked on my self esteem, and looked at other areas in my life I wanted to bolster up.

My next post is on the joys (!??!) of tidying Komono.  See you then.










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