I have a lot of talents. I can identify more dog and cat breeds than the average Animal Planet viewer. I do quite well on standardized tests (although seeing as I am in a PhD program and have no plans to take any licensing exams in the future, I’m guessing my multiple choice mastery has gotten me as far as it can take me). People seem to think I’m reasonably artistic. Maintaining a neat and de-cluttered home, however, is not a strong point for me.
It’s not like our apartment is dirty or disgusting. We don’t have garbage lying around and there isn’t so much stuff that it’s hard to find a place to sit. But if you come to visit, even if I know you’re coming and clean things up before you arrive, there is a good chance you’ll see some random box sitting in the same spot as when you came over two months before. Sometimes, if it’s an empty box, I can put the responsibility on the cat: “Oh, B just loves playing in there. I haven’t had the heart to take it away from him.” But there are plenty of times that said box actually has stuff in it.
I’d love to blame the unpacked boxes that have followed me to not one, but three, apartments on the fact that my life is just too busy for me to be bothered with this stuff. I’d love to have an explanation for my tendency – really, my need – to leave one, single dirty dish in the sink when I have washed all the others. And really, I would love just to be better at all of this.
For the longest time I tried very hard to be better at it. I made myself feel guilty for not vacuuming every week and for not making my bed every morning. I used all of my obsessive-compulsive friends as role models for what to strive for. I even talked about it with a therapist, who helped me come to one of the greatest revelations of my life.
You see, in an attempt to achieve a more clutter-free life (and in turn, be a better person), I had gone through my closet, and put a bunch of clothes in a bag for Goodwill. I put the bag by my front door to take with me the next time I went out to my car. Several weeks later, the bag was still sitting at my front door. I don’t think it was a particularly heavy bag, so there was never a good excuse, like,” I’m wearing high heels, and dragging that big bag seems kinda risky.” Nope- I’d just look at the bag on my way out and without rationalizing it, I’d leave it behind.
I asked my therapist for an explanation. “Am I so depressed that I’ve given up on life and don’t care about my surroundings? Do I have some subconscious, self-destructive drive? Is it some form of rebellion against my mother?”
My therapist’s answer?
“It’s just not important to you.”
How empowering. I chose that the few seconds it would take to carry it to my car (and then drive it to Goodwill) were not worth it to me.
This might seem quite obvious to some of you. (Or perhaps it’s absolutely horrifying to you, because you cannot tolerate any clutter.) But it seriously was one of the most freeing things anyone has ever said to me. Suddenly it was okay to not be a neat freak, because that’s not who I am. The pressure is off- I can set my own standards for neatness and organization.
There are still a lot of times I have to bribe myself to meet my own standards:
“No, Sarah, you need to write the rent check before you can go to the mailbox to see if your new Netflix DVD arrived.”
“Laundry first, then cookie.”
The truth is, even though I can tolerate a bag by the door, I am definitely happier when it’s gone. But letting go of the worries about meeting someone else’s standards for neatness also makes me much happier.