Decoding the Morality of Disorganization
Many people have internalized a belief in something I call “cleaning morality”— the belief that your ability to keep your house clean and organized is somehow linked with your moral standing. In other words, having toys on the floor is something a “bad person” would do, while having a spotless playroom gets you “good person” points.
To which I say, Nonsense!
If no one has told you this before, let me be the first, you are not a bad person just because your house is messy. You’re also not inherently a good person if your house is clean. In fact, your ability to keep up with chores is completely irrelevant to your moral standing, and you are not less worthy of love and respect just because you haven’t done laundry in a few days.
Then where does this damaging belief come from? Why do we feel tempted to think poorly of ourselves for not being at “HGTV” levels of organized at all times? Let’s talk about a few potential reasons:
Upbringing and Family Influence Many people who struggle with cleaning morality were raised to believe that their home was a direct reflection of their family. That meant that if their bedrooms were messy, then the children were lazy, undisciplined, and unhygienic. Internalizing these messages at a young age can have long-lasting effects on people’s self-esteem, and it can negatively impact their ability to care for themselves or their homes as adults. Consider the context that surrounded cleaning rituals while you were growing up. Did your parent(s) take pride in their living space, and if so, why? Did they have insecurities or conditions that may have caused them to react poorly to messiness? Regardless of the answers, unlearning cleaning morality can be painful when it involves childhood experiences. Try to extend grace to yourself and your inner child as you heal.
Cultural Pressure In her book “How to Keep House While Drowning”, KC Davis writes: “High standards for cleanliness can be a way for a family to reassert their own dignity in the face of dehumanizing stereotypes about being lazy, unintelligent, or dirty.” Tidiness can often be seen as a defense mechanism for these individuals, “not out of a perceived superiority, but as a way of protecting against discrimination.” It is beyond unfortunate that morally-neutral traits like “tidiness” have had to become weapons of self-defense for marginalized communities. Whether or not you resonate with this experience, I encourage you to reflect on what you can do to help yourself and those around you feel confident enough to dissociate home organization from intrinsic human value.
Social Expectations A minimalist lifestyle has recently been regarded as The Gold Standard for beauty and tranquility in the American home. I myself practice “practical minimalism”, which encourages the intentional release of objects you don’t use or love. However, social media (and society in general) seems to love celebrating the aesthetic of extreme minimalism: no visible toys, no appliances on the countertops, few (if any) pictures on the walls, etc. And the further our homes are from that Gold Standard, the more we feel like we’re somehow not measuring up. Remember that social media is a fantasy version of someone else’s life. Pictures can be edited and smiles can be faked. You are not failing for having a house that looks like you live in it— if you use and enjoy what you have, then you’re doing just fine.
Sexism Ladies, let’s talk. Not that long ago, it was widely accepted that men were expected to provide income and women were expected to keep house and care for children. This meant that if the dishes weren’t done and the laundry wasn’t folded, the woman of the family had failed to do her job. And generations later— as women juggle a mixture of workplace and domestic responsibilities— there is still a palpable connection between being a “good wife/mom/adult” and having a spotless home. Housework is not a gender specific activity, and you are not a failure as a woman or mother just because you have dirty dishes in the sink. The next time you start feeling that way, ask yourself “Do I think men are failures if their house isn’t well-kept?” The answer is probably no.
Personal Struggles Depression, anxiety, mental health disorders, grief, and burnout are just a few of the countless internal ailments we experience as humans. Not to mention day-to-day stressors like financial hardship or a lack of sleep. Being alive is hard sometimes, and when that happens, housework can be one of the last things you want to do. And that’s okay. Clutter and misplaced objects are evidence of you living your life. That’s all. So if you feel like you’re too sick, tired, or overwhelmed to clean up the house right now, then, forget about it for now— you can try again tomorrow. Be patient with yourself, and take it one day at a time.
Being clean and organized can be a very positive thing: life can feel harder when you can’t find what you need or your trash can is smellier than you’d like. But you are not a bad person for having a messy desk or laundry spilling onto the floor. You are not a failure for having a junk drawer or a cluttered spare room. Your value as a person is not reflected by the state of your home.
So if you ever need a reminder, screenshot this:
VALID REASONS FOR HAVING A MESSY HOME
You go to school and/or have a job
You share a living space with other people
You’re going through a hard time (mentally, emotionally, or physically)
You have a condition that makes it difficult to keep up with housework
You have kids— enough said.
INVALID REASONS FOR HAVING A MESSY HOME
You’re a failure.
You’re a bad person.
Be kind to yourself, and remember: seek progress, not perfection.