Are you still hanging onto jeans you haven’t been able to zip in a decade, or a grudge against a co-worker that’s long past it’s expiration date? Let’s face it, even if we're not hoarders we all have stuff from our past—unnecessary keepsakes as well as emotional baggage—cluttering our lives.
Here are some suggestions for what to toss to the curb to make room for better things:
1. Clothes That No Longer Fit Your Lifestyle
Clothes can be a wistful reminder of days gone by—the funky poncho that was so fun to wear back in college or the beige power suite with wide lapels. “Women have a hard time letting go of clothes that hold memories, but if you haven’t worn something in a full year it’s probably time to turn the page on it," says Donna Smallin, author of Organizing Plain and Simple. Someone else is bound to love it, and any profits from a consignment shop or yard sale can go toward buying something great you can wear now.
2. Your Old Self-Image
Who you were 20 years ago has little to do with the person staring back from the mirror today. Yet many of us harbor old self-images that are hard to shake. Carole Lynch was a mother of two and a respected police officer, yet she hung onto the geeky image of herself as a shy teen with a bad perm and no fashion sense well into her 30s. “One day, as I was cleaning the basement shelves and my hand touched my junior high yearbook, I started thinking about all the murders and rapists I’d taken off the streets,” says Lynch, now 62. “I realized how silly it was to keep a record of my low self-esteem from decades ago.” Lynch didn’t just throw away her book of bad memories; she put it through the shredder as a ritual statement for really letting go of the past.
3. Failed Diet Souvenirs
We all have dieting skeletons in our kitchen pantries—like an abandoned bottom shelf packed with low-carb snacks or high-protein shakes. “We tell ourselves that one day we’ll get back to eating that ‘good’ food, but it may be just a useless reminder of a failed diet that wasn’t right for our body,” says Philip Goglia, author of Turn Up the Heat: Unlock the Fat-Burning Power of Your Metabolism. “Some people crave carbs because their body really does need more of them.” (The same goes for exercise equipment; the stationary bike you keep tripping over in the garage may be there because it never really worked for your body. Get a trial membership at a gym, see what you really like using, and then make a wiser investment.)
4. Nagging Expectations
Of course, most of us have something we wish we could change about our spouse. (For me, it’s my husband’s amnesia about turning out the household lights before going to bed.) “Renegotiating household responsibilities, allowing each partner to toss jobs that just aren’t on their radar screen, can take the pressure off your marriage and leave more room for enjoying each other,” says Detroit psychotherapist Cindy Glovinsky. My husband and I recently negotiated a win-win deal: I’ll do evening light patrol and he’ll cook dinner an extra night every week.
5. Old Grudges
Everyone has someone who did them wrong lurking in their past—the co-worker who snitched on you or the girlfriend who stole your guy. Many of us hold some grudges for years, but when it comes down to it, haven’t we all made mistakes? In a University of Michigan survey, nearly 75 percent of respondents said they believe God has forgiven them for a past misdeed, but only 52 percent of them had forgiven others. “Many of us find it difficult to forgive if the offending party doesn’t own up to their actions and apologize,” says Stanford psychologist Fred Luskin, who teaches forgiveness seminars. “The trick is to give yourself permission to put your bitterness in the past for your own good—regardless of the other person's actions. Why give all that power to someone who’s done you wrong?”
6. Family Ghosts
Every family history is filled with cherished memories as well as some that are best parted with. Marilyn Paige of Philadelphia felt so strongly that she needed to let go of her family legacy of secrets and lies that at age 33 she legally dropped her last name. “My grandmother was a single mom before anyone knew what that meant,” says Paige, now 47. “She was ashamed and bitter, and passed along that history of guilt to my father. After I filled out the legal forms to officially let go of a family surname attached with such dark feelings, I finally felt free to embrace a new history all my own.” Paige did keep her father’s first name, Heywood, as her middle name, to honor the part of her family history she wanted to hang onto—the loving father who instilled a great sense of humor and curiosity about others in his children despite the nurturing he lacked in his own childhood.
7. A Pack Rat Attitude
Sometimes the main thing standing in the way of tossing keepsakes we no longer need is our attitude. “Many pack rats keep absolutely everything because they can’t bear to think of their mementos as garbage,” says Gail O’Neill, host of HG-TV’s Mission: Organization. “Finding a second home for keepsakes can soften the blow. Even if you can’t sell something, you can usually give it away.” When Maria Rock began remodeling her garage into an apartment for her father, she was at a loss for what to toss. “I couldn’t bear to throw out any of our family collectibles—shelves overflowing with Christmas decorations, stacks of boxes with my grown children’s faded school papers,” says the Chico, California horticulturist. “Then, my dad suddenly died and losing something really precious swung everything into focus.” By the time Rock was done, she had filled an 8-foot trailer bed with dump-worthy items, while salvaging enough ornaments, stuffed animals, and ceramic Santas for 20 needy families to have a merrier Christmas. “I realized that even though I got rid of 30 years worth of accumulated things, my family history would always stay in my heart.”
8. Gifts Wrapped in Guilt
Some people have no sixth sense about gift giving and keep wrapping up that proverbial fruitcake. “Lots of gifts wind up as clutter—usually hidden away in closets—because we feel guilty getting rid of presents from people we care about,” Smallin says. “But if it truly was a gift from the heart, the giver would want you to enjoy it or give it to someone else who can.”
9. Books You’ll Never Read
Great books can be read time and again, but we all have paperbacks that were at ten-for-a-dollar at a garage sale, or titles that looked better on Amazon.com than when they arrived. There’s no written or unwritten rule that says we can’t toss these volumes before we’ve read them cover-to-cover. “For years, I collected serious books on topics that I knew I’d never read, but I thought it made me smarter just having them around—as if through osmosis I would soak up the information,” says Janice Taylor, who recently gave up dozens of books when she moved out of her Brooklyn, New York home of 21 years. “As I started packing, it hit me: Having these unread books didn’t actually make me feel intelligent, but quite the opposite.” Taylor felt really smart as she dropped the piles of books off at a high school for kids who would actually appreciate them.
10. Your “To Do” List
What would you do without your To-Do list for just one day? “You wouldn’t forget the things that are really important just because they aren’t written down,” Glovinsky says. As for all that other stuff? “Let it sit for a day—it will still be there tomorrow, and you’ll have more energy after a refreshing day off.”
Jennifer Haupt is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington.