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How I Learned To Stop Holding Onto So Much STUFF – Letting Go Of Mental and Physical Clutter

One day a young woman I was treating for depression shared with me some advice her GP had given her. It was advice that she was struggling with, and it was this: “Always go to bed with a shiny sink.”

It was doing her head in, because as part of her struggle with depression she was also struggling to maintain her home. Her GP hoped that if she could just do this one relatively simple thing, she’d start her days on a better footing.

I’ve never forgotten this mini-mantra. Because it makes absolutely perfect sense. A sink full of dishes, benches covered in crumbs, cups and plates everywhere. Even with the best of mental health, this is not a cheery way to start the day. How many times have you heard yourself say, “I’ll do it in the morning”?  Morning comes and you can’t find a teaspoon, your favourite cup has red wine stains in it, and the butter you left on the bench is covered in ants.

You go to work grumpy, hungry, and promising yourself that next time you’ll “go to bed with a shiny sink.”

Clutter Makes Me Tense

I don’t know about you, but nothing gets me tense more quickly than a cluttered bench top. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a “neat-freak” by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t stand a cluttered work space. Whether it’s at home in the kitchen, on my dining table, or at my practice. I work much more calmly and efficiently when I can see how much space I have to do what I need to do. I don’t think this is an earth-shattering revelation, I think most of us are like this. Yet we struggle to free ourselves of the clutter!

I was fortunate to have a professional organiser in my home for a week recently. She was here to help me get rid of excess stuff and set up my work-from-home space. It worked a treat and I’m feeling refreshed and motivated. I know this is not something everyone can do, so I’m not going to bang on about it too much. I mention it because I learned something rather profound about myself during the decluttering process. And I’m hoping it’s something that will help you sort through your excess clutter too, physical and mental.

Why Are We So Attached to Things?

With my Declutter Queen, Amy Revell, by my side, I gleefully discarded old papers to the shredder and boxes and boxes of unused stuff to the op shop or the rubbish. (How many sets of used earbuds can one family accumulate?).

However, when it came to my Special Boxes under the house, the gleeful shouts of “chuck it” stopped. “I’ve already sorted those,” I said to Amy. So, of course, she wanted to know what the boxes contained, why I had so many (come on, it was only two or three), and why we couldn’t trim them back further.

I stopped and looked her in the eye and said, “that’s my special stuff from when I was younger.” One eyebrow raised, she asked me if I needed to keep it. “Yes,” I said, “I do.” So we chatted about what this meant. And here’s the story.

I Am My Only Witness

I moved around a lot as a kid, between divorced parents and my grandparents. Up and down the length of Australia. Many schools, many friends, many homes. At the age of 12 I realised no-one was able to bear witness to the entirety of my childhood except me, and what if I got dementia at 80 and couldn’t remember any of it.

So the documenting began. Photographs, journals, diaries, letters, birthday cards, theatre programs. You name it, I kept it. I can completely understand how people struggling with hoarding get started.

Over the years I have gently curated this collection, trimming back the unnecessary, throwing out the damaged, and wondering why on earth I’d kept such-and-such. The Special Boxes represent people and places long gone, smiles long faded, relationships long spent. Once every year or so I sit on the floor with a cup of tea and sort through their contents, smiling from the inside out.

This was something I had never articulated to anyone so coherently before. It was an epiphany of sorts.

So, To Decluttering Your Space

Don’t worry, the Special Boxes are safe and remain where they are. But the above realisation made it so much easier to assess the relationships I had with all the other stuff in my house. A simple decision-tree formed in my mind:

  • Was I using this item on a regular basis (yes = keep it; no = assess further)
  • If I’m not using it regularly, do I need to keep it (no = chuck it; yes = assess further)
  • If I’m not using it and I feel I need to keep it, why is that? (special attachment = Special Box; not sure = you don’t really need to keep it, do you Tess?)

In a nutshell, I was able to say to myself that if it’s not worthy of the special box and I’m not using it, I clearly don’t need to keep it. How freeing is that!

Now, To Decluttering Your Mind

The same process can act as a simple analogy for decluttering your stressed and crowded mind. Ask yourself why you are holding on to certain (usually unhelpful) thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself if you are benefitting from holding onto that mental clutter. And then ask yourself why you just can’t let it go. It goes like this:

  • Is this situation something I’m in control of? (yes = create a plan; no = then who is in control?)
  • If I’m not in control of the situation, can I influence whoever is in control? (yes = arrange a meeting; no = accept what you can’t control and move on)
  • Rinse and repeat

It’s not a very difficult task, asking these questions, but like keeping your home uncluttered, it takes a little know-how and a little practice to put into action.

The Serenity Prayer encourages us to change what we can, accept what we can’t, and be wise enough to know the difference. At the risk of going all Disney on you, this is a “let it go” moment. It’s true. If you can’t control the outcome of a situation (e.g., whether or not you’re selected for a job you just interviewed for), why do you let worries about that clutter your mind. Curate your thoughts, only hold onto those that give you power, inspire you, or embolden you to make changes.

Holding onto the clutter of “what ifs” and “if onlys” – usually things you have no power over – holds you back, drags you down, and can at its worst bring you undone.

Don’t let it. Let that stuff go.

Need Help?

I know I’m making this sound simplistic and easy. And I know that for some of you, the very thought of what I’ve outlined above is terrifying (in which case, well done you for reading this far!). But there are some well-established ways that you can develop the skill of decluttering your mind, adding it to your own mental health toolkit.

As one example, practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are well-versed in skilling you up to let go of the stuff you have no control over. Australian Russ Harris’ book “The Happiness Trap” is a great place to start if you want to go it alone. His website of the same name is also full of plenty of resources to get you started. But if you get stuck, please, do go and seek out help.

Clarity around why you are attached to items and tricky thoughts will make it easier for you to let them go. Give it a try.

How I Learned To Stop Holding Onto So Much STUFF – Letting Go Of Mental and Physical Clutter

Tess Crawley

Dr Tess Crawley is an Australian clinical and forensic psychologist, based in Hobart, Tasmania. She completed a PhD in 2004, researching psychopathy in young women and is a former lecturer / clinic director at the University of Tasmania. Tess has worked in the Tasmanian and Queensland prison systems, among a variety of other clinical roles, before opening her solo private practice in 2001. Tess launched her group practice in 2009, Dr Tess Crawley & Associates. Tess has a special interest in perinatal mental health and rural mental health, and spends much of her professional time mentoring other psychologists, both those new to the profession and mental health leaders. She provides online mentoring programs for those professionals further afield. Tess is a busy mum to two boys, a mad Star Wars fan, and loves ice cream, coffee, and good red wine (not necessary all at the same time). The Stigma Rebellion blog is named after one of Tess' online communities, and continues her work towards increasing dialogue and reducing stigma around mental health issues.

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APA Reference
Crawley, T. (2018). How I Learned To Stop Holding Onto So Much STUFF – Letting Go Of Mental and Physical Clutter. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 26 Feb 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Feb 2018
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