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Clear Out Your Mental Clutter

You know what’s worse than a messy dorm room or study space? A mind that’s filled with useless stuff. Here’s how to clear away the mess.

Congratulations! In the ongoing battle between you and your messy room, you finally delivered a knockout punch: Your bed is made, the containers beneath it are filled with off-season clothes, and your desk is organized for the first time since you moved in last fall.

Now, it’s time to tackle your mind.

When it comes to clearing away mental clutter, the same principles apply. But rather than sorting through clothes that no longer fit, the idea is to take stock of thinking patterns and emotions you’ve outgrown, that no longer serve you, and that you’re better off discarding.

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In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, writer Marie Kondo encourages readers to get rid of anything that no longer brings them joy. In clearing out mental clutter, the same thing goes: Jettison those voices in your head that get in between you and the life you want to be living.

“The mind needs to be cleaned up and reorganized every once in a while, too,” says Daniel Tomasulo, PhD, author of Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. Negative emotions—from anxiety to perfectionism—leave you restless and unfocused; impact your self-esteem; and can wreak havoc on productivity, creativity, and your overall happiness.

Here are five thought loops that can gum up the works, and some expert advice on how to whisk them away. Imagine what you can do with all that free space in your head.

The thought: “I worry about everything.”

Parties should be fun, right? A way to blow off steam after a week of late nights at the library. But for some people, a night out provokes as much anxiety as acing an exam. “You want to look good. At my school, people dress really nicely. I don’t have many nice clothes, and I often have to ask one of the girls on my hall to borrow something,” says Chelsea, a freshman who lives in sweats and T-shirts. “There’s also pressure to hook up and drink, which just adds to my anxiety.”

How to clear it out

According to a recent survey of college students, about 62% feel “overwhelming anxiety,” so you’re not the only one worrying about being judged or embarrassed.

In an article on her website Hey Sigmund, Australian psychologist Karen Young explains anxiety as something that arises when a part of your brain, the amygdala, thinks there might be something it needs to protect you from. In response, your body releases neurochemicals, hormones, and adrenaline. “This is the fight-or-flight response,” she says. “It’s normal and healthy. In people with anxiety, it’s just a little quicker to activate.”

If you feel the physical symptoms of anxiety, like a racing heart or tightening in your chest, Young suggests taking a time-out to practice mindfulness—which just means focusing your attention on the present moment. Doing this takes your mind off thoughts and emotions that accelerate worry. Go someplace quiet, close your eyes, and notice the sensation of your belly rising and falling as you breathe. If your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.

“Breathing is the switch that activates the relaxation response,” says Young. If you’re more comfortable with movement than stillness, physical exercise also has been shown to lessen anxiety-related symptoms, so lace up those kicks and take a jog around campus.

The thought: “I can’t make a decision.”

If you agonize over everything, from what elective to take to where to sit in the dining hall, you may feel like you’re stuck in the mud. What’s behind your lack of decisiveness? “We struggle to make decisions when we’re afraid of making mistakes, looking foolish, or feeling vulnerable,” explains Marquita Herald, a transformation author and coach, on her blog, Emotionally Resilient Living.

How to clear it out

Herald suggests that the easiest way to push through tough decisions is to narrow down the choices to two and pick one. “Think of it like building a muscle; you learn to make good decisions by making more decisions.” If you commit to learning from each choice—right or wrong—your decision-making muscle will get stronger.

What are the decisions you’re putting off? Set a deadline, make a choice, and move on. Most important, don’t waste time and energy second-guessing yourself. Live, and learn.

The thought: “I need others’ approval to feel good about myself.”

Do you tend to go out of your way to placate your professors, roommates, friends, even people you hardly know? “Pleasing others is like sex!” writes sociologist and life coach Martha Beck on Oprah.com. “When we do it because we really want to, it’s a wonderfully life-affirming way to strengthen a relationship, but when it’s motivated by obligation, powerlessness, or calculated advantage, it’s the very definition of degrading.”

How to clear it out

Like other emotional hang-ups, this one stems from your childhood. (Sorry, Mom and Dad!) According to research on children’s development and parental approval, most kids learn from a young age to seek approval from their parents for the things they say or do. Since the need for approval, love, and acceptance from your parents is really strong, we become conditioned over time to seek approval from others as well.

Beck believes that the key to an authentic emotional life is to stop being afraid of stepping on toes, pushing buttons, or otherwise offending people. For instance, the next time someone expresses an opinion that contradicts yours, voice your thoughts and see what happens. At the very worst, “you’ll weaken a bond that wasn’t authentic. At best, you’ll find that you can disagree with someone and still be loved. This is the way to build genuine relationships instead of tentative, bartered alliances based on the currency of compliance,” says Beck.

The thought: “I’m worthless.”

Do any of these sound familiar?
“I’m ugly, and no one will ever be attracted to me.”
“I have no self-control—I can’t believe I ate three brownies.”
“I’ll never bring up my GPA. I’m not smart enough.”

If you’re like most people, you know your inner critic all too well: the voice in your head that judges you, doubts you, belittles you, and constantly tells you that you’re not good enough. It says negative, hurtful things to you that you’d never dream of saying to anyone else.

We all dwell on the negative occasionally. But when it becomes a habit, it can lead to destructive behaviors. “If you [knock yourself] over and over, it becomes automatic. It becomes hardwired in our brains, like bike riding,” writes Mort (Doc) Orman, MD, a stress relief expert and author of Stop Negative Thinking: How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Stress, and Become a Happy Person Again.

How to clear it out

A lot of our thinking is so automatic that we aren’t consciously aware of it. To get rid of your inner critic, you first have to become aware of it. Emotions like guilt or shame are often signs that the critic is at work.

One simple way to combat negative self-talk is to put another spin on it. It may sound silly, but it works. For instance, if you’re thinking, “I’m an idiot,” you train yourself to say, “I’m having a thought that I can’t do this.” By changing the wording—rewriting the script—you’re making it clear to yourself that you are not your thoughts. Just because you feel this way in a particular moment doesn’t mean that’s who you are. Doing this consistently will help rebuild your confidence and self-esteem.

The thought: “I keep reliving the past/I can’t move on.”

During her sophomore year, Amanda was so determined to have a relationship that she kept hooking up with a guy even after he made it clear that he wasn’t up for anything serious. She stopped seeing him only after she realized they’d never appear together publicly as a couple. But she spent the rest of the semester stalking his Instagram feed.

How to clear it out

Being rejected in a relationship can feel devastating, and your self-esteem can drop through the floor. But not letting go of an ex won’t help. (Easier said than done, of course.)

It goes without saying that what keeps you in the past, and sad, isn’t good for you. But you’ve probably made dozens of excuses to justify your actions. “You might tell yourself it’s fine, that you’re still friends, that you’re big enough to handle it—blah, blah, blah,” says psychologist Karen Young in her article “Getting Rid of Emotional Clutter (and Making Way for the Things That You Really Want).” But what’s more likely is that your ruminations will evolve into an act of self-sabotage. You keep checking to make sure there’s nobody new—or if there is, that they don’t look as happy together as your ex did with you.

Enough already! When you clear away this emotional clutter, you’ll see that spending your time in the past can prevent you from being open to meeting someone new who’s looking for the same things in a relationship that you are. So do yourself a favor and un-follow past boyfriends, girlfriends—or, for that matter, friends—who don’t add something to the life you want.

Clearing relationship clutter is the best way to open yourself up to the relationship you want—and deserve.

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