Spring Cleaning from the Inside Out


“Letting go isn’t the end of the world; it’s the beginning of a new life.” ~Unknown

Last December I found myself sitting on my floor, having just left my job and a ten-year relationship. As a result, I was about to leave my home too. In front of me was a mountain of possessions that I somehow had to take with me to wherever I was going next.

Clothes, bedding, books, notebooks, electronic bits and pieces, boxes of ornaments, and sentimental “things,” handbags within handbags, flocks of high heels, tsunamis of paperwork…

And then there was little me.

I felt overwhelmed by my possessions. It seemed unnatural to have accumulated more than I could carry alone, or at least fit into my car.

Outside, it was the run up to the holidays in the middle of a recession. Half the country was unable to afford their heating bills, let alone presents. So to distract myself I brought a handful of things to a children’s charity shop down the road: teddies, pictures, a wicker basket that would be perfect for a child to keep toys in.

And that unleashed the floodgates.

I felt good—for me, because my burden of possessions had shrunk, and for the children, who might receive these things at Christmas.

While the basket was hard to give away—it had been mine since I was a baby—giving it away made me see that I was better able to mentally cope with getting rid of things, than physically cope with trying to take it all with me.

And so an epic spring clean began in the middle of my winter. Three weeks of rifling through boxes and shipping stuff out to charity shops, friends, family, the trash, and eBay.

Some things were easy to give away. Others were not. Certain things I had no use for—yet something made me hesitate to let them go. I came to know these hesitations as emotional speed bumps.

For each item I dithered over like this, I asked, why am I keeping it? What feeling does it give me while I have it—and what feelings arise when I go to give it away?

In response, each item told me something about myself. A jewelry box from a friend—pretty, but I discovered that I associated sadness to it, related to my friend’s own history.

I decided to rehome it because I do not need symbols of sadness in my life.

As I did so, the depths of my sorrow for this friend arose, so I sat with the feeling and a box of hankies, and the sorrow soon left me along with my attachment to the jewelry box.

And then, the sweater I never liked, but had kept because my ex liked me in it. I realized I was hanging on to him by hanging on to the jumper, so I let that go too. Another release.

This happened again and again. The item. The questioning. The decision to let go. A release of feeling. A sense of liberation.

Many of the decades-old tensions in my body seemed to have a corresponding object I was hanging onto on the outside.

These are some of the other questions I asked myself about each belonging:

  • When I see it, does it lift my spirits?
  • Does it have a practical use, today?
  • Am I keeping it for me, or out of a sense of duty to someone else? Is it a burden?
  • Where I have multiple keepsakes from one person, can I keep just one?
  • Would I have remembered it if I hadn’t found it in this box/wardrobe?
  • Does it suit my life? Does it work for me or do I work for it?
  • Will someone else get more enjoyment and use from it?
  • Will I, or my life, be any the less without it?
  • If I get over the emotional speed bump of giving it away will I actually be relieved? Will my life feel freer without it?
  • What is my gut feeling, keep it or lose it?

For clothes, I also asked:

  • Do I feel attractive in it?
  • Is it comfortable and easy to care for?
  • Is it warm? For me, important, because I am sensitive to cold. You might have other personal criteria.
  • Can I be as physically active as I need in it?
  • Does it go with other clothes in my wardrobe?
  • Is it fun? Happy? (And other words that describe you, i.e.: “Is it me?”)
  • Does it give me a poverty mindset or a wealth mindset?
  • Do I have a duplicate(s) that will serve the same occasions? Do I need both/all?

A few pairs of high heels went with that last question.

Put tricky things in limbo.

If you’re stuck on an item, put it in a box for six months, then review it again. Maybe it’s sufficient to make a note that you had it, or take a photo of it, and then give it away. If it is of monetary value, sell it or put it in trust with a friend.

Put rainy day things to use.

At the time of the clear out I was looking to buy a new winter coat. I suddenly remembered I had a purple vintage coat that once belonged to my mother. I had kept it carefully under wraps in various wardrobes for twenty years.

I asked, what am I protecting it for? When am I actually planning to wear it? The search for a new coat ended that day, and the compliments started flowing about what an unusual coat I had. Likewise, I put into daily use the silver cutlery that I had previously kept boxed for a decade.

Place things in trust.

I gave an antique writing desk to my brother, telling him I might return for it in future, might not. In the meantime he gets a beautiful piece of furniture and I know it is cared for. My ex fostered my collection of books that, as a writer, I am not ready to give away.

One thing that I held onto with abandon was a set of blankets—far more than I need. When I went to give these away I realized that their warmth and softness represents love to me, and at this time in my life I want to keep as much love as I can around me.

And so, after all this, I am left with a select few practical, uplifting things that have purpose and beauty for me. Inside, I feel a clearness like the atmosphere after a spring shower. And not only have I benefited, but other people, too.

The other day, my new neighbor visited my flat and the first thing she asked was, “Where’s your television?” and then “I suppose you have so little stuff because you have just moved in?”

I smiled knowingly. I have whittled my belongings down to one carload—well, two allowing for all the blankets—yet still feel I own too much. I wonder how to live with even less, wedded to my inverted take on E=mc2:

Fewer belongings = more freedom. Less mass equals more energy.

I find freedom in owning as little as possible. But freedom to me also means being able to swim in winter's sea, walk in rain, keep warm, make a living, and look good. So I kept the wetsuit, makeup, good coat, rain coat, warm coat, walking boots, thermals, and a select few high heels.

These travelling companions don't hold me back or overwhelm me, but lift my spirits and lighten my journey through life.

How can you lighten your load, from the inside out?

Photo by Derek Gavey

About Josephine Hughes

JR Hughes (Josephine) is an Irish writer who has recently moved to Ibiza, Spain for the warmth. She is working on three novels and hopes to secure a publishing deal soon. You can follow her progress and some of her random thoughts and photos at

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  • jt

    Thank you for writing this, I think owning so many things is a problem to many of us. I loved your article because I am also trying to live on less. Less possessions. 
    “I felt overwhelmed by my possessions. It seemed unnatural to have accumulated more than I could carry alone”

    I once was at a rough and lonely spot, moving from places to places with my family and then moving out to a friend’s in a hurry. I felt so burdened with all my possessions, didn’t think it made sense too, to own so much that I can’t even carry them away myself. It made me feel very sad, I couldn’t bring a lot with me even though I wanted and I realized that moving from place to place and leaving a lot of things in carton boxes, you only need very little. It is always the sentimental “things” that we can’t bear to let go of. 

    I realized that there is no point feeling so attached when one day we all have to part with them too. I am still trying to let go of the sentimental “things” and put as much zen and simplicity to my life as possible, thank you for the suggestions!

  • Laurel

    I actually love getting rid of things for the very fact that you stated, the feeling of freedom. When you clear out the “things” you make room for things like joy, peace, and creativity. I especially love re-purposing things and have gotten a lot of joy recently out of taking all my “good china” out form behind the glass and using it daily, after all, who am I saving it for really? why not enjoy it now?

    It’s still a process though, I still end up with more than I need, and I have to go back and constantly re-evaluate. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and what a great way to bring mindfulness to your spring cleaning by understanding the emotional connection you ascribe to physical things. 

  • This was just what I needed today. I have struggled with this concept for years, as did my mother, who passed down this issue to me. I have quite a few things that have emotional strings attached to them, and i’m still learning how to let go things i really don’t need. This one is getting printed out as a daily reminder!!! Thank you so much!!! 

  • sos

    I have gone on a minimalism spree lately and I totally dig you. It is very liberating…

  • How would you deal with photos of loved ones that have passed? I keep every photo I can find of my ancesters and deceased family members even if they bring sad memories. . . am I wrong?

  • Eliana

    no way ..those get put into the quick get away box, in case of fire or earthquake!

  • I keep one shoebox of photos from the days of film (stored in a friend’s house), and most others are on my computer, from the days of digital… so limitless storage there! There are buckets of photos kept by others in my family, so I have access to them there, so in a way I keep them there.

    The thing with photos of course is that they are images of people – not ‘things’ from people, or random objects. They are faces and expressions, mood and DNA… a window through which we make eye contact with our past. They’re a bit special that way aren’t they.
    I don’t know what the answer to this except that there is no need to get rid of anything. As a friend said to me, you can get attached to getting rid of things too!I know what you mean about photos and sad memories. I wonder is there a way we can look at the sadness and somehow transfer them into happy memories. Or ask, is what we assume to be sadness, actually just feelings of love and longing or fondness. Can we open up to it, un-label it and see if it transforms into something else?

  • I laugh now, looking back at some of the items I got stuck on… 

    I had a lovely blue sparkly Bardot dress that was very unusual and pretty…. But I was always cold in it. Even in the middle of summer I was cold in it (this is Ireland after all). But I’d wear it because I had it – and having it meant that I didn’t buy other dresses. 

    Also, it was a nightmare to wash – all those sequins – and I needed a certain shade of tights and a certain shade and style of shoes to wear with it, and all those riffles on the shoulders meant I couldn’t wear a cardigan or jumper over it – and yes, in my mind it made me look like a princess, but God did I pay for that privilege. 

    It was not worth being a princess…

    Eventually, after much deliberation, I forced myself out the door with it rolled up in a bag… I sold it through a consignment store and bought a much warmer fitted velvet dress instead, which I can wear over jeans, and under wool cardis if I need. It is a much more suitable dress for me and my life – and I am sure the Bardot dress if having a great time at various cocktail parties without me 🙂

  • I like the questions you asked yourself in the process of letting go. Honesty with the self can lead to such release and relief! Thanks for the wisdom and practical road map for this.

  • It is liberating 🙂 The process also knocked the stuffing out of me too… it tapped into some creative part of my brain and I was totally unable to write for the period this clearing out was going on… and for a short time after. It had exhausted that creative side of myself. Perhaps there were so many stories in the things that I was clearing out that I was all storied out!!!

  • marty

    Thanks you made me feel better.

  • I am actually dealing with something similar right now.  I had to move out of a house into a one-bedroom apartment with not much time to prepare.  I took some time “off” after moving and am just now starting to go through things and do what you did.  I never want to move that much stuff again, and I don’t need 75% of it.  Still, it’s an extremely tough process to part with items (especially after a lifetime of collecting/sentimental storing of so many things!).

    I love how you described your process and also that you didn’t pretend you were just able to give the stuff you didn’t need away without much effort… if only it were that easy!  Knowing we don’t need it and actually being able to part with it are two different things.  My process is multi-layered, and I’m doing several rounds because on each round I’m better able to see that I really don’t need it when previously it felt absolutely necessary.

    I’m so impressed with your strength and ability to get down to what’s really important for yourself!  Good for you – best wishes!

  • Lori

    Thank you for the tool to dig deep and really rid myself of things I have dragged around for years, physically and emotionally.

  • Theoldbellpub

    Great article and  it arrived just at the right time as I’m about to have a clear out of my clothes and other stuff. I’ve printed this out as I need guidance on how to get rid of clothes. BUT – one stumbling block is how do you get over the feeling that I spent XXXX on this dress / jumper etc and if I get rid of it then it’s a waste of money. (TBH it’s already a waste of money as its not doing anything in the cupboard. 
    Thanks again. 

  • I like the post!I like the movements!it’s really work!Less things more air around you)))

  • The way I look at giving away valuable clothes is that someone else will get enjoyment from them, so your money has not gone to waste… It is just another way of giving… Also, if you give them to a charity shop the charity shop benefits as well as the person who buys them. So it is win win win!
    Or there’s always swopshops and eBay 🙂

  • The bulk of me is my books. I am not sure how I can part with them.

  • Lee B

    Inspirational, Thank You.

  • Debwstone

    Such great advice.  I’m so motivated to remove the clutter from my home, literally and figuratively.  I have a question, one thing I struggle with is holding on to extra pillows, sheets and blankets in the event that we have overnight guests.  We might have house-guests 1-2 times per year.  It’s nice to have these items when they are needed, but during the rest of the year I am tempted to donate them since we don’t use them that often.  Are these items that we should keep around since we do use them, despite how infrequently?

  • Carrie

    That was amazing!! I’m going through exactly the same thing, divorce, moving and career change …. I too did a spring cleansing but see that I still have more to shed …. Why I think I’m still being held back …. looking forward to cleaning some more … Less is best .. keep it simple… Breath !! 😀 

  • Eilleen Casey

    not at all its perfectly natural I could never get rid of such items as they re the most sentimental possesions I own Eilleen

  • Claire

    Thank You, thank you, thank you…..