I Compulsively Clean Other People’s Homes, But My Own Is A Mess…

I used to be a clean and organized person, but, for the last 30 years or so, I’ve been a slob. I just don’t have the motivation to keep my home clean and it’s so embarrassing. What’s even more confusing to me, though, is that I clean almost compulsively when I’m visiting someone else’s home. Whether it’s picking up a little trash in their yard or sweeping their floors, I can and will do it. Even in stores I often find myself organizing and straightening things on the shelves and replacing items that are on the floor. I just understand why I can’t do the same to my own home.
I believe all this may be because I became so depressed and started “stress shopping”ever since my husband became addicted to drugs. He started to take things from people, including our son and me, and sell them for drugs. I would out him multiple times only to later let him back in because I felt our son needed his father in his life and part of me still loved him. He also drank a lot and would become irritable. He sometimes blamed me for things that I know weren’t my fault. When I tried to confront him about his behavior, he would sometimes verbally abuse me and would also talk about my weight gain. However, I feel that I was only overeating because of the stress I was put under with him.
We got married in 1976, but we somewhat separated in 1999 with him coming back and forth to see our son. The drugs took their toll in 2015 and he passed. I want to do the righteous thing and forgive him like God wants, but I’m still having major trouble.

Your behavior when you’re out and about demonstrates that you clearly have the know-how and the ability to spruce things up.  The fact that you are distressed by the state of your own home also tells us that you view organizing as a positive thing.  In fact, it sounds to me like organization is an extremely positive thing to you–so much so that you seize any opportunity to put yourself in a more organized environment because that’s the kind of environment you’re really craving to be in.  Cravings only occur when we’re feeling starved in some area, and for someone who loves being organized, your own home likely feels like a very depressing and oppressive environment where you can’t express your true self. 

Now for humans, well-organized stuff often has strong psychological links to the concept of feeling in control. We women are nurturers by nature, and we’re naturally wired to want to gain some bit of territory (our homes) that we can then proceed to fully master.  Knowing where everything is in our own homes, and getting the place to flow in an efficient manner makes us feel deeply satisfied. When we can’t get our own turf for some reason—most commonly because another woman is already claiming it—or when we can’t set up efficient processes because someone else is always messing them up, we can feel like we are being blocked from satisfying one of our core needs.  The point is that women naturally perceive their homes much differently than men do.   Plenty of men can live quite comfortably in a messy environment, unaware of where many of their own possessions are currently located.  As long as there are no direct blocks between a man and his current desired activity, he just isn’t ruffled by a pile of dirty laundry on the floor or crumbs strewn all over the kitchen counters. 

An interesting concept to be aware of here is that men and women have some very different psychological processes when it comes to focusing. Men have a natural and impressive ability to compartmentalize their current concerns in a way that gives them a much higher degree of control over what they are currently focused on.  Picture a messy room with many piles of stuff strewn about in it.  Each pile represents a current, unresolved problem in one person’s life.  If that person is male, he will be able to sit down in that room, lock his eyes onto a single pile, and temporarily forget that the other piles even exist.  But if that person is a female, no matter what single pile she tries to focus on, she will be acutely aware that the other piles also exist, and she will feel stressed by the sheer number of them.   

This significant difference in how males and females mentally manage information can help us appreciate why women feel such a strong need to feel that their entire home is under control.  A woman’s ability to enjoy her nicely organized living room will be hampered by the knowledge that the back bedrooms are a disaster.  But how will it be for a female guest who comes over?  The guest doesn’t feel the home is hers, therefore the weight of responsibility is absent for her.  The guest isn’t aware of the messy bedrooms, so she is able to enjoy the living room to a degree that her host can’t. If the guest notices something out of place in the living room, a quick adjustment is all it takes to feel like order is restored. 

Now think about how it is for the guest in this example.  Consider how little she has to do to acquire a satisfying sense of accomplishment as long as she is in someone else’s home. This is the dynamic you’re currently experiencing.  When you go to someone else’s house, you are immediately aware of how close you are to being able to experience the success that you can’t ever score in your own home.  Since you feel starved out in this area, then of course you’re going to grab a broom and start sweeping someone else’s porch.  The reward of sweeping their porch is so much greater than the reward of sweeping your own.  In your own home, cleaning the porch feels like you’ve hardly put a dent in the project.  Instead of feeling satisfied, you feel depressed by how much more you still need to do.  But in someone else’s home, the responsibility for keeping the entire place running smoothly isn’t pressing down on you.  Instead, anything you pitch in gets you instant kudos while you’re totally blameless for what still needs to be done. 

It’s great that you’re already sensing there’s a direct connection between your inability to get your own home under control and your miserable marriage.  Because women feel personally responsible for the state of their homes, retaining a large degree of control over what happens in their homes feels critical to succeeding at the goal of being “good homemakers.”  This is why women can easily get uptight when other family members try to change where the bath towels are being stored or relocate the kitchen utensils without first getting approval from the queen of the castle.  While such behavior can easily come across as bossy or territorial, to the queen, it’s about trying to keep her job doable.  Women often feel like the state of their homes is a direct reflection on them personally, which is why a messy home can cause very real shame and embarrassment. But what happens if you can’t keep the level of control you need to keep your home running smoothly?  What if you get forced into the role of a puppet queen, who is queen in name only, yet has no actual power because certain members of her kingdom are forcing their agendas on her and sabotaging everything she tries to do?  In this situation, your title, though meaningless, gets you blamed for all of the shenanigans that your saboteurs are up to, while they constantly push you around.  This is the highly stressful situation you found yourself in with your husband. 

The stuff we bring into our homes isn’t just useless clutter—a lot of it is highly practical and essential to certain aspects of our plans to keep the home running smoothly.  Every woman knows that keeping a house running smoothly is a massive challenge, because as the family’s needs and priorities keep changing, we have to keep coming up with new systems to match.  You just get the kitchen cupboards well in hand and then someone wants to go on a special diet which means hauling in a bunch of new items that you have no designated space for.  You just get the laundry nailed down when your son signs up for a sports team and now you need a new system for specifically tracking where his sports equipment is so it can be cleaned and ready whenever he needs it.  You just get the kitchen counters cleared off when your husband buys a large espresso machine that now needs somewhere to park for daily use.  Keeping a home running smoothly is hard enough when everyone is cooperating with you.  But if your spouse starts secretly stealing stuff—especially the big ticket items—suddenly your carefully planned systems are getting crippled right and left.  When feeling organized is very important to you—which it clearly is in your case—such sabotaging behavior is going to be very stressful.  You’ll keep feeling like all of your efforts to succeed are ending in bitter failure which is incredibly unfair since, in your heart, you know that you are so good at staying organizing.   

Suppose you have an amazing natural talent for painting beautiful landscapes, yet every time you try to start a new project, your husband rips your paintbrush out of your hand or slices a hole in your canvas.  Such violent, intrusive attacks are going to put you on the defensive really fast, and if he doesn’t back off, you’ll end up staying on permanent alert.  The activity you used to love will now be associated with giving your husband an opportunity to hurt you, so you’ll stop doing it in an effort to protect yourself.  The problem with stifling yourself like this is that you were born to paint. Not getting to express this side of you is causing you a lot of grief and stress, so when you go to a friend’s house and she just happens to have a painting easel all set up, you’re going to feel an irresistible attraction to it.  Before you can even think about what you’re doing, you’ll be dipping a brush in some paint and trying to express what’s bottled up inside.  This is what we see you doing when you go around cleaning and organizing any home but your own.  In your own home, you’ve felt blocked from getting to express this side of yourself because trying to organize your own home has become associated with increasing your risk of being harmed.  Once trying to organize becomes mentally linked to pain and danger, you are going to start avoiding it on purpose.  But because it’s such a core part of who you are, your need to organize has remained strong, which has caused you to become desperate to find an outlet—any outlet—where you can express this part of yourself.

Our homes are supposed to be our safe spaces, yet having a husband with volatile moods who says deeply wounding things to you has made your home feel the opposite of safe.  While this man was in your life, your home likely felt like a stressful minefield that you were forced to keep walking around on.  Instead of being your safe hideout, it was a threatening prison.  This transformation happened when your subconscious formed new associations with your home—associations that were directly related to your husband’s threatening behaviours.

Stress Eating

Given how immensely threatened you felt in your own home, the stress eating is no surprise.  In your situation, simply walking through your front door would have put your subconscious on red alert, and it would have remained in that state until you left your house.  Your subconscious’ top priority is to protect you, and it simply can’t relax as long as it feels you are in a dangerous environment. 

Once one of your elements is on red alert, your other elements become stressed as well.  Your body can’t take care of itself without constant help from your subconscious, so sensing that its parental element is very upset would cause your body to feel extremely worried as well.  When bodies stress, they automatically look for ways to try to manage that stress.  Because every body has its own personality, the kinds of stress management tools they reach for vary widely.  For some bodies, avoiding food is a natural reaction to feeling stressed.  For others, consuming excessive amounts of food is the go-to plan.  There is no right or wrong choice here.  Both methods cause problems, so just because many modern cultures are acting like self-starvation is a glorious thing, it’s really not.  Both over-eating and under-eating can cause serious health problems over time, but correcting this kind of behavior requires dealing with the root cause.  In your case, it sounds like feeling like you were trapped in a dangerous situation was the cause of your body’s stress eating.  It’s completely reasonable for your body to try to do something to comfort itself when it feels anxious.  If you start trying to punish your body for behaving this way, you’re only going to make it feel more stressed.  So rather than go on some hideous diet where you force your body to consume a bunch of foods that it doesn’t like, the smarter move is to take a gentler approach by allowing your body to continue eating some of the foods it is craving while also trying to present it with some other options.

Once you realize that your body is trying to comfort itself to combat feelings of anxiety, you can get strategic about presenting your body with alternatives that it might like.  Remember that every body is unique, so it’s important to listen to what your body is saying when you try new things.  By now you might be aware of other activities that your body seems to like, such as taking a long bath or wearing certain kinds of clothing.  To help your body feel less stressed, try pulling up some lists of relaxing activities online.  If you feel attracted to any of the suggestions, give them a try.  Don’t force yourself to do activities that don’t sound at least a little appealing right off.  If you start introducing new “body recharge” moments into your daily routine, it will help your body feel less stressed, which in turn will dial down its efforts to try to get all of its comfort from food.

I want you to really be on it about not punishing yourself for overeating.  Often we can slip into self-punishing behaviors without realizing it.  Your clothes, for example, should be comfortable, not pinching. Squeezing yourself into clothing that is too small for your current size will not only cause you to focus more on your weight, but it will have the effect of someone saying “hey, fatso” every time you open your closet.  You don’t need that kind of harassment.  Overeating is a natural and legitimate way for bodies to try to combat stress, so if you are currently rubbing your face in clothes that no longer fit, either box those items up or throw them out.  If you’re going to heal from all of this abuse, you need to start aggressively blocking negative feedback, including the mocking voices of your clothes.

As is the case with so many stress-coping methods, overeating is one of those issues that will go away all on its own when you deal with root causes.  So while we want to try to give your body new ways to relax, the more important priority is to change the way your subconscious is viewing your home so that your body can stop feeling so stressed by proxy.

Altering Mental Associations

We know that you are an avid organizer at heart, and one who has been keeping her skills sharp by seizing any opportunity she comes across to spruce things up.  The goal now is to remove the psychological blocks which are preventing you from being able to unleash your organizing prowess in your own home.  Once you are able to regain a satisfying sense of control over your own domain, you will likely stop feeling so compelled to fix up other people’s areas.  Since it is your subconscious that is currently defining your own home as too dangerous to express yourself in, we need to specifically work on helping it change the way it views your home environment.

Here’s an exercise for you to try.  Find some empty boxes and get them ready to be filled. You’ll probably need quite a few for this project.  Then slip a pad of sticky notes into your pocket and choose one room of your house to focus on first.  Set your boxes down in that room so that they are easily accessible.  Then, with sticky notes in hand, I want you to slowly move your eyes over every single item in the room. Bric-a-brac, furniture, wall hangings—everything. Even consider drapery and the color of the walls.  As you focus on each thing in turn, I want you to pay close attention to what kind of internal emotional response you have to that item.  Everything that triggers a negative emotional response needs to be changed.  And I mean everything. Small items should be immediately placed in one of your boxes.  If a small item is needed for practical purposes, and therefore it will be a problem for you to immediately ditch it, then stick one of your sticky notes on it.  Large items that can’t be boxed up should also receive a sticky note.  Be completely honest with yourself here, and don’t put a limit on how many things you tag. 

After you’ve finished tagging the room, seal up any box that is filled so that its contents are no longer in your face.  Find a place that you can stack up your boxes as you continue this project.  Once you’ve finished going through your entire house, consider arranging for a mass pick up from one of those handy companies who specialize in picking up other people’s trash.  Giving useful stuff to a charity is another option, but it’s important that you don’t get hung up on finding every item the perfect home. In your situation, it’s much better for you to just dump useful stuff into your trash bin for pick up than it is to try to find someone to gift it to.  This stuff needs to leave your life, and the sooner the better. 

Because you have such a long history of feeling attacked in your home, it’s likely that most of its contents will trigger negative emotions for you.  This means that changing your mental associations will probably require a massive overhaul.  But this doesn’t have to break your wallet.  There are many creative ways to make your home feel very different without spending a fortune.  Consider the following ideas:

  • Dramatically rearranging the position of your furniture can really change the feel of a room.  To alter mental associations, it’s better to try an arrangement that is very different than the original, even if that new arrangement isn’t the most practical.  Visual differences are important here, and should be prioritized over practical function, at least for a while. 
  • An expensive item like a sofa can get a whole new personality simply by putting a slip cover over it. You can find plenty of furniture covers online in all kinds of patterns and styles.  Getting a perfect fit isn’t what matters here—it’s choosing a look that you personally like.
  • A carpet that distresses you can have its impact reduced by putting some small decorative rugs down in strategic places.
  • It doesn’t take much paint to change the color of a single room.  If you do the work yourself, you can keep the cost at a minimum and get a drastically different visual effect. You can also go for an accent wall—painting just one wall of a room in a color that compliments your other furnishings.
  • Online you can find a lot of cheap wall décor that is very eye-catching.  Adding some large pieces to a wall or several smaller coordinated pieces can change the focus of the room and also pull your attention off of the wall itself. Don’t forget to consider decorative wall stickers—a cheap and creative way to express your own style.  Some wall stickers cover a large area and have a very appealing effect.
  • Window dressings can also be gotten for bargain prices.  Removing curtains and changing to blinds can drastically change the look of your windows.  Covering your windows with pretty adhesive paper can increase a sense of privacy and also give you a frosted or stained glass look.  If you feel your blinds already give you sufficient privacy, you can also add curtains just for decorative purposes.  Decorative curtains don’t have to be as thick as functional ones, which gives you a lot more options.
  • Changing the look of everyday items, such as plates and cutlery, can give you frequent visual reminders that you’re now in a new season of life.
  • Buying furniture that you assemble yourself is a cost-effective way of replacing more expensive pieces that trigger bad memories. A lot of do-it-yourself furniture has a very decorative style.
  • Changing up your bed sheets gives the bed a new look.  Duvets give you more options than buying comforters, as duvets allow you swap out their external covers anytime you want (and they are much easier to wash).
  • Changing the style of mirror that is hanging in your bathroom and changing out the shower curtain can drastically change the mood of the room. 
  • Some very nice self-assembled dining tables are available online that can allow you to swap out your current table for a doable price.  Dining tables often have a lot of memories associated with them, since they are such frequently used items.  Intentionally choosing a piece that is in a very different style can help your mind feel less stressed at mealtimes.

Now clearly this is a massive project which is going to take time to complete.  To avoid feeling overwhelmed, you might want to limit your focus to one room at a time.  If you start getting momentum, you can expand your range of attack to include multiple rooms.  Don’t remove a sticky note until you are able to do something about the marked item.  Meanwhile, if you’re still stress shopping, you can put that to good use by keeping an eye out for bargain prices and good replacement ideas.  Don’t forget to check out any local thrift stores and to look online for bargains as well. 

The items in your home that give you the strongest negative reactions will also give you the greatest mental relief when you swap them out.  You might want to target a few of these items first to help the rewards kick in faster.  

In a case like this, you are going to need to eliminate any visual reminders of your husband.  If you feel you might want some of these things later on after you’ve had a chance to process your grief, box them up and put them out of your sight, perhaps in the back of some hard to reach shelf.  It’s very important that you get all negative visual triggers completely out of your sight.  A box that’s full of your husband’s stuff will become a new negative symbol, which is why the box itself needs to be hidden somewhere that you won’t come across it in your daily routine. 

The goal of this project is to help your subconscious redefine your home as a place where it is safe for you to relax.  By filling your home with items that you personally like and that you personally chose, you will symbolically reclaim the domain as your own.  By eliminating all items that cause you to feel threatened, you will stop feeling like trying to organize your home is a futile effort.  Remember that you essentially felt bullied into relinquishing control over your home turf.  Now that the bully is dead, you have a chance to restore your sense of freedom, however the formation of strong negative mental associations means you’ll need to make some physical changes to your environment before you’ll be able to mentally relax.

Removing Blocks 

Your current behavior tells us that you don’t feel safe in your own home.  Instead, you feel so threatened in it that one of your most valued qualities—your love of organization—can’t be expressed.  Living in such a negative environment is going to hamper your ability to process the death of your husband.  Until you can move through the stages of grief processing, you won’t be anywhere close to forgiving him.  My point is that it’s quite natural and reasonable that you feel unable to forgive at this point.  Grief processing is hard enough in a safe environment, but since grieving makes the mind feel vulnerable, it’s likely that your current home environment is causing your mind to block that process from even getting started.  This is why I recommend that you work on the house first.  By getting your home base to feel safe instead of threatening, you will encourage your mind to relax.  The more relaxed it feels, the more resources it will feel it has to spend on grief processing.  Abusive relationships saddle us with some very intense grief, and that does need to be processed in a healthy way.  But I don’t think it’s very realistic to push yourself to try to deal with those emotions until you acquire a more comfortable home environment.

You will be able to measure the effectiveness of your changes by how your organizing behaviors change. Once you reach a certain tipping point of reducing stress, you will likely find yourself starting to take stabs at organizing your own home.  As you continue to remove negative symbols from your home, I would expect your zeal to clean to become more and more directed at your own home and less at others.  I would also expect your stress eating and stress shopping to start tapering off.  Again, trying to change these surface symptoms using forceful methods is not going to work.  So you don’t punish yourself for stress eating, and you don’t punish yourself for stress shopping or for not picking up some mess in your house.  Right now you probably feel emotionally overwhelmed by the idea of trying to conquer messes in your own home.  That overwhelmed feeling is happening because you’re already spending so many resources just trying to endure living in such a stressful space.  If you want to correct physical exhaustion, you don’t punish yourself, you give your body a nap.  If you want to correct psychological exhaustion, you don’t punish yourself, you increase your mind’s ability to rest by creating a safe space for it to relax in. 

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a very poorly understood concept among humans, and it often gets turned into something ridiculous by religious communities.  We’re often taught that saying I forgive you means I no longer care about what nasty thing you did to me.  That’s simply not an attainable goal for humans.

Your subconscious was designed by God with a strong need to protect you from harm. To have any hope of doing this, it needs to be able to detect when you are in danger. The only way it has of recognizing current danger is to compare your current situation with your past experiences. Here is where your memories come in.

Your subconscious is the part of you that keeps track of all of your memories.  Your mind never discards memory files.  Instead, it keeps them all.  It doesn’t keep them all readily accessible, but it certainly keeps them stored somewhere in its massive memory database.  Because your memories are always with you, it is impossible to be unaffected by them.  Because your subconscious never discards any memory file, after you have an upsetting experience, it is impossible for you to revert back to the state you were in before you ever had that experience.  Yet this kind of time travel would have to be possible if we were to have any hope of pulling off the kind of forgiveness that many people talk about.

Now the only time forgiveness comes up is after we’ve felt hurt by someone.  Because your subconscious is designed to focus on protecting you, it considers memories of you being attacked in some way to be especially important. It then prioritizes these memory files, storing them in a place that is easier to access than other, non-threatening files.  These files are the first ones to be reviewed whenever your subconscious feels you are being threatened in some way.  Such an organization system is actually very clever, as your mind is essentially keeping its most important files close to hand so it can readily access them in an emergency situation. 

Now because humans generally don’t understand how their own mind works, they think that the evidence of “true forgiveness” is when you can think of someone who hurt you and not immediately recall some of the rotten things they did to you.  In other words, you’re failing in the forgiveness department until you can get your mind to stop doing something that it is designed by God to do.  Obviously there are some serious flaws in this theory.

Because God is the only true Expert on the human design, He never tells us to do things that He knows are impossible for us to do.  In your case, it is impossible for you to reach a point where the thought of your husband only triggers neutral and/or positive feelings.  This man was such a jerk to you that he’s always going to be labeled as a jerk by your mind.  While it’s possible that your mind might eventually assign him other, less negative labels as well, the jerk label will always remain firmly in place.  This isn’t a flaw on your part, it’s your mind being honest about the way this man treated you.  From your perspective, he attacked you without cause on several occasions.  From his perspective, he was drowning in his own psychological pain and probably felt unable to stop himself from lashing out.  But your mind is designed to put you first, so there’s a limit to how much value it will ever assign to your husband’s point of view.  Again, this isn’t a sign of immaturity or a moral failing on your part.  It’s simply a case of your mind doing what it’s designed to do.

As a psychological and spiritual counsellor, I personally feel that trying to forgive is a lousy goal to shoot for.  The kinds of emotions people associate with forgiveness will occur naturally when you deal with the root causes of distress.  When you try to force the surface symptom to develop before you deal with root causes, you’re only going to end up faking that you’re over something when in reality you’re just suppressing your anger.

In humans, anger is an expression of pain. When someone hurts us, we feel angry towards them.  If they keep on hurting us, or if they hurt us very severely, our pain intensifies, therefore our anger intensifies, until we feel like we genuinely hate someone.  Hating someone is usually condemned in religious communities, which only causes people to try to suppress their true feelings.  To properly recover from being wounded, it is vital that we be honest with ourselves and God about just how hurt we feel.  Hating someone who has severely wounded us is completely reasonable, as our hatred is simply an expression of pain.

Humans are complex beings with complex agendas and desires.  This means that we never have a single emotional reaction towards another human being.  Instead, we have many reactions, and often some of those emotions totally contradict each other.  You’ve already experienced this with your husband.  On the one hand, you probably feel intense hatred towards him because he hurt you so deeply.  But at the same time, part of you probably really misses him and genuinely wish he was still in your life.  So what is that about?

To your subconscious and your soul, your spouse is a very symbolic person.  In abusive relationships, the victim of abuse often feels strongly attracted to their abuser despite also feeling genuinely terrified.  When you kicked your husband out, that was your subconscious trying to protect you from harm.  When you felt morally compelled to let him back in so that your son could have a father, that was your soul pushing for you to behave in ways that it could approve of.  When you felt that “a part of me still loved him”, that was your subconscious responding to certain mental associations it had formed.

In many cases of abuse, we originally attract towards an abusive partner because that partner reminds us of someone else who we feel we have critical unfinished business with (see Why Do I Keep Falling In Love With Jerks?).  In some cases, the partner reminds us of a parent figure who we were never able to get into a good dynamic with.  In these cases, we try to symbolically fix our dynamic with our parent by forming a good dynamic with our abusive partner.  The reason it’s so important for the partner to treat us badly is that that negative behavior reinforces what a good symbolic match he is to some other jerk in our life.  A well-behaved spouse who treats us with love and respect will be totally useless as a symbolic substitute for some other abusive personality.  Because the original person we are focused on is so important to us, anyone who feels like their representative in our lives also feels extremely important. 

In other cases of abuse, the partner we seek out symbolizes ourselves.  Their negative qualities remind us of our own unresolved hang ups.  We then proceed to try to “save” or “fix” our partners in ways that we can’t manage to do for ourselves.  Once again, the intense attraction we feel towards our partners in these scenarios is being transferred over to them from another relationship—in this case, our relationship with ourselves.   

The wording of your question shows that you’re already aware that you chose to keep associating with your husband for more than just moral reasons.  Certainly trying to keep a fatherly figure in your son’s life was a major issue, but there was another attraction that you felt which was coming from your mind, not your soul.   Once again, this is completely normal.  Your mind and soul are two entirely different elements with their own separate agendas, and they would have each reacted to your husband differently.  But the fact that you continued to feel psychologically attracted to your husband even while he hurt you indicates that you were hoping to fix other issues in your life by fixing your relationship with him. Identifying what those other issues were/are will be an important part of your own grief processing.  But as I said earlier, this is not the time to prioritize grief processing.  Instead, the priority should be on helping your mind free up resources by reducing how stressed you feel in your own home.

This post was written in response to BlueGoose58.