When Jackie (not her real name), sat down in my office for an appointment last week, she rifled through her enormous designer handbag for a pen before setting it down on the floor. “Ugh … this thing is so heavy!” she grumbled. “No wonder my back is always sore!”

Her comment couldn’t have been scripted any better. “Jackie, what do you carry in your purse that makes it so heavy?” I asked her. She laughed. “What don’t I carry in this bag?” she replied, as she embarked on a show-and-tell ranging from the predictable keys, wallet, cell phone, pen, paper, etc. to a few curious items — the sewing kit, BandAids, a “proud hockey mom” button, an extra pair of sunglasses, a stain remover stick, three vials of hand lotion, and what looked like months’ worth of wrinkled store receipts. After about two minutes, I gave Jackie an assignment for the following week: to clean out her purse, carrying only what she needed. She thought I was joking. But I wasn’t. In fact, the “purse exercise” is one I’ve used for years. Whether male or female, what people carry in their briefcases, backpacks and purses is very often reflective of far more than they realize.

stuff that weighs you down

What Do You Really Need?

The first part of the exercise I gave Jackie was to empty all the contents of her purse onto a floor or table, separating them into three piles:

  • Things she uses every day/absolutely needs
  • Things she uses once in a while/might need
  • Things that she does not/will not need

As Jackie told me the next week, making the piles wasn’t as easy as she expected. Sure, she said, it was easy to toss the old grocery receipts, the discarded Kleenex and the half-eaten bag of almonds from who-knows-when. Making the distinction between what she really needed and what she might need was much tougher, but she made her decision and stuck with it, putting the items in the “might-need” pile into a plastic bag, which she kept at home, per the assignment, for the entire week.

The second part of the exercise was to notice her feelings around having or not having “stuff” with her at all times — specifically, to notice which situations triggered the biggest challenges, as well as her response to those challenges. Like most of my clients, Jackie is bright. And so, it didn’t surprise her in the least when, at our next appointment, we discussed the metaphoric significance of the assignment. Nor did it surprise me that she was able to connect the dots between the feelings she experienced and the bigger-picture implications for her life, both personal and professional. While Jackie’s need to carry so much in her bag was reflective of her “caretaker nature” — as well as her tendency to worry about things that may or may not happen — it provided physical proof that when you carry too much, it weighs you down.

Letting Go: How Can You Lighten the Load You Carry?

Jackie and I quickly moved on to explore the other burdens that were holding her back from reaching her potential — and from living the life she envisioned for herself. Gaining the ability to recognize her own roadblocks was very powerful. Self-sabotaging beliefs, grudges, obligations, guilt, blame and regret are all vicious antidotes to personal growth. And yet, they’re all perceptions. What psychological weight are you carrying that is no longer (or never was) necessary, relevant or useful? A few questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s not working in my life?
  • What do I hate doing — but find myself doing anyway?
  • How can I declutter my home/office/workspace/car?
  • Am I being overly rigid in any of my beliefs or habits?
  • What are my energy drains?

Related: What’s Holding Me Back From Reaching My Goals?

While it’s true that how you carry something matters more than what you carry, identifying the things you don’t need to carry at all can be a cathartic first step toward change. Just as getting rid of the clutter in her purse allowed Jackie to find her pen more easily, clearing the mental clutter made way for profound transformation. Making decisions about what she deemed necessary — or not — was very empowering. It can be for you, too.

Once you identify the “stuff” that has accumulated in your life, you can start to identify ways to manage it. Start small, clearing the clutter in your purse, backpack or briefcase. Congratulate yourself. You’ve taken the first step toward eliminating the burdens that weigh you down in life — creating clarity, confidence and momentum along the path to a lighter future.

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What’s Holding Me Back From Reaching My Goals?