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.
Oh my gosh, such a timely article for me right now! I’m in the midst of moving and boxes, mess and chaos are everywhere. I can’t stop moving and trying to restore order, all whilst the a Christmas countdown is on with three kids returning to the next to celebrate and see our new home. And it’s a home I want them to feel is theirs too – no pressure. I recognized myself in your writing, and felt very understood. Thank you so much for that Emily! Thankfully I know myself a wee bit now and purged as much in advance of the move as possible, trying to alleviate pressures, and even took a few days off work to move in. So thankful to be able to do that, and to have some coping strategies. Also thankful to know deep in my heart that the chaos is worth it – the move is the right thing for us. Happy holidays, thanks for the article!
Wow, moving right before Christmas…that is a lot to be doing all at once. It sounds chaotic and joyful at the same time! Good luck getting settled in. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with the kids and am happy if this post provided a bit of empathy along the way:)
Thank you Emily for this beautiful article. Absolutely on the spot and on time. I was running around frantically for days, perceiving demands and expectations everywhere. And brooding why baking is such a joy, but cleaning the mess afterwards is such a struggle. Your ideas and insights are a great support. And I certainly feel less crazy and alone.
You are very welcome Silvia! I hear you about the mess baking makes:). The running around part is challenging: at this time of year there simply is more going on for many of us. I too have been getting overstimulated at some point every day this week but I manage to get it back down each day because of the strategies I have in place: AM meditation and exercise, lunchtime yoga restorative pose, and if necessary, a bath before bed (had to do that last night!)
Perfect timing for me to be reading this! So many “open loops” with physical debris cluttering my surfaces and mind right now! One habit that I am re-establishing is to schedule unpacking time for each excursion out (e.g. daily errands or a camping trip). I put it on my calendar as I schedule the event. This practice helps me keep space in my day to close these loops.
Patty, that sounds like a great habit…for me, finishing things (or not finishing them!) is the biggest chaos-inducer. Like finishing teaching a class and not filing away all the materials I had printed for it, and they sit there in a pile. I’ve learned if I have an important call, for example, I book in half an hour afterwards to organize and type up any notes I want to keep.
Hi Emily, thank you for another great article and a very timely one for me. This morning I’ve allotted time to sort and and organise my desk, it’s piled up with paperwork and stuff. I’m putting it off – I’m reading this instead! – but I know that I’ll feel better when I’ve done it. Always love all the tips in your articles.
By the way, should I get an email when you reply or does the site not work like that? Thank you.
HI Fiona, good luck with your desk project. I find creating space of any kind (on my desk, in the bedroom, in a closet, etc) always brings wonderful new ideas, objects, or opportunities…you never know when you will find something you needed but forgot you had!
I’ve emailed my web person about installing a plug-in that will notify you when you get replies to your posts:)…thanks for the suggestion!
The three reasons why mess equals stress for an HSP makes so much sense. For about 3 years now I have had an ongoing donation box going. We have a local thrift store that accepts donations on Tuesdays. So every week I have been reducing my ‘messes’ by donating items, clothes, that I don’t need. This week I am tackling the laundry and trying to figure out why I have so much . Like the laundry basket always seems to be overfilled and yet I seem to be washing laundry every day! Just thinking…I could probably apply this mess equals stress concept to what is in my brain! to reduce overload, reduce what isn’t necessary for me to process. My spouse often says…’why do you allow other people’s attitudes, thoughts, words to rent space in your brain?’ I live with a non HSP by birth, although he does have some HSP traits. However, he likes ‘things’. So, I am trying to reduce my messes in the places that I frequent most, give my spaces a streamlined clutter free look, and try not to look at his non HSP clutter. Easier said than done. And yes, how fun it is to find something I forgot I had that I need. Just on the topic of reducing the messes in our brains. Is there a tactic that HSPs can use to finalize processing thoughts?
S, I completely agree with you about applying the “mess = stress” equation to your brain. HSPs are so susceptible to our thoughts, we need to have care what we take in, as your husband pointed out:). Physical things generate thought-reactions too, though, so having an uncluttered environment contributes directly to a calm brain in my experience. I’m not sure what you mean about finalizing processing thoughts–if you could clarify the question more, I’ll try to answer.