Growing up, I learned pretty fast to equate “cleanliness” with “control.” My mother was always sick in an all-encompassing type of way — the type of sick that left her constantly bedridden, emotionally volatile, and generally stuck in a mental fog of forever being the victim. My only course of action as a child with no income or skillset was to keep our sparsely-furnished apartment clean. I’d do the laundry, cook our dinner, scrub away at the counters until they shone, and then light a candle.
Having a clean environment seemed to temporarily reduce my mother’s stress and the likelihood that she’d lash out. Therefore, my stress was also reduced. So I always tried to help keep clean.
And I know — allowing your space to be somewhat messy doesn’t exactly sound like orthodox advice for dealing with anxiety. But, if anything, I’ve learned that being too clean can actually exacerbate anxiety and the need for control. In fact, learning to not preside over my space and my belongings with an iron fist has led to increased feelings of relaxation, security, and general emotional comfort because…
1. It Forced Me to Confront Old Demons
What I didn’t realize until I was in my twenties was that keeping clean wasn’t just a childhood coping mechanism — it had actually been ruling my life for years, and I hadn’t even known it. In keeping clean, I thought I was being, for lack of better words, a good adult.
After all, how often do we stumble across articles or professionals telling us that clutter typically equates to stress, anxiety, and a general lack of control? How often are we encouraged to tidy up for those prescribed fifteen minutes every evening in order to be in responsible and mature? But adulthood is something we have to confront and define on our own terms, and Kid Sam didn’t really have the privilege of being imperfect or messy. Now, though? Adult Sam can be those things without necessity or emotional survival coming into play. So, as a form of embracing my neglected inner child, facing down old demons, and letting go of my upbringing, Adult Sam says, “if I want to be messy, I will. And I don’t need to be anxious about it anymore.”
2. It Gave Me a Tangible Outlet to Combat Negative Thought Patterns
I remember just sitting on the floor in silence for at least an hour one day, staring straight ahead at the wall, unable to move. I was a senior in college and my apartment bedroom was impeccable. Not a dish was dirty. Not a single book was out of place. My perfectly-white bedspread and pillow cases were neatly bleached, arranged, and tucked in. I continued staring. It was my room… but it didn’t feel lived in. It felt too sterile. It didn’t feel like home. But I couldn’t bring myself to touch anything. Because then, the room would be dirty. Then, it wouldn’t be perfect. And what would it mean for me if I couldn’t even keep my room perfect?
But I’ve found that using my bedroom to combat those thoughts is extremely helpful. In practicing leaving things out every once in a while, I can visually and physically practice setting aside my perfectionism in favor of… literally anything else. My progress is tangible and, therefore, more rewarding. Some days it may be harder to wage that battle, but every day I decide not to let my perfectionism rule me, the easier it will be to challenge those thoughts again tomorrow.
3. It Allowed Me to Feel Secure In Myself and My Choices
There came a day that I had to ask myself why I felt like cleanliness was an indicator of character. I finally got angry. Who was telling me that allowing my bed to go unmade really made me a lazy person? Who said that having items on my desk in a way that wasn’t perfectly symmetrical meant that I wasn’t doing my best? Who said that clean equals good person and slightly cluttered equals bad person?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if my best friend has perfectly arranged bookshelves, if my ex thinks that making his bed means being at the apex of maturity, or if my coworkers judge me for the knick-knacks on my desk. I don’t need to be anxious about what other people think because my space isn’t theirs. It’s mine. And how clean — or how dirty — I choose to leave my space is actually one way that I can choose to express myself. For instance, right now there are no doors on my closet and I can see all of my clothes and miscellaneous frames and items out in the open. And you know what? It makes my space feel lived in. It makes my space feel like it is securely my own.
It feels like home.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to give you an excuse to leave your dishes in the sink for another day or leave your bedroom a whirlwind of clothes and used coffee mugs (oh, especially the coffee mugs). I’m not trying to say that a chaotic space is good or that you should stop picking up after yourself. After all, cleaning is often very therapeutic!
What I am saying, though, is that maybe it’s time we take into account how organized chaos — or moderate clutter, really — can be a source of empowerment in the face of our anxieties and perfectionist tendencies.
Sometimes, the true exercise in control is actually choosing to relax our control.
Image via Unsplash