It’s been a little over a week since I moved into our new apartment. Despite my internal reassurances to myself that I would take a few days to relax, I felt opposing yearnings calling from deep within. I felt a burning need, yes, that’s right, a NEED to clean. After packing one strained U-Haul box after another, carrying load after load of essential household items up and down stairs, and spending over thirteen hours driving these essentials from one apartment to the other, I couldn’t help but notice how much stuff we have.
As I sat in my new apartment surrounded by overflowing laundry baskets and boxes, I wanted to relax, I truly did. But I just couldn’t. Not while I was enclosed on all sides by looming piles of boxes to be sorted, laundry to be done, and books to be alphabetized. (I have a particular weakness for organizing and reorganizing my books by genre, title, author, etc, as you can see from arrangement #3 to the right). During my hours of sorting and unpacking, I started to wonder if this compulsion was in any way related to my anxiety disorder, or ADD, or possibly my female nesting instincts? Since I don’t yet have my library card, I turned to the internet for answers.
It turns out my dislike for this disorder is in no way related to my behavioral disorders. I’m actually a pretty typical American drowning in things I don’t truly need. My anxious reaction to clutter is just my brain’s way of signaling visual overload. Some smarty scientists (Stephanie McMains & Sabine Kastner) even published a study in The Journal of Neuroscience proving that clutter overstimulates the visual cortex, making it difficult to concentrate.(1) With our brains taking in visual information from multiple sources competing for attention, it inevitably goes on system overload and stops functioning at the higher levels. (Imagine being surrounded by several Stewie’s demanding attention from Mommy.) (2)
Increased concentration isn’t the only benefit to an orderly environment. With less stuff to sift through, it’s easier to find things and therefore more difficult to lose things. I don’t know about you, but I tend to lose my keys, wallet, purse, phone, etc. pretty often. This tendency to lose things is one of many symptoms of ADD and ADHD. Apparently, we like to focus intensely on stimuli we find interesting and rewarding.(3) So in my case, silly kitties and random internet research trump the little things like keys or money. Which gives me a scientific explanation for the multiple times I’ve forgotten to take my groceries with me when leaving the check-out line. Right??
Personally, when I feel anxious and like I have little control over my life, it’s comforting to be able to exercise control over my environment by creating a safe and cozy home where there were only boxes and disorganized piles days before. Besides, with less mess, there’s less dust for me to sneeze, few belongings to clean, and less risk of being found dead, half-eaten by cats under a pile of stuffed animals and failed DIY Pinterest projects. (Anyone have flashes of this lady when sorting through your things? I do.)
But why do I have so many things? Why do I have so much stuff, yet still yearn to buy more? Maybe I really do need six bottles of moisturizer and those textbooks I haven’t touched since college will really come in handy someday. Or maybe I don’t want to let go of my college years quite yet. Or admit to myself that my skin is going to age even if I bathe daily in a tub of Clinique products. But more than anything, I think it’s because like so many people, I’ve bought into the belief that I need certain things to be loved and accepted by others. As one of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, puts it so well:
“I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want; it’s the rewards we want. It’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari, don’t think, ‘This is somebody who’s greedy.’ Think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.'”(3)
Perhaps there are ways to find love and acceptance that don’t harm the environment, break the bank, or require weeks worth of work to move and unpack. I suppose anything is possible. I’ll let you know how my search for alternatives unfolds.