Cleanliness and Anxiety


I can always tell the level of stress I am under by my response to dirt – and, to be more precise, my need to clean obsessively.

I have long suspected that I have quite pronounced OCD traits – but they fluctuate depending upon how anxious I am. As a child, I grew agitated if my more relaxed siblings rucked up my carpet – and, during the worst of the emotional abuse, I felt an overwhelming need to have duvet covers straight, cushions at precise angles and books lined up in rigid alphabetical order. The world felt safer, I suppose because I had a sense of being in control – even if it were only of minute, and trivial (to many) things.

Having said the above, I am not in the slightest bit house-proud – am, in fact, more slattern than domestic goddess. But I do have a strong streak of Neat Freak about me – and shudder inwardly when order is turned upside down or tidiness is changed to untidy mayhem.

I have become much more rigorous, almost neurotically so, about keeping my new house clean, however. I feel tremors, almost like minor panic pangs, when dog hairs encroach upon the pristine carpet, or debris collects and clutters up windowsills and other surfaces. When dust gathers, I itch to remove it – and, if very wound-up, cannot relax until it has gone. The same goes for bread-crumbs. I feel restless and uneasy until I have cleaned them up. Shifting the problem under the table, where they cannot be seen, does not work: I know they are there, a crunching reproach, an area of bread-based anarchy in my little kingdom.

It is not about fear of germs, oddly enough. That doesn’t worry me, though perhaps it should. I am not in the least bit obsessive about cleaning myself, or my clothes; in fact, on weekends, I am quite happy to slob about in the same outer garments (though, obviously, the hose end of things gets a daily change!) for forty-eight hours, and am certainly not someone who needs three showers a day!

No, it is about order and control, about feeling safe in my environment, about being able to make inanimate objects do what I want – often as a reaction against the mass of animate beings who will persist in doing their own thing and ignoring me!

Early on in my teaching career, I noticed a weird correlation between loss of control in the classroom – and the corresponding urgent desire for squeaking cleanliness in the home. On days in which I encountered the war-like tribes of the more dysfunctional adolescents (and lost the battle), my reaction, once home, would always be to hoover the place within an inch of its life, or polish a surface until I could see the end of the street in it – or get down on my hands and knees and express my rage and hurt and fear in a crazed mega-scrub of the kitchen floor.

So, for me, the urge to clean things is, actually, more psychological than functional; more to do with my own neuroses than any genuine Mrs Mop ability! It is rooted in a need to feel safe and secure; to limit the encroachment of threat; to maintain control over a shaky and scary situation – and, I think, to soothe jagged nerves and find physical release in absorbing, if tedious, tasks.


8 thoughts on “Cleanliness and Anxiety

  1. I have the perfect solution to the dirt in my house, I don’t wear my glasses when walking about. The place looks just fine to me then!
    But let someone piss me off, and I will clean the house from top to bottom! This might be overdue, but I would rather they leave me alone…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We are complete opposites! I use to be a teacher as well, I always had to have my classroom clean! There was a time when one student even followed me around and collected the paperclips that I would scatter around the room fearing the the janitor would say something. However, a clean classroom was a home to them. They felt comfortable. Now lady with the orange fuzzy year come to my house for a month cause let me tell you non of that cleanliness and organization follows me home!!! LOL -Bruce


  3. Becky Weakley

    I too am like this. If the duvet isn’t sat straight in the cover, crumbs under the toaster, picture frames wonky, the list goes on. But like you said, it’s not necessarily about the cleanliness, it’s about being in control. When everything else is spiralling out of control, these are things that I can take charge of. Saying that, I’m no control freak, I think it’s a safety net that no one else can destroy, something that is truly my comfort zone!

    Liked by 1 person

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