In discussing the Messie, we see they often have high ideals. Many are highly educated and successful. They entertain grand ideas and ambition for change in their own lives in the world. Because their disorder is such a contrast with the usual style of their living, they are confused as to why they have so little control over the ugly mess in their lives. They cannot figure out, any more than their suffering families, why they cannot live out their high ideals in the area of their living space.
It is not uncommon to see a Messie whose home is in shambles sincerely attempting to pursue a plan of interior home decoration as though there were no problem. She might be making a craft or carpentry item without realizing that there is no place to put it. Even if there is a place, her project is the least of her household needs; it just adds to the clutter. Or she might be attending a conference on improving her marriage, never realizing the negative impact the unkempt house is having on the relationship. She might be reading a book on how to make beautiful holiday memories or vacation memories for the children with no thought of the poor quality of life the disordered house is causing those same children. In short, these Messies seem to be oblivious to what actually is happening in their lives. In a way, the messiness is a blind spot to them.
Messies have this problem because they lack focus. They have pockets of selective excellence. In many things they are great achievers. In others, like the house, they are disasters. The condition of the house is not integrated into their generally high ideals. They walk around with their feet pushing aside clutter and their heads dreaming big, beautiful dreams. There is a sort of disjunction between what they believe and how they act.
Messies—perfectionists? I know it is hard to believe, yet perfectionism is a principal interference with the Messie having an organized and orderly house. Messies fear making mistakes. The worst mistake would be to get rid of something they someday need or they someday discover to be valuable. To guard against making such mistakes, they do not throw away anything. This, of course, is the biggest mistake of all, but try to convince a Messie of that! The Messie has not thrown out anything, but the Messie cannot find anything either.
Messies are also compassionate people. It would hurt them not to be able to meet a need—their own, their family’s, or the world’s. They do too much and keep too much and keep it too visible in their attempts to meet these needs.
Perfectionism is a reflection of a control issue. Messies are afraid of losing control. They hope by having all of this stuff, they will be more in control. Of course, it doesn’t work that way. They lose control and meet fewer needs by this way of life.
Messies spend much of their lives in a state of low-grade fear. This is another facet of perfectionism. They fear not having enough for themselves or their loved ones or neighbors or, for that matter, any stranger who should come to the door and ask for some rare item that they have saved from eons past for just such an occasion as this. Messies have a strong need to take care of themselves and others. They end up neglecting themselves, and others too. But the original plan was to keep stuff so they would not be in need.
Collector Messies envision themselves as wealthy beyond words because they have things that money can’t buy: One-of-a-kind items. Maybe-it-will-be-a-collector’s-piece-one-day items. I-know-it’s-broken-but-it-is-too-beautiful-to-throw-out items. It all seems so grand and reasonable at the start. But the eventual reality is that the Messies are living in ugliness and disorder while all these riches gather dust and mold. Yet they still fear to throw things out. The day after they do, they are—or someone else is—sure to need it.
Messiness is often confusing because of the opposites that seem to exist side by side in the Messie personality. This is the case with what I call global-specific thinking. It works this way:
The Messie personality usually wants to do only big jobs. This is related to their perfectionistic thinking. They take a global view of how to do the work. For example, if a small area of the rug needs vacuuming, the Messie wants to wait until he has time to vacuum the whole rug before attending to it. Perhaps he would like to wait till he has time to vacuum the whole house at once. Or a Messie might need or even want to fold the dried clothes. But one basket is hardly worth worrying about. She will wait until all the wash is done and then fold everything at one time. Or a Messie might not wipe up well in the kitchen after meals. She will wait until she has time to wash the cabinets thoroughly. The lawn needs edging, but the job is put off until there is time to do the total yard, including hiring a truck to haul away debris behind the garage.
It all seems very sensible and efficient, but it just doesn’t work. The Messie never has time for the big job. In the meantime, to use the examples given, the rug has a dirty spot, the clothes are in the basket unfolded, the cabinets are sticky, and the lawn needs edging. When not under pressure, this is the way the Messie tends to operate.
This object is my past in concrete form, the Messie thinks subconsciously. The past is important, therefore this is important. If this goes, the memory goes. If I can’t really remember it vividly, what good was it to have done it in the first place? Throwing out something from the past shows my life has been worthless. This line of thinking can also be connected to an unrealistic anthropomorphism—the feeling that inert items have some kind of life within them. Children’s stories, such as The Velveteen Rabbit, encourage these ideas, and some adults never outgrow them.
Messies are not as visually astute as their neater friends. This can also be the result of a certain type of attention deficit. On the other hand, neat-nik fanatics are frequently overly tuned in visually to their physical surroundings. I was recently in a schoolroom I visit often, and I saw a new teacher spraying and wiping the bookshelves, desks, and sills. I thought the room looked fine. When I asked her about it, she said she thought the room was filthy. She shuddered and uttered and “ugh.” She continued by explaining that she was having to use hand cream because of the dirt. (I could not figure out exactly why hand cream was important, but maybe you can.)
I tell this story to show how poorly I function visually. I have been unaware of the dirt. Worse yet, I am now unable to see that the room is cleaner. I do not have poor eyesight, but I might as well have for all the good my vision does me.
Some Messies are able to stand living with the clutter around them because they don’t see that it’s as bad as it is. This can be one reason why Messies have such a hard time cleaning up. They don’t focus visually on what needs to be done.
Taken with permission from When You Live With a Messie by Sandra Felton.