Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
"Clutterers," "cleaners," and "hoarders" sometime walk a fine line between excellence and obsession.
Some people are simply particular about neatness, exactness, and the right order and arrangement of things and there are others who are obsessed with it. We will refer to the latter group as "neat freaks," a term I first heard from a neat freak.
Neat freaks live under tremendous stress and spend a significant time, sometimes several hours a day, trying to maintain immaculate neatness, precise order and faultless arrangement of their immediate environment. Be aware such a behavior is not a part of normal spring fever; it is an all season problem.
If you take a peek in his or her closet, you can right away identify a neat freak; socks, ties, belts, undershirts will be all neatly folded and stacked up. The clothes may be color coded or organized by categories. Such an arrangement may not be as simple as all the blue clothes in one place or all pants hanging in one corner. Neat freaks classify and sub-classify them in complex ways.
If you are a neat freak reading this column, I don't have to tell you how much time you spend in keeping everything spotless and organized. Sometime you just want to take a break from the constant pressure of cleanliness and sit down to relax and smell the roses, but you can't. That pressure is nothing short of a slave driver.
The other end of the spectrum is filled with "clutterers," who must stare at clutter in order to relax. Often, the family members of clutterers are bothered because every time they walk in the house they have to walk around the clutter and those of neat freaks are troubled because every time they walk, the neat freaks come after them with a broom and a brush to clean.
Some families break up because of the unbearable acrimony resulting from one partner's uncompromising perfectionism and fastidiousness. Conflict between neat freak parents and children often comes to a head when the former can't stand the "lazy" and "filthy" teen.
Perhaps, you know people, who, even when sick or exhausted with fatigue would get out of bed if they see a speck of dirt on their television or the center table. People develop stress-related disorders because of their obsession for neatness.
So how can you tell whether you are just a neatness lover or a neat freak? The following questions may be helpful:
1) Do you spend more than an hour a day cleaning?
2) Can you stop cleaning when you want to?
3) Do the unclean, dusty or out-of-place objects cause significant amount of anxiety, distress or agitation for you?
4) Is anyone close to you troubled by your insistence for perfect cleanliness?
One of the most difficult things for a neat freak to learn is to learn the difference between reasonable standards of cleanliness and a rather unrelenting and unyielding demand for cleanliness.
If you answered "yes" to one of the four questions, rely on the cues from your loved ones to know when enough is enough. Rather than assuming that others are sloppy and lazy, accept the possibility that you might be overdoing this business of cleanliness.
Be mindful of the anxiety you experience by the thought or the sight of unclean things. Become aware of your tension. Observe it as it begins to build up at the sight or thought of unclean objects. Don't be in a rush to tidy up the place. Bear with the anxiety unless there is something harmful, such as toxic waste or a spilled chemical. If it doesn't pose a risk, you can wait.
Understand that cleaning is the ritual you do to reduce the anxiety that arises from the obsession of cleanliness. When you learn to tolerate the anxiety, the obsession begins to gradually loosen its grip over you. Be prepared for temporary exacerbation in your anxiety because you are not doing the "same old stuff" to relieve your anxiety.
Anxiety is likely to increase before it can decrease. Therefore, don't try to distract yourself by doing something or thinking about something else. Keep your mind on the object that increases your tension and let it complete its full course. The anxiety will peak out if you persist.
And then, you can relax. Likewise, others can relax around you.
You might also discover that you have more time than you ever thought you had. You can use it for more productive things or just enjoy the leisure time.
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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications
Posted September 2003