The Mess You Don’t See

monkey covering  his eyes so he cannot see

Do messes bother you? Some people are very easygoing and not bothered by disorder, while others are troubled by any little thing that is out of place. Typically, the most orderly person in the house suffers the most by the presence of household chaos and clutter. Piles of clothing left around by children, stacks of paper piled on the kitchen counter by spouses, paintings that have been knocked askew by passersby, dirty dishes left in the sink by roommates… all of these and more can drive us crazy.

Whether we are the “neat one” or the “messy one,” whenever we expect a space to look a certain way, and then walk in to find that it doesn’t look “right,” tempers can flare. We may feel resentful, frustrated, or discouraged that previous efforts have failed to bring about positive change. Or, we may be weary of having someone else constantly “on our back” about the way things are.

While there are many situations that can become the subject of repeated arguments, there is one mess that tends not to bother us. Do you have a guess what it might be?

As it turns out, the mess we mind the least is… our own!

While belongings that have been dropped, draped, dumped, and stashed by others can be tremendously irritating, the items that we have similarly left lying around remain inoffensive. I’m sure there is some psychological explanation for this, but I don’t know what it is. I suspect we are less troubled by our own “stuff” because:

  • We empathize with ourselves.

“I am just exhausted and don’t have the energy to take this upstairs and put it away right now.”

  • We have a clear explanation for why an object is being put down in a particular space.

“I am putting this down here because I need to dash down the hall and answer the phone.”

  • We are aware of a future plan we have in mind.

“I will put my tie away when I go upstairs later tonight.”

  • We are accustomed to our own disorder.

“I’ve just always done it this way and it doesn’t bother me.”

There are probably other reasons as well.

The question then remains, what are the implications of this human predilection? I believe there are at least two lessons worth considering.

FIRST… it helps to be aware of this reality.

It is easy to become frustrated when our space doesn’t look the way we want. Since we are probably overlooking our own contribution to the mess, we have a tendency to come down hard on others. Someone else’s failure to put things away is simply going to bother us more than our own shortfall in this area.

By acknowledging this innate tendency, we increase our ability to exercise compassion instead of judgment about how we keep things. Admittedly, many individuals share space with those individuals who, shall we say, “take a more relaxed view of their environment.” If this is your situation, there will probably always be some tension about how physical belongings are being managed in your space. You may always desire, and hence invest more energy in maintaining, an ordered living and/or working space. Nonetheless, recognizing our own flaws provides a healthy dose of humility, which typically makes any efforts at negotiation and compromise more successful.

SECOND… focus inward.

Few people respond well to criticism and nagging. We can set rules, have family meetings, agree on boundaries, establish routines, and take other efforts to get everyone in the household on the same page when it comes to when and how possessions will be treated. These are all positive and productive measures, especially for children, who need to be taught what to do and experience consequences when rules are broken.

However, the best and quickest way to impact the world around us is to deal with our own items. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, we have the responsibility for these things. It is our job to put our own things away and to keep our own things organized. Second, since people detect other peoples’ messes more quickly than their own, any action we take in establishing and maintaining order will be noticed by those around us. For example, the family might realize that “Mom’s desk is always clear now,” or “Katie’s room is the most fun to play in because there is always plenty of clear space.” When we practice what we preach, we demonstrate a commitment to treating possessions with respect. We become the person that others might seek out for help with organizing. Rather than being perceived as a nag to avoid, we become the expert to consult.

*     *     *     *     *

Getting and staying organized is a lifestyle that requires both skill and discipline. The rewards are significant, allowing us to find, access, and enjoy the spaces and belongings in which we have invested.

Do you agree that you are least likely to see your own “mess?”

24 thoughts on “The Mess You Don’t See”

  1. I do agree and sometimes I am blind to it. But then all of a sudden I will have a moment of clarity where I realize that it really is a mess and a mess that I need to indeed take care of. When I finally do see it and set my mind to clean up the mess, I usually am successful then for the most part of indeed cleaning up my own mess.

    1. Sort of like a “wake up” moment when it hits you. I had one of those this morning with pieces of trailing vine on my stone wall. All of the sudden it was driving me crazy and I had to go out and trim them away:)

  2. I also agree. I think that now, more than ever, we are acutely aware of our surroundings. We notice when someone else has left a dirty dish on the counter by the sink or when the pile of magazines is always askew. Your advice to take responsibility for your own things, to notice your own mess instead of harping on the others is fabulous!

    1. Agreed, Diane. The stay-at-home has certainly made us much more aware of every little thing. Plus, many of us are spending more time at home, and more time together. All of these can cause grievances. Starting with yourself is empowering, and possibly contagious!

  3. Communication is essential with others, so you do not prejudge the person in their mess. Bringing awareness of the frustration to the other person will help both of you. So not to judge another person for their actions, ask questions, like “why do you place these items here?” or a statement that expresses your feelings, like “It frustrates me when you place items in this area. I prefer it to be clear.” Judging others will not help you or them. I agree people do not realize the mess they live in because of the reasons they only know. Taking the time to figure them out allows us to be more present when we handle items in our home. Thank you for bringing this topic up.
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    1. It isn’t easy, especially when people with different “styles” are sharing space. I’ve seen this tendency in myself, even though I am very orderly. Always good to start with ourselves, and then flex that communication muscle as you say!

  4. Completely agree! When we see some one else’s mess, we don’t have the context (which you did well to point out) and then we fill in the gaps with assumptions. I have to practice understanding this when it comes to other members of my family. If I set the example and practice what I preach, it takes away my need for control over other people’s messes. I’m lucky that, for the most part, I can pass along a quick reminder and my family will pitch in. This will probably all fly out the window when my kids are a bit older… haha.

    1. Older children do present different challenges, but in a home where good principles have been established from a young age, things should go well. I tell Moms that your teens may depart from your good lessons for a while, but they will likely come back to order on their own. We always do well to look at ourselves first!

  5. I certainly agree that we are able to ignore our own mess. Knowing why we put it there is probably the reason in the beginning but if we don’t put it away quickly we begin to get used to it. It becomes easy to say I’ll put that away soon. It’s good to bring this topic to mind to nudge us into recognizing our own weakness.

    1. Most of us put things down “temporarily,” and when we have something in mind, it isn’t all bad. But as you say, when we let things stay in that temporary place too long, it becomes part of the decor of the space. Even we can forget where we put things.

    1. We just tolerate our own stuff better than other peoples’ stuff. It does come down to compromise, and owning up to our part in whatever is going on… which can even be insisting on things being done in a particular way.

  6. This is such a different perspective on mess and clutter. And I think you’re right, we are accustomed to our own disorder. I think we get so used to it and then don’t see it the way we see someone else’s
    The biggest issue for me with clutter, is that I hate it. I mostly hate walking into sloppiness. It’s unfair to expect other people to have to deal with stuff lying around. (. My cousin just told me that she tripped and fell over her husband’s shoes because they were out where they should not have been.) I’m guessing he might just think twice before he does that again.

    1. I have tripped on the husband’s shoes myself. I have to say that, over time, my husband has embraced the idea of an ordered space much more. We still aren’t in the same place, but closer. Still, I notice that when no one else is around, I tend to be a bit more relaxed about leaving my own things around, which is though provoking. Maybe I figure I can be less particular when I don’t feel the need to walk my talk. Anyway, I know that I can be more merciful to myself than with others, a tendency that I continually strive to improve!

  7. I really have those “wake up” moments you and Janine both mentioned. And it’s like, “How have I been living this way for so long?” It’s really funny. I definitely see Cassidy’s messes and he definitely sees mine.

    1. I once lived with a half-refinished secretary desk in my living room for a year. I stopped noticing. It wasn’t until a repairman came into the apartment and made a snarky comment that I took a second look and realized how awful it looked LOL!

  8. Great read and why I always suggest, start with your own stuff. Even the most organized of people have more stuff to declutter and organize.

    1. Yes, it is smart to start with your own items. Not only are they less controversial in a shared space, but it is empowering to establish change that we can maintain ourselves:)

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