For many sensitive people, mess equals stress. We can’t change our temperament, and we can’t avoid making messes. What’s a person to do?  

My friend, who is also a highly sensitive person (HSP), called to say the chaos in her apartment was driving her crazy. She had returned from a long trip the week before and hadn’t yet unpacked her suitcase. As we talked, she realized why. Her tiny apartment is like sailboat. If an item is out of place, it’s in the way. And she didn’t have a place for all her clothes.

I can relate to her “mess equals stress” reaction. Our living room turned into a chaotic sea of books, curios, and misplaced furniture yesterday while my partner painted the recently re-plastered walls…and it put us both on edge. When we got everything back in its place last night, we each heaved a sigh of relief.

In fact, when I informally polled HSP friends and family on this topic, the response was unanimous. Everyone I talked to fervently agreed that for them, mess equals stress. Their comments were surprisingly similar:

  • “I get completely overwhelmed.”
  • “My head starts feeling like an overinflated balloon that might explode at any minute.”
  • “I can’t think straight.”
  • “I can tolerate it for a few hours, then I’ll start getting frantic.”

Clearly, sensitive people face a challenge. We can’t cook without dirtying dishes. We can’t paint without moving furniture. And we can’t avoid laundry: even if you live in a nudist colony, it will pile up eventually. Let’s face it: life is just one damned mess after another.

Some people tolerate this state of affairs without getting cranky. So why are messes like kryptonite for HSPs? And what can we do about it?

3 reasons mess equals stress for sensitive people

1—Mess is highly overstimulating for us. Everywhere you turn, an item catches your eye: a bill needing to be paid, a shirt with a stain, a pile of papers left over from the class you just completed. And because your HSP brain is wired to generate countless possibilities, implications, and permutations, each of these objects generates a cascade of overarousing thoughts.

2—We find it hard to ignore our messes. Because HSPs are highly conscientious, the sight of a mess, with its implications of unfinished tasks, nags, gnaws at, and weighs on us. This increases our overarousal.

3—We fear others’ judgment of our mess. As one of my informal survey respondents put it, “It’s embarrassing. I’m hypersensitive to how others will see it.” HSPs hate being judged so much that even the thought of others judging us increases our overarousal.

Do we have to respond this way to our messes?

Not necessarily. Though we can’t change our basic wiring, we can cultivate non-attachment. I used to do week-long Zen retreats, keeping silence and meditating off and on from early morning until bedtime. Emerging from days of stillness, I could look at the pile of papers on my desk without launching into my usual barrage of thoughts.

But my non-reactivity was short-lived. And my papers weren’t going away on their own. So I took a new tack. I continued to strive for mental discipline through meditation, but I also began to search for systems to minimize the number of messes piling up in my everyday life.

I had two criteria for my mess-reduction systems. They had to support me staying calm and present all day. And they had to be easy, or I wouldn’t do them. As I played with different routines and systems, three mess-reducing rules emerged:

1—Make sure every object has its place

At the risk of sounding obvious, to keep order, you’ve got to be able to put things away. Of course, you need physical storage space for your stuff. But you also need space in your life and in your heart. If you find managing daily mess challenging, then the presence of unnecessary, unwanted stuff will only make your job harder.

If you are one of Marie Kondo’s millions of devotees, you’ll recognize the essence of her tidying philosophy here. Keep only things that you really need, or that give you joy. And treat those things with care. This is a humane way to reduce mess-based stress.

2—Make enough time for your projects

Again, this is obvious, isn’t it? Not necessarily. We can easily deceive ourselves by failing to acknowledge the sheer number of projects for which we are accountable. According to organizational guru David Allen, the typical person has an astounding 40 projects going at once, from replacing the garage door opener to planning that trip for Thanksgiving.

Unless you plan otherwise, you will end up handling most of these projects on the fly. And, as a result, each of these unacknowledged, unfinished projects forms what Allen calls an “open loop” in your mind.

Why is this a problem? Because your brain can’t resist an open loop. It will gnaw on it like a dog gnaws a bone. So imagine the effect on your mind of a mess, which is a veritable mass of open loops. Messes overload your HSP brain. And it responds like a laptop with too many programs open. First it slows down. Then it freezes.

You can avoid this mess-induced brain freeze by making an honest list of all your projects and responsibilities, then assessing how long you need to complete each one and when you will do that.

3—Handle things only once

I learned this powerful rule from a friend whose dad, a butcher, prided himself on his efficiency.  His secret? Whenever possible, he handled things only once. For example, he’d pick up a utensil, use it, then immediately clean it and put it away. Because of him, I put away the pepper grinder after using it. I take off my jeans, walk straight to the dresser, and put them in the drawer. I walk directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin to drop of our junk mail.

When you strive to handle things only once—from jeans to junk mail—you build a habit of ordinary effort. These actions are so tiny that we can easily neglect them. Yet they add up to prevent the accumulation of mess that would otherwise send me into overarousal.  Without these tiny habits, my stuff piles up. I’m forced into irregular bursts of extraordinary effort. And extraordinary, unplanned effort is stressful.

Savoring the ephemeral beauty of order

When I called my parents to ask whether “mess equals stress” for them, my dad wistfully said, “I live in a fantasy world where everything will have a place and be in it.” Then he added, “I was just going to ask your mother to clean up the magazines around her chair!” Mom laughed and retorted, “And I was about to ask Dad to pick up his stuff in the bedroom!”

What a lovely illustration of our HSP relationship to mess. We crave the beauty of order…while knowing it can never last. And we do our best, in conversation with our loved ones, to work out some way of managing the endless messes of daily life. If we acknowledge our projects, make ample time for them, and put things back as soon as possible, we can create a sustainable level of order, savor it while it lasts, and keep our overarousal to a minimum.