There is a lot of talk about decluttering these days. I am in full support of this movement. I am ready and willing to toss, say, the bank statement from 1976 or the baby bonnet knitted by an elderly aunt that shrunk to thimble size in the dryer. Stuff is stuff, and though it may represent memories, though we may cling, clutch and even smell these objects in order to keep these memories fresh and real to us—they are still stuff. They are not the actual memories.

This is why dealing with the past itself—especially the not-so-happy past—is so much more difficult. You can't throw it out. You can't give it away. You can't even buy an elegant leather storage container, dump it inside and slap on a sticker that reads in tasteful, graceful cursive: My Lack-of-Self-Esteem Years, 1982–1999.

I wish we could. But the sad truth is, boxing up and refusing to live with any part of your life takes as much energy as gripping it tightly or wishing it could have happened differently. Both approaches take too much work. Think about it: You've either got to keep that feral cat in the bag or live with it loose in the house.

I need a more reasonable, forgiving stance, one that lets me lose some of that less-than-joyful history, and keep some of it too. I don't speak symbolically either. I made an honest-to-God list for all of us out of there struggling with our former selves of what to keep and what to gently, firmly let go of...

To Keep: The Horrifying Photo
Mine dates back to age 24, an uncertain and not particularly flattering period of my life. I am a little heavier than plump, a little blonder than even acceptably fake blond and terrifically misguided in my fashion choices. (Was I the only one who believed that big, gauzy, ruffled pirate shirts brought out the best in a short, round woman? Was I the only one who believed in big, gauzy, ruffled pirate shirts at all?)

Should a friend look at me objectively in this photo, she would not gasp in horror and toss it out to protect my ego and love life. I look bad, but not mutant-ish (examples of which do exist, unfortunately). The horror here belongs to me and me alone.

This is, of course, the horror of regret and embarrassment. Over the years, I internally writhe each time that image floats to mind or shows up in some ill-fated family scrapbook viewing—as if the whole discouraging period is about to come back to life: the first job, the first loss of a job, the men who not only didn't love me but didn't notice that I was alive, the solace found in triple crème Brie.

Recently, however, I stumbled onto the photo while cleaning out my mother's house and realized that I am not only smiling like no tomorrow (eyes, mouth, cheeks, teeth), but further, my arms are flung clumsily but with great affection around a friend—a woman who remains my friend to this day. These were details I hadn't remembered. These were details I needed a lot of years to finally see.

If you look at a picture with this particular kind of horror, unique to you, that's a signal to keep it. Forever. True, the person in this sort of picture is a clunkier version of your adult self. But there are things this former you can teach the present one. First of all, nothing is as dreadful or miserable as we imagine it. There might have been great big gobs of forgotten fun (in my photo, for instance, I am smiling and hugging someone). Secondly, that imperfect you had to first try something in order to fail at it—something it might behoove you to try again. In my case, this doesn't mean wearing pirate shirts again but rather going all the way again, experimenting with full commitment, with no thought of what is unattractive or just plain foolhardy. Courage, after all, is something that must be continually learned.

Next: Two more things you absolutely have to keep