Time to come clean on the perfect home
The benefits of a tidy home are obvious but sometimes cleaning gets out of hand
Those who insist on an immaculate home have often had a chaotic existence as a child, and the obsessive need for order is their way of trying to control their world
“If you can’t fill the fridge properly then I’ll have to do it,” said her mother hauling out all of the newly placed groceries and replacing them her way: the “proper” way.
“It was so difficult,” said her daughter. “I tried to help but nothing was ever good enough. If I left a coffee cup on the counter for one second after I’d finished drinking, my mother would shout: ‘Who left this here? How many times have I asked people not to leave dirty cups around?’”
Such scenarios come up regularly in my psychotherapy practice, among clients who suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and even OCD.
They had one parent who insisted on the family home being ultra-clean and who would rage if anything was out of place or if there was so much as a mark on the wall.
It is hard to fight such fastidious behaviour (and impossible for small children). Cleanliness is synonymous with godliness, as the saying goes. Indeed, challenges to tidying tyrants are met with accusations of “slut” and “lazy”. The behaviour is even sometimes known as “cleaning perfectionism”, the latter word carrying a root that suggests exemplary behaviour.
Clearing up is having a moment. The sweeping success of Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, is testament to that. And television series indicate that clearing clutter and grunge leads to happiness – and to a certain degree it does.
Research has demonstrated how a tidy space equals a tidy mind; one study at Princeton University, for instance, concluded that a cluttered environment makes it difficult to focus on a task.
And I do have clients at the other end of the cleaning spectrum. One of them lived with a single father who threw nothing away which made life feel chaotic for her. She would retreat to her room to escape the chaos, something she still does when life gets difficult. Another client had a difficult childhood with a mentally ill mother who struggled financially. They constantly moved from home to home. This client now collects the types of things she was deprived of as a child and, in the process, is building a “secure” nest of her own. Her partner calls it hoarding.
What manifests as immaculate is a home steeped with anxiety, where it is impossible to relax
So the extreme ends of the cleaning spectrum tend to indicate and reflect a state of mind. At the ultra-cleaning end, those who insist on an immaculate home have often had a chaotic existence as a child, and the obsessive need for order is their way of trying to control their world. The home is the perfect sphere for this, being personal fiefdoms where we can decide the rules. Obsessive cleaning can also be, of course, learned behaviour.
A parent’s need for relentless order has a negative effect on children and the compulsive cleaner’s partner. What manifests as immaculate is a home steeped with anxiety, where it is impossible to relax. To maintain a spotless home, the perpetrator must either spend a tedious life constantly cleaning or exert control. They must force others to tidy up to keep the perpetrator “happy” and instruct children not to make any mess or disturb anything.
The classic cases – and I have had clients who have suffered from this – are abused wives who are told they are not good enough despite hours of cleaning. But, in my practice, the compulsive cleaners are equally split between men and women.
The effect on their children is to feel that they are inadequate; and they carry this low self-esteem into their adult life. They also tend to be anxious; they are on high alert around other people’s feelings in order not to upset them and, in the case of one client, they suffer from OCD themselves, having absorbed a sense of the world being a dirty place.
Our personalities come from nature and nurture. Ideally this mix involves growing into the personalities we are destined to be without having them trammelled by someone else. In strict environments a child has to adapt to the personality of the controlling parent, which can lead to later depression as they are out of balance with who they really are, on top of living with low self-esteem.
The perpetrators too have often suffered from, as already mentioned, a dysfunctional childhood. In the case of the obsessively clean mother I mentioned earlier, her toddler was diagnosed with a mental illness and from then on she became obsessed with keeping order in the house as her world fell apart.
So, yes, a tidy home can create a sense of order and calm, but when that spills into a fear of chaos and the cleaning becomes extreme, it affects both the perpetrator and those who live with them.