There seem to be three types of people in the world: neat, messy, or somewhere in between. Do you hang up your jacket? Toss it on the floor? Drape it on a chair? As it happens, there’s a strong correlation between the state of your home and the state of your mind. Maybe you just haven’t gotten around to cleaning this week … or several weeks. But how can you tell if that’s a one-off situation or a telltale symptom of mental distress?
“The state of one’s home can be a clue to their emotional state,” Dr. Sadi Jimenez, naturopathic doctor at My LA Therapy, tells TZR in an email. “For example, depression can manifest as a messy and cluttered home. It can also indicate that apathy has set in. [The person could be] overextended in some areas of their life and it’s manifesting by neglecting their surroundings.”
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) echoes Jimenez’ theory, stating that if your living environment was once in pretty good shape, but you’ve been neglecting it lately, it could indicate a mental health issue. This is because, when someone suffers from depression, for instance, research shows that everyday tasks — like cleaning — become increasingly difficult. And the longer the task goes undone, the more likely the person will avoid it.
Not only has clutter been found to increase stress, but other studies have found that, visually, it’s hard for the brain to process multiple objects at once — versus if your space is fairly uncluttered. And research has found that people with clean homes are healthier overall than those with messy ones.
So, on the other side of the spectrum is the person who is super neat and organized. “The idea of being overly neat can be identified with emotions for a need to be in control,” Jimenez says. “It can represent the fear of letting go, and finding pleasure or safety in controlling one’s environment.” For example, some people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and their cleaning rituals can take up great amounts of time. But others may just be more neat than messy, and it’s not a cause for concern.
Ahead, more on what your home space says about your head space — and what you can do about it.
How To Know If Messiness — Or Neatness — Is A Problem
Jimenez says there’s a way to tell if the state of your home or living space is affecting you in a negative way. “[It’s a problem] if it occupies other aspects of life,” she says. “For example, if the need to clean arises when an uncomfortable emotion comes up.” And the same applies for messiness.
“Clutter to any degree causes problems, whether people realize it or not,” home organization expert and co-founder of The Home Edit Joanna Teplin tells TZR in an email. “No one actually ‘enjoys’ not being able to find their keys in the morning or seeing a pile of junk mail every time they walk into the kitchen. It's just no way to live.” She says the more you ignore a mess, the messier it will get, and the more overwhelmed you will feel. In addition, it can impact your interpersonal relationships or cause you to not have guests over, due to the shame around your clutter.
Suzanne Kennedy, a professional organizer based in New York City, adds that there is usually a lot of “heaviness” associated with clutter. “The person will often feel bogged down — I find it then leads to feeling out of control of one's life and having a difficult time accomplishing things, projects, and so on,” she tells TZR in an email. (She says it’s important to note she is not a licensed psychotherapist, but is basing her input on what she’s witnessed working with clients.)
What To Do About A Messy Home Environment
Let’s say you’re messy and can’t take more than a few steps in your home without tripping over something. You want to change this, but it seems overwhelming. So what now? “Take one step at a time,” Jimenez says (no pun intended). “Many of us focus on the big picture, but in truth, we only have access to the moment. We must then encourage ourselves to put all our effort on accomplishing small tasks throughout the day.”
Similarly, Teplin says it all comes down to something she calls “the edit.” “If you want to create a system you'll actually maintain, you must remove everything from the space, group the items into categories, and purge anything you no longer want or need,” she explains. “Otherwise, you're just shuffling clutter back and forth.” Like Jimenez, Teplin says to start small. “Don't try to tackle your entire house all at once — it's not realistic and will leave you feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “Instead, start with a drawer. The knowledge and confidence you gain from a smaller project will motivate you to tackle the larger ones.”
Kennedy points out that, before you begin your decluttering journey, you first have to recognize that there is a problem. “The person must decide they actually want to do something about it and should then schedule a consultation with a professional organizer,” she says. “I’ve worked with hoarders, one of whom was very successful. However, I found that if there was continued and prolonged resistance to actually decluttering, then the client was better off consulting with a licensed psychotherapist.”
Quality of life also comes into play here, how the mess is affecting your day-to-day life, like Jimenez said earlier. Is it adding more stress, and time, to your day to find things? Are you not having friends over because of the disarray? Is all your stuff negatively impacting your relationship with your significant other, roommates, or family members?
Taking action is the first step, and Kennedy says decluttering is most successful when a client does not view it as a one-and-done situation, but as an ongoing part of their life. “They are open and willing to put into place a system to continue to organize and declutter going forward,” she says. For accountability, they can also enlist the help of a professional organizer (like her), a friend, family member, partner, or therapist. “But the person must make a conscious decision to declutter,” she says. “That is key.”