Before I leave for a trip I like the house to be clean.
Before I leave the house I like the house to be clean.
Before I don't leave at all I like the house to be clean.
I'm a clean person.
I schedule days where I'm going to scrub the bathtub and I can't work unless my office is picked up.
For most of my life, I thought of this as a valuable quality. I'm organized. It's a good thing that my house is always spotless. But moving in with my partner, someone who is...less obsessive...has caused me to pause for some reflection. More than once.
I can't tell you how many times he's said to me, "Ana, this isn't actually dirty."
I can't tell you have many times I've cried when he's said that.
Why is it that when things don't feel clean I feel spun out?
Why on some days do I fixate on the cleanliness of the bathroom and other days I'm able to easily let it go?
Why do I immediately think about cleaning the entire house before I can relax, but when on vacation I don't once think about disinfecting spray?
One of the most common arguments I get in with Isaac is me thinking things are dirty and him thinking things are clean.
Because here's the thing with my cleanliness barometer, it varies any given day. Sometimes things needs to be really really clean for me to feel ok. Sometimes just clean. Sometimes just kind of clean.
What determines this?
You can probably guess...
My emotional state. If I'm stressed, I'll want to clean. If I feel out of control, I'll want to clean. If there's something I'm worried about, I'll want to clean. If I have some heavy emotions to process, well, the whole house will need an entire makeover.
Over the past year, I've really come to examine this part of myself. Is my desire to clean a coping mechanism?
Most of the time, yeah. I think it is.
A learned skill from my mother. Passed down from her mother. Passed down from her mother's mother.
We clean as a way to deal with how out of control we feel.
Rule of thumb: If there's obsession, there's usually trauma lurking underneath.
My need for order, for structure, for cleanliness is a real need. It's ok to desire to be clean. But all signs point to the way I go about meeting this need being a little over exaggerated.
Hence the crying, the overthinking about vacuuming, the not being able to complete tasks and be present unless my space is orderly.
An unhealthy coping mechanism is one that gets in the way of you feeling your truth: joy, presence, regulation, ability to go with the flow. Even if that coping mechanism is deemed as positive, like cleaning.
Moving in with Isaac has caused me to ask this one serious question: Is cleaning this much making me happy?
When the answer was no I began to dig deeper.
A classic sign of trauma is one extreme to the next. I didn't have consistency as a child because my parents were drunk, so I learned that the only way to have consistency is to be obsessively clean.
No order to so so much order.
I created entire inner worlds with clean sheets and organized drawers.
This helped me when I was 3 and alone, this doesn't help me now at 28 and in a relationship.
What my need to clean has taught me about trauma is this: trauma likes to stay in a spun out place, out of control to control out of control to control. It's all trauma knows. But the seed of my soul, my truest self, wants regulation. Wants less extreme. Wants to actually be able to sit with a dirty house. I think that's why she's cleaning in the first place. To feel some hint of regulation.
Resolving trauma is about finding the space of in-between. Living in the gray area.
I've learned that to get where I want to go I often have to do the exact opposite of what my trauma is telling me to do. I have to sit with the dirty house and see what comes up as a result. What is in the grey area of totally disorganized and obsessively structured? Usually, my heart. Usually, my new self wanting to emerge. Usually I need to feel the emotions I'm actively trying to avoid with a sponge.
If I were to make a graph correlating my desire to clean and my life feeling out of control you would see spikes when I feel the most stressed, worried, or fearful.
I've asked Isaac to now ask me if he notices me becoming obsessive, "What is really going on?"
Because it usually isn't about the cleaning, though my trauma will really really advocate that it is.
It's about fear. About unsureness. About loss. About not knowing how to feel safe with other people. Safe in my environment.
I have good sense it was the same for my maternal line.
All of us scared, all of us picking up the broom as a result.
What my desire to clean has taught me about trauma is that trauma heals, for us and for generations to come, when we prioritize feeling the feelings that we are trying to cover up or solve via the coping mechanism; in my case, all the feelings I'm trying to resolve by cleaning. Trauma heals when we feel all the ways we didn't feel safe as a child, all the moments we were violated, neglected and forgotten. We start by asking that inner child what she needs now to feel safe. When I ask mine she never says clean the bathroom. She almost always just wants to be held. Played with. Listened to.
This is the coming home. To a house that feel warm regardless of how clean it is.
If this is resonating, take a moment and think of some of your coping mechanisms. The coping mechanism isn't the problem, it's usually your way of finding a solution to the problem. What is your coping mechanism trying to solve? Is there a better way?
Sending you all the love,
P.S. I have 2 spots open for 1:1 coaching. If you've been wanting to transform your trauma and explore your medicine for the world, head here for more info.