'I have too much junk and it's all been given to me. Is there a polite way to refuse gifts?'

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Prisma Archivo/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Prisma Archivo/Alamy Stock Photo

Like many people lately I’ve been decluttering. Clearing everything out has made me realise how much stuff I have that I don’t need. It’s not like I have a compulsive shopping habit. Very little of this junk is stuff I’ve bought. It’s all stuff that’s been given to me – by well-meaning family members, friends or from corporate events.

How do I prevent this junk from accumulating again? Is there a polite way to refuse a gifted vase or unwanted pot? Should I quietly dispose of it the second I get it? And what happens if I’m asked to produce some unloved object when an aunt swings by? I live in a little apartment, so having a whole lot of things I don’t need makes my life slightly worse – but I do wonder if getting rid of these things just creates more problems than it solves. Should I just give up, hire a storage unit and keep my stuff to myself?

Eleanor says: This very same thing happened to me. I moved to the other side of the world with two suitcases, no mattress and 12 books. Two years later, moving house, I had more things than would fit in a van. I stood around flapping my hands like a Cathy cartoon saying “I don’t know where it all came from!” when of course I knew: in exchange for a cumulatively alarming amount of currency it had come on the back of a truck, in a box that I immediately threw away.

Related: A ruthless approach to decluttering completely transformed my life

Or, like you, I got it from people who felt they couldn’t turn up empty-handed. Candles from students at the end of semester, tiny soaps that wouldn’t wash a toy car, gifted cosmetics that had bred and multiplied in the back of a closed bathroom drawer.

I think we give and accumulate stuff like this because it’s a way to lob half-hearted effort at an emotional goal. We want to feel invigorated and revitalised; or we want another person to feel appreciated. But instead of thinking more deeply about what exactly needs revitalising, or how to make this person feel cherished, we pivot to the hypothesis that this shade of red lipstick will finally be the right one, or that this relative is the only person on the planet whose love language is scented body wash. We become, frankly, lazy.

I think what might be useful to you here is that everybody, deep down, knows this. Even if your aunt really cannot understand why you might not want what she’s giving, she will know what it’s like to not want something. She will have discovered her own piles of things she didn’t want, whether it’s socks or books or gift vouchers. You can leverage that common experience to just be firm: this Christmas, no things. “Just comestibles,” my grandma used to say, and bless her she got through every one of the marmalade jars we started giving her instead.

There isn’t a polite way. You just have to be clear. You can treat it like a personality quirk, so people will do your PR for you and start saying “you know how she feels about things”. Steer conversation around to how much you like your new unencumbered lifestyle – make it clear that this is a genuine preference and not a charade like saying “just bring yourself!”

People will override you, the same way they insist on cake and candles for people who honestly don’t like birthdays. This is, ultimately, more rude than turning up without a gift – and you should feel you can throw out whatever they give you. You’re right that sometimes this just passes on the landfill burden. But if we take a long enough view, one day when each of us is gone, someone who loved us will have to go through what we owned and throw most of it away. Making sure there isn’t much to go through might be the greatest gift there is.


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