Feelings of attachment are a common part of the human experience, but have you ever wondered why people get emotionally attached to certain objects? From childhood teddy bears to heirlooms passed down through generations, some objects seem to hold a special place in our hearts more than others. What causes this to happen, and when does attachment to an object cross the line from “normal” into an unhealthy territory?
Emotional attachment to objects stems from psychological, emotional, and social factors. Recollections, self-expression, comfort, and social/cultural influences are at the root of most object attachments.
Emotional attachment to objects is caused by emotional transference, reinforcement of thought patterns, personal beliefs, and life events.
Warning signs for object over-attachment include neglecting other responsibilities, thoughts of the object influencing your feelings, losing sight of what is important, and an increase in your acquisition of stuff.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective ways in treating emotional attachment to objects because it focuses on your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes and how they affect your feelings and behaviors.
Why are some people sentimental?
Being sentimental means having strong feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia. These feelings can be connected to people, places, or objects. When we use the term "sentimental person," we're referring to someone who is influenced by deep emotions and feelings often tied to personal memories or significant experiences. Therefore, a sentimental person acts from emotion rather than careful thought or judgment-based facts.
When a person has an emotional or sentimental attachment to an object, they are connected to it because of the emotion it evokes, not the item’s original purpose.
How emotional attachment to objects happens
Emotional attachment to objects often stems from a complex interplay of psychological, emotional, and social factors.
In some cases, it has been found that extreme object attachment in adults compensates for a lack of interpersonal attachment. In other cases, extreme attachment to objects is a symptom of hoarding disorder.
Strong emotional and sentimental attachment varies for everyone. Here are a few common reasons why some individuals are particularly sentimental with objects:
- Recollections. Objects often serve as memory triggers, bringing us back to specific memories or moments in time. These items hold sentimental meaning as they help us relive our personal history.
- Self-expression. Certain objects become extensions of our identity, reflecting our values, interests, and personality. Favorite objects can be a way for us to express our gender, age, or the cultural norms that we hold valuable.
- Comfort. Some objects provide a sense of comfort or safety. They act as emotional reminders during challenging times or prompt us to remember a time when we felt safe and secure.
- Social/cultural influences. Cultural practices, family traditions, and societal norms can influence our attachment to objects.
What causes emotional attachment to things?
We often think of emotional attachment to objects as normal for children and adolescents, but emotional attachment to objects is common across the lifespan. But still, what causes some adults to become so emotionally attached to objects, while others do not?
Transference, in general, refers to the process of moving something from one place to another. Often you will hear the word “transference” when referencing talk therapy, when a client projects their unconscious emotions and feelings onto their therapist. However, emotional transference can occur anywhere in daily life.
People often project their emotions onto objects, infusing them with sentimental value. For instance, a gift from a loved one symbolizes the affection shared in that relationship — a common example of this is wedding bands. However, any object can gain sentimental value, no matter how obscure that object may be.
Reinforcement of thought patterns related to objects
As adults age and move farther away from the original emotions they associate with an object, they may have increased sentimental feelings towards these possessions because they elicit those feelings once more. An increase in feeling sentimental only increases attachment to possessions because they are consistently recalling and reliving pleasant memories. This self-reinforcing cycle can lead to further increased levels of attachment to an object.
Sentimental beliefs greatly impact attachment to objects as we age. If you grew up in a family that valued sentimentality, you may be predisposed to do the same.
Beliefs stemming from religion, cultural norms, family histories, and societal standards greatly influence how we view objects and the values we place on them.
Additionally, beliefs about memory, beauty, and wastefulness can also impact one’s attachment to objects later in life. For example, if you strive to live a minimalistic lifestyle, you are less likely to grow an attachment to objects because you may not see the value in having that object in the first place.
Life events may impact the way we view objects. Large life events, like the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or relocating could all influence the meaning and attachment one has to certain objects. For example, after the loss of a loved one, some adults may feel a sense of sentimentality about the deceased’s items, which could cause an increase in object attachment.
Transitional life events that come with aging, like retirement or downsizing a home, could also have an influence on how a person feels about certain objects.
How to recognize when you are too attached to an item
While emotional attachment to objects is normal, it can become problematic when it starts to interfere with your daily life. Like unhealthy emotional attachment behaviors in relationships, there are common warning signs of when an attachment to an object has crossed over into unhealthy territory:
- You’ve started neglecting daily responsibilities. If you find yourself lacking on home maintenance, hygiene, or motivation for work because you are too preoccupied with thoughts of said object(s), this could be a red flag.
- Your feelings depend on it. If your feelings are so dependent on said item that you can’t imagine living without it or your functioning is dependent on having it around, it might be time to reevaluate.
- You begin to lose sight of what is important. If you are obsessing over thoughts about the object so much that it causes you to start disregarding other important aspects of your life, you may want to seek help.
- You have a lot of stuff. Having difficulty throwing away items or parting with possessions because you think you will need them, or that something bad could happen if you get rid of them, is a common thought pattern when overly attached to objects.
- You start isolating yourself from others. It is abnormal to start withdrawing, avoiding, or distancing yourself from others due to embarrassment or fear of judgement over your attachment to an object.
Managing unhealthy attachment to objects
Treatment and symptom management can help people who are overly attached to objects live safer and healthier lives. Keep in mind that emotions are one of the biggest influences driving our attachment to objects. Leaning into the emotions that connect you to a sentimental object is the first step in managing this unhealthy attachment.
Here are some ways to stay proactive with your sentimental items so you can continue enjoying them without the threat of over attachment:
- Boundaries. Put limits on how many, or what type, of sentimental possessions you will keep. Regularly evaluate their importance and declutter as needed.
- Slow detachment. Try to minimize the amount of time spent with, or relying on, the object. Search for alternative ways to handle the emotions that are being influenced by said object.
- Connect with your emotions. Dig deep to see why you are keeping these specific items. What memories or feelings are associated with this object for you? Acknowledging the memories or feelings alone will reinforce the idea that you do not need an object to trigger experiencing them.
Seek professional help
If your emotional attachment to objects causes significant distress or disrupts your life, seek professional help. Therapists, psychologists, and support groups can guide you in managing attachment issues.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of most efficient treatments for object attachments and hoarding disorders. CBT focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviors.
For object attachment, CBT could target changing your beliefs about keepings items, practicing the reduction of continually acquiring objects, practicing discarding items, teaching skills for organizing, and continued talk therapy to get at the root of your emotional attachments.
Being a sentimental person with an emotional attachment to objects is a natural part of life. Just because you can’t throw away your grandmother’s knitting supplies or your childhood blanket doesn’t mean you have a problem. Understanding why you are attached to your possessions, seeking help when needed, and integrating healthy mental health practices will allow you to continue having a meaningful connection with your possessions while living a clutter-free life.
- Current Opinion in Psychology. Object attachment as we grow older.
- Comprehensive Psychiatry. Object attachment and emotions in hoarding disorder.
- Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Unpacking the construct of emotional attachment to objects and its association with hoarding symptoms.
- American Psychological Associations. Treating people with hoarding disorder.