How my compulsive cleaning habits revealed a bigger problem in my life
Four weeks ago, I was sitting on my couch, enjoying a bowl of popcorn, and binge watching Grey’s Anatomy (again). As is typical when I’m being unproductive, my mind was like a bullet train — racing between my list of chores, to a presentation coming up at work, to discussions about moving to a new city. The worst part was that the train slowed to a crawl whenever it approached a “work station,” which gave me ample time to dwell on my unhappiness, feeling like I’d settled into a comfortable, unchallenging career.
Without warning, the train disappeared. I catapulted back to reality, back to the couch, suddenly becoming hyper aware of everything around me: dozens of coffee mugs and kitchen appliances lurking behind cabinet doors. Clothes, shoes, and crafting supplies filling closets to their bursting points. Bottles of Bath and Body Works lotions stashed in drawers and purses. Most of the stuff we actually use, or it has some sentimental value… but I was obsessed with a single thought: we don’t need any of it.
I felt claustrophobic, so I decided it all needed to go. Immediately.
I created lists of each nook and cranny that needed to be purged of our unnecessary things. I worked methodically for days at a time, going room by room — either throwing away or donating items I simply couldn’t justify keeping. With each garbage bag I took to the dumpster and each box I dropped off at Goodwill, I felt a slight high. A little weight lifted off my chest — but it was always temporary. A weight lifted, but there was still an enormous pressure threatening to crush my rib cage.
One day, I was cleaning out my cabinet of beauty products — or “goo” as my husband calls them — and reflecting on why throwing things away made me feel a little less sad. Then I realized it. The truth was staring back at me in the mirror, plain as day, but hidden underneath layers of insecurity and self-doubt.
I was throwing away the meaningless material items in my life to superficially (and unsuccessfully) appease a deeper longing: to throw away my unfulfilling job and all of the baggage I had collected from it.
I had kept it all and shoved it into a deep, dark room. I couldn’t get rid of it because I was too scared to even turn on the light.
So there I was in my bathroom, wearing yoga pants and an oversized t-shirt covered in dust, no make-up, my hair a disaster, goo products sprawled over the counter, rationalizing and fighting with myself in the mirror. It was the exact this-is-your-life, thank-goodness-nobody-is-here-to-see-this-hot-mess moment that I needed to flip the light switch on and duct tape it in place. After weeks of purging my home, I finally made it to the one room that actually needed it.
Now, I challenge you to do the same thing. Whenever you feel the compulsion to purge your home, stand in front of a mirror and ask yourself two questions:
Is this purely an attempt to de-clutter your physical space?
If so, carry on, soldier. And good luck on your noble quest! If your gut tells you it’s something deeper…
Is there a source of unhappiness in your life that you’ve identified, but haven’t addressed?
For me, it was work. I knew I was unhappy; I vented to my husband for hours on end about my job. Instead of addressing it, I packed that unhappiness in a bag, shoved it into a dark room in my mind, and justified it with, “This is for now, not forever.” But “for now” is relative, and quickly turns into a lot of wasted years.
For you, it might be work. It might be a relationship. Maybe you don’t feel at home where you live. Whatever “it” is, you have the power to change it. The first step is to open the door, flip on the light switch, and clear out the real baggage that’s weighing you down.
Everyone will develop their own unique way of clearing out baggage. If you need some help getting started, here are some approaches to reflect on key areas of stress in your life:
Make a pro/con list — I’m looking at you, Gilmore Girls fans — to honestly assess whether it’s time to find something new. Hint: If there are more things under “Con,” it’s time!
Imagine you exist in a world where nothing is off limits and you can’t hear anyone’s judgments. Now, write down everything you would do, places you would go, jobs you would pursue, and so on. Don’t judge yourself, just write. Then go back, and create realistic goals for incorporating each passion into your life.
Write down the names of every significant person in your life. Next to each name, write the first word that comes to mind when you think of that person. Don’t overthink it — let your intuition take over. When you’ve finished, note the people you intuitively associate with negative qualities. It might be time to liberate yourself from that negativity.
Just remember: You might not be ready to act on what you uncover while reflecting on these or other areas of your life, and that’s okay.
The important thing is that you make time to reflect. One day, you will be ready. You know what you want; you just need to give yourself permission to do it.
Juliette Prado is a freelance writer who thrives on reading and writing about shared human experiences. She strives to be a voice for people who feel alone in their emotions. Lorelai Gilmore is her spirit animal. Sweets and cuddles are her kryptonite. A night of karaoke or dancing with her is the ultimate test of friendship. And her ultimate goal in life is to see every corner of the world with her hubby, sprinkling joy everywhere they go.