What to Do With Unwanted Gifts: A Metaphor For Surviving 2020

January 4, 2021

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” 

- Soren Kierkegaard

2020 is over, and the New Year is upon us … finally. 

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been this anxious and excited about bringing in a new year since Y2K.

In my last post of 2020, we looked ahead to resolutions and goals for 2021. Now that the new year is here, let’s take one last look back at 2020.

After all, they say if we don’t learn from the past, we’re destined to relive it. And if it’s ok with you, once around 2020 was enough for me.

And as Kierkegaard said, we can only understand our lives by looking backwards. 

After 24+ years of helping people simplify, clarify, organize, and take action in their lives, I agree. 

I’m a big believer in taking a measured pause to reflect and gain some understanding first, THEN taking action.

And however you feel about 2020, we should all most definitely plan to take action this year.


Let’s start someplace easy—unwanted holiday gifts.

And yes, they ARE a metaphor for many other things we carry around with us over the years.

Even with social distancing and remote holiday celebrations, you may have come out of the holidays with at least a few well-meant “presents” that you could live without. Meaning, you’d never have bought them for yourself, and have no idea what to do with them.

Or, maybe you channeled your energies into a frenzy of Christmas shopping, and you were the giver of unwanted gifts, not the receiver.

Let me be clear. Gift-giving, done right, is a beautiful thing. Thoughtful gifts are a love language for some, after all.

The problem is when we use holiday gifts as a passive-aggressive way of communicating something we don’t want to speak outright OR make the gift about ourselves rather than the recipient.

Like when my mom bought me a crazy wool sweater of multi-colored stripes as her silent attempt to interrupt my, at the time, almost uniform black wardrobe.

She bought that sweater because she “wanted to see me in some color,” not because she thought I would like it.

As a result, many of us end up with piles of stuff we’ve received from other people that feels too loaded down with something … energy, intention, guilt … to give away. 

I can’t possibly get rid of THAT, we say—my partner/parent/sibling/distant relative/friend/colleague gave it to me … and their feelings would be hurt.

First of all … would they?

Second of all … without being too harsh … I don’t really care and neither should you.

Of course you care about the giver … but you are not obligated to care about the object.

Do you see the distinction?

The person is NOT the gift.

It’s completely legitimate to believe that this item was intended to add value and happiness to your life, not saddle you with an additional thing you have to now be responsible for.

So even though it’s a bit after the holidays, here’s my bonus gift to you … ready?

It’s your guilt-free certificate for getting rid of ALL that stuff. 

Anything that’s still sitting in a pile because it doesn’t have a home in YOUR home. Or has been shoved to the back of a drawer or a shelf until you can figure out what to do with it.

Here’s what to do with it: exchange it for something you DO want, sell it, give it to someone who WILL appreciate it or donate it. Release it with love.

It really is that simple.

Again, you can judge it as harsh, but gifts fulfill their purpose the moment you receive them. 

The object itself has no stake in where it ends up.

And if it isn’t something you truly want, or even like, you fulfilled your responsibility when you opened the gift and said thank you—even with a forced smile.

I’d also suggest that, if your people-pleasing is stronger than your survival instinct, that you’re a bit out of balance.

So let these things flow through your life and your space(s). 

They’ve done their job, and you’re not helping anyone—certainly not yourself—by dragging them around with you for decades until you finally throw them away after years of non-use.

Now, beyond literal gifts themselves, how do we apply this technique to 2020?

Because it’s easy to just want to throw the entire year in the trash.

But how does that serve us?

It wasn’t all hideous … just most of it was.

If we look back at the year, what can we learn about our own resilience? Our ability to survive and adapt? Our limits and when we needed to just recover?

What did we resist? What did we deny? What did we champion?

If we had to do it again, would we do it the exact same way?

Before we take 2020 back to the store, hoping for, if not a refund, at least store credit, let’s take stock of what did and didn’t work and how we can shift in 2021 to have a better year.


Back to gifts!

If you happened to be on the giving side of unwanted gifts, consider this: Did you give all of those holiday gifts because the receivers truly needed or wanted them? Or was gifting an outlet for you and some attempt at self-soothing at the end of a stressful, crazy year?

It’s ok if it was a bit of both. 

The important  takeaway is that gifts that were more about how you felt giving them—were a bit lopsided—which is totally fine and completely human.

It’s just important to own it without any negative judgment. 

Because if you visit your parent/sibling/friend and don’t find your gift among their belongings, you shouldn’t and you can’t take it personally. That gift did its job in making you happy when you bought it and passed it along.

Let it go, and do your best to be mindful of how you give gifts going forward.

And in all seriousness, if the act of giving is what you’re craving, donations of cash or other things to non-profits will give you a similar lift AND not require the recipient to hold onto the gift in its original form as proof of their appreciation and your significance.

We all do reactive, uninvestigated things to soothe ourselves during times of stress: binge-watching Netflix, overeating comfort food, or obsessively focusing our attention on other people.

Acknowledging that this kind of habit exists is the first step to conquering it.

When emotional bumps arise this year—and they will, for all of us—try to find ways to stabilize yourself that don’t have an impact on others. 

You can organize your own household without burdening others with future junk, and you can take care of yourself in ways that don’t impose on others.

And now again, into 2021 … how can we take what we learned from 2020 and be better and do better?

Were we so beleaguered that in trying to just survive, we stepped on toes? Or worse?

Are there things we need to clean up, to make amends for harms done?

Are there things to celebrate that would be easy to gloss over because we’re only focusing on what went wrong?

A thorough inventory includes damaged goods and also the things that survived and are perfectly good and useful.

If you tend to be a bit more “glass half empty,” here’s a chance to take stock of your successes without diminishing them or comparing them to any failures.

All in all, we want to scrape every bit of goodness out of a shit year while being courageous enough to look at it all.

That’s a strong way to walk into the unknown future of 2021.


As we move into 2021, keep the focus on your goals and your values, and allow them to inform your future— and don’t drag around your mistakes from your past.

Learn from them … don’t torture yourself with them.

That includes carrying around unwanted junk just because someone you know gave it to you. 

Reflect on what it meant to you in the moment, what it may or may not mean to you today and then say thank you … even if it was never wanted.

Then let it go.

Then, do the same for any mental and emotional baggage you picked up last year. 

Yes, 2020 was intense and disturbing in many ways for many of us.

And no, carrying all that baggage around won’t make anything better THIS year.

Process through your experiences. Synthesize what you can and discard the rest.

Adjust your behavior and your priorities as needed to live a happy, wholehearted, healthy, and productive life today.

Because today is the day you actually have influence, if not complete control over.

Last year is useful in as much as it informs your choices today.

Beyond that, it’s just something that you can’t alter … so be very deliberate about what you carry forward with you into 2021.

Otherwise, it’s going to end up as something you’ll have to get rid of “later” … and why put off to tomorrow what you can easily get rid of today? 

That only makes tomorrow that much lighter and easier to enjoy.

Looking for a way to start the new year with less clutter and more energy, time and freedom? Join our FREE 5-Day De-Stress Your Mess Challenge!

Declutter Your Life Podcast by Andrew Mellen. Available on iTunes!