Nothing about breaking up is fun, but the sentimental and physical remains of a breakup make the whole experience even more painful, complicated, and gross. His or her stuff, the beautifully handwritten love notes, the myriad of text messages, the thoughtful gifts given to you, and all of those pictures — what do you do with them? As a recently heartbroken professional organizer, I’d like to present a step-by-step guide to getting through the tangible mess of saying good-bye to someone you love (or no longer love, or couldn’t be with for uncontrollable reasons, or whatever). I’ll tell you this much: It’s not going to be easy.
Step one: Take time to be a mess. Cover your bed in snotty tissues, throw your clothing on your floor, and let the plates covered in crusty chocolate ice cream and brownies pile up on your windowsill. You just said good-bye to someone and that blows. It’s okay to be sad and let go for a little while. Be kind to yourself and your mess during this period, but remember that sadness can feed on itself and moderation is always key. Eventually, it will be time to move on.
Step two: Get rid of the non-sentimental remains. It won’t be easy to throw his toothbrush in the garbage or dispose of the pajamas she left in your drawer, but try to focus on how they’re only things. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you should collect all of your ex’s belongings and mail them to him or her. Unless your ex specifically asks, it’ll just be painful extra work that you don’t need to do. Take a deep breath and be strong. And allow for a subsequent breakdown if need be.
Step three: Dispose of the meaningful keepsakes. These are the hardest to throw out, but also the least practical to save in the long term. Studies show that the longer you make physical contact with something, the more attached you become, so do the first round of purging as soon as you can and let go of the idea of saving every last piece of memorabilia. Creating a personal museum of your former relationship isn’t healthy — you run the risk of getting frozen in time, impairing your ability to move on.
Step four: Box up and store whatever sentimental objects you can’t bring yourself to let go. Just like anything else in your life, these keepsakes should be stored in a tidy fashion. Add them to an already-established keepsake box or contain them in their own clear bin, folder, or container, and place it out of arm’s reach. Most likely, you won’t be accessing these items on a regular basis, so make sure they’re not taking up prime real estate in your closet or drawer.
Step five: Survey the things your ex has given you. Applying Marie Kondo’s principle — does it spark joy? — is a great way to determine which gifts you want to keep and which feel too painful. Hold each item in your hand and let it tell you what emotions it elicits. Say good-bye to items that make you sad and let those that feel comfortable and safe remain.
Step six: Make peace with the electronic clutter. Only you can determine what’s best for you as far as the old text messages, photos, and voice-mails go. If just seeing them makes you spiral into a pit of sadness, consider wiping them away. But if they give you comfort because they represent your past, leave them be. It may be helpful to create a folder in the cloud and move everything there so it’s in your life but in deeper storage.
Step seven: Move on at your own pace. There are no rules for emotionally saturated situations, so allow your heart and body to determine how you move on. If you eventually decide to dispose of all physical memories of this last relationship, that’s totally acceptable — don’t let anyone tell you that you’re heartless. And if you find yourself sneaking into that keepsake box every so often, that’s fine, too. The most important thing is to let yourself feel the emotions and to accept them into your life.
Breakups really suck, and I’m sorry. At the end of this process, your heart won’t be unbroken. But at least your space will be a little bit tidier.