Less Stuff: How letting go can change your life.
Published on March 10, 2016
by Dr. Caitlin Gordon

Less Stuff: How letting go can change your life.

Published on March 10, 2016 by Dr. Caitlin Gordon

george carlin quote on letting go

As for what George Carlin says, it ain’t gonna work, and you look kinda stupid. Buying stuff tends to feel good. That’s why it’s so tricky. We are programmed from our days as hunter-gatherers. When we get a new anything (zebra kill, hat, Chapstick) we also get a dose of dopamine to the brain. Our reward centers light up and we get the same little high that comes from eating a brownie, sex, or seeing all the “likes” on a photo. Dopamine fuels addiction cycles and is largely responsible for all our cravings, impulsive behaviors, and vices.

After moving this past week, I donated over 3 carfuls of stuff. I’m embarrassed that I even have that much excess to purge. But I did! And I do this cleaning out of stuff every single year. I dramatically downsized my closet. It brought up the fear of not having enough that most of us know pretty intimately. It’s okay to feel that. It helps to remind yourself you have more than enough when you’re letting go of things. But beyond that, I discovered my newfound space prompted an almost immediate desire to fill it with new stuff… stuff I do not need.

So, this Spring I am recommitting to not accumulating stuff for the sake of a dopamine fix. I am focusing on ways to be more socially and environmentally conscious (see below for ideas), and also to be more mindful of what’s really going on when I want to shop. You know what else lights up feel-good, anxiety-reducing, empty-hole-filling places in your brain and heart? Music, exercise, and human connection. Oh, and acupuncture of course. There’s a reason a hike or a dance party with a friend feels like divine medicine.

The Perks of Less Clutter

There’s a correlation between less clutter in your physical space and less clutter in your mental space. An organized, clean work and home space makes it easier to think. There is even fancy science to back up this claim.  A study in the journal of neuroscience found that the chaos of clutter limits your ability to focus. It competes for mental energy so that you can’t process information as well. How amazing is it that just by clearing out our physical space, we enjoy a more focused, calm mental state?

When we clean out our garage/closet/storage/etc., there’s some internal reorganizing that happens as well. Because of the emotional attachments we make with our things, letting go of stuff often brings up a lot of feelings. Purging junk, cleaning out trash, donated unneeded things can be a therapeutic exercise. Use this opportunity to work through stuck emotions, old traumas or heart injuries, and to check in with your current emotional state. Just being present with whatever comes up, is enough to process and heal your internal stuff, as you clean out your external stuff.

donate graphic Tips for Letting Go

We often have a strong emotional attachment to our personal belongings. A combination of instinct, media, and social conditioning creates the illusion that our things define us. We want nice stuff, we want more stuff, we want stuff that makes us look and feel like the image we have of ourselves or the image we want others to have of us. How we relate to our personal possessions is a complex business. Without getting too analytical, let’s just agree that most of us find it somewhat difficult to get rid of our stuff. Here are some tips for letting go.

Sentimental Things

Souvenirs and gifts can be one of the toughest things to let go. They also tend to be the stuff we accumulate that we really don’t need– we are rarely necessity shopping while on vacation, nor do our friends and family usually get us highly functional gifts (though some do!). It can be helpful to keep in mind that the feeling behind an item is not contained within the item. The ugly sweater your mom got you is not representative of your mom’s love. The act of giving the gift to you, and the  thoughtfulness of gift-giving is there whether you keep the sweater or donate it. You can separate the item from the feeling. I’ll bet seeing that sweater might even make you feel guilty, not good. If so, it’s definitely time to donate!

The same goes for souvenirs. The trinket from your trip to Hawaii does not contain all the joy from your vacation. The memories do. You can probably remember your trip via journaling, photos, or talking about it with a friend. Unless the trinket brings you true joy, it is okay to let it go. You aren’t losing the part of the experience that matters. That is contained within you!

Rule of thumb for letting go

If you touch it, hold it, look at it and the emotion you feel is not one of happiness or joy, it might be time for letting go. Holding on to items out of obligation, regret, anger, or even laziness is not good energy for our space. When the physical objects you share company with each day bring you joy, you are setting yourself up for better mental health.

For clothing: If you didn’t wear it in the last 2 years, you don’t need it. For myself, I make it a 1 year rule. But, I know some people feel they need to hold on to special occasion clothes for longer, so decide what length of time feels right for you. The point is to stick with it. When you feel the worry of, “But what if I need it/miss it/have the perfect occasion for it?” remind yourself that clothes are replaceable.

Trust that you have enough. If you are reading this blog on a phone or computer with internet, you have more than enough. You can still be loved, secure, and happy with less stuff. You will likely feel a sense of freedom and spaciousness when you are surrounded by items you have thoughtfully chosen to keep and not a bunch of stuff that has been mindlessly accumulated.

Check out this fantastic list of places you can donate almost anything you own!

Inevitably we have to buy new things sometimes. For tips on how to be more environmentally friendly in your shopping habits, read 5 Ways to Go Green this Spring.

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