09/22/2016 08:05 EDT | Updated 09/22/2016 08:07 EDT

Downsizing Your Home Takes An Emotional Toll

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For many people, downsizing their home is a difficult decision. Whether they are moving to a smaller house, or from a house to an apartment, people become very distressed while weighing the pros and cons of downsizing. This usually abates once the move is complete, but it's a life change that brings up strong emotions.

Let's look at why.


Downsizing Corresponds with Other Life Transitions

The decision to downsize is often made along with another difficult life transition, such as divorce, death of a spouse or kids moving out.

A life transition is always painful and difficult, resulting in a plethora of complex emotions. Downsizing highlights the reasons for the transition, making it even harder.

A home represents a sacred period of someone's life, and the move is essentially closing this chapter. People don't want to let go of the time and memories that have come to be associated with their home. (In fact, two-thirds of people end up choosing not to downsize at all.)

Letting Go of Items with Sentimental Value

Downsizing also involves a declutter process: getting rid of personal items that are often embedded with memories. Getting rid of these personal effects is a type of letting go. And many times, letting go is something we have trouble doing.

Items that have accumulated over the years hold sentimental value. Each one can be symbolic of a special memory, and we want to hold onto these items as a way of keeping the memory alive. Although we always carry our treasured memories within us, when we throw out belongings that correspond with a particular time period, it can feel like the memories will fade or lose their potency. People develop an emotional attachment, both to the house, as well as some of the items that are in the house.

I have had a few patients who rented storage space following downsizing, so that they could keep personal items they felt attached to for sentimental reasons. One woman kept her children's old furniture: two beds, a dresser and some clothing. She didn't think she would ever use the items again or even give them away. She just could not part with them. Her memories of the time when her kids lived at home remained embedded in their belongings. She described: "Giving them away feels like I'm throwing out my memories. I can't do it." This is something I have commonly heard.

Another woman could not part with her mother's home, after her mother passed away. She remained in the house despite the fact that she couldn't afford to maintain it. A single woman in her early sixties, she didn't need the space. She just could not let go of the house and all the memories of her mother. She went into debt trying to keep the house, until finally she felt emotionally prepared to sell it.

Whether it's severing an emotional attachment to the house, accepting loss, having problems decluttering or not wanting to let go for sentimental reasons, downsizing can be an emotional process. If you're having difficulty, you're not alone. Closing life chapters -- leaving a time in our life behind -- can rouse a variety of emotions. Melancholic longing for time passed is one of the most pronounced.

However, most people report being thrilled with the decision once they have moved. Many also find that living alone or in a smaller space is extremely liberating. I have heard things like, "I can't believe I waited this long. I feel lighter and the smaller space is so much less work. I have time now to do other things."

Once the downsizing is done, it seems people are better able to embrace this life change and see it as a time of hope and new beginnings.

Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master's degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

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