The Act Of Tidying Up Is Just Another Way We Try To Cope

My ex is tidy. He keeps his drawers half empty. Everything has to be neatly folded and put away, food has to be meal-prepped, nothing can sit on his desk. I used to send him pictures of my personal inbox which was bordering on 5,000 unread emails or my mess of a desktop just to stress him out. I’d accepted myself for who I was: organized chaos. It worked for me. After a while, though, it started making me self-conscious. He looks like an adult. He doesn’t have clutter. He isn’t overwhelmed by a load of crap. He completes all of his tasks and errands when they need to be completed.

But he didn’t have his shit together. He was falling apart at the seams trying to ignore everything that was on fire by focusing on the things he could control. I think he believed that if he could just keep everything outside of his brain under control, then his thoughts would finally fall into line. They didn’t and they don’t.

When he left I became a flurry of obsessive organization. The books had to be perfectly aligned. My jeans were stacked just so. I cleared my inbox, I organized my Google Drive, I cleaned out my pantry, I got rid of a bunch of shit I probably would’ve used eventually, I made my bed. I didn’t have to think about anything. I didn’t have to feel anything. All that mattered was whether or not everything was in its place. I looked at what I had accomplished and was proud. Look at how put together I am. Look at how totally fine I am.

Tidying is helpful. Tidying is useful. But seriously, what are we trying to prove? That we’re adults? That we aren’t nearly as frazzled as we feel 75% of the time? Tidying is a really easy way to avoid everything else. Your brain empties, you’re distracted by the minutiae of gently folding your socks so they lay perfectly flat in rows like dutiful orphans. You aren’t hurting yourself or anyone else the way you do when you drink, overeat, starve, or do drugs — your coping is productive and efficient.

I’m not saying tidying is bad or dangerous or even a lie. Being neat is helpful and tidying is soothing. We should enjoy it, and do it often. Who doesn’t like coming home to a clean room and a made bed? It’s delightful and satisfying. I’m just saying we should be aware of why we’re doing it and what we’re hoping to accomplish. Are you doing it because it would make your life easier? Or because it would convince everyone (including yourself) that you are a fully-functioning adult? Because it would convince everyone that you’ve totally got your shit together and everything in your life is just as perfect as your pantry? Is it because the only thing you have control over is whether or not your closet is color-coded or your bookshelf is evenly stacked or your inbox is cleared of unread messages? What happens when it’s finally done? What happens when there’s nothing left to sort through but the thoughts in your own head? You’re right — best take another look at your closet.