Clutter

“I’m Too Ashamed to Clean My House”

You’ve been called a “messy” person your whole life, and now you can’t even look at your unorganized house without feeling the familiar twinge of shame. But shame is not a solution, and it won’t help you tackle your mess OR live a happier, more confident life. Here, an ADHD coach explains how to let go of negative emotions and find the neatening tricks that work for you.

A pile of mess that its owner is ashamed of
Pile of clutter and junk

An ADDitude reader recently wrote: “I am a mother and wife diagnosed with ADHD at 35. I have been struggling with organization challenges since I was a teen, and I see myself — thanks to my parents’ and friends’ constant reminders — as a messy person. On top of that, I have no idea how to neaten up our home! My challenge is equal parts shame and ignorance about how to begin my organizational journey. Can you help?”

Shame can keep you stuck. It’s hard to move forward on anything when you’re feeling bad about yourself. But this is not something you chose, nor is it a character defect. ADHD is neurobiological, which means it’s a brain chemistry issue. So let’s start by removing the judgment. Here are six strategies for feeling less ashamed about your mess:

  1. Put things into perspective. You had undiagnosed ADHD for 35 years. Your brain is wired for chaos, not organization. Blaming yourself for your executive functioning challenges is like blaming a dog for chasing a cat. It’s how you are programmed.
  2. Stop perpetuating the shame. Challenge it in yourself and others. Are you shaming yourself by continuing to replay those tapes from your childhood? Be kind with your self-talk. When others try to shame you, set them straight.
  3. Don’t attach deeper meaning to your messiness. When we’re criticized about something for years, we believe that there’s something wrong with us — that we’re undesirable, unlovable, unwanted. Challenge these thoughts. What good things have people said to you? What do you know to be good about yourself? Dig deep to get in touch with your highest and best self. Counseling might be needed, particularly if the negative beliefs are firmly entrenched.
  4. Tap on it. Emotional Freedom Techniques, also known as tapping, use the body’s energy system to release powerful negative emotions, such as shame. You tap on 12 of the body’s meridian points while focusing on the feeling you’d like to neutralize. Read about tapping online.
  5. Think about your talents. Not everyone has talent in math or languages, or being neat. But everyone has talent in something. What’s yours? Think about this instead of your weaknesses when you start feeling down on yourself. Think about what you do well now, and what you did well as a child that perhaps wasn’t noticed.
  6. Recognize that organization can be a talent, a skill, or both. Some people are naturally organized. For others, it is a learned skill. People with ADHD do not have a lot of talent in the organization department. You don’t either, but you can certainly develop those skills.

Your natural tendency is to focus on things other than neatness. But I hear you, that’s not how you want things to be. The good news is that you now have a diagnosis. You know what’s going on, so you can begin to change things.

How Can I Change My Messy Habits?

Change begins with awareness. You’re already aware that you’re not as organized as you would like. But do you know the causes of it? Are you moving too fast to stop and put things away? Do you get distracted before getting to the cleanup phase of a project? Do you not notice the clutter? How you approach de-cluttering depends on where you are now.

[Free Resource: 73 ADHD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life]

  • Lighten your load. Many times we’re in a hurry to get to the next thing, and we leave a trail of destruction behind. Sometimes, there is not enough time to put bags or clothing away because we’re running late. Try to add more time between events, or wrap up what you’re doing 10 minutes before you have to go somewhere. Then you will have enough time to put things away.
  • Slow down. Most of us with ADHD live at warp speed, at least in our mind. Our perception is that there’s no time to put things away, but it probably won’t take as long as you think it will. Do you truly not have 30 seconds to put your coat away? Or does it just feel that way? Practice slowing down.
  • Watch out for rabbit holes. Our attention takes us in many directions, usually before we finish the task we’re working on. If you say, “Let me just…,” it’s a sign that you’re about to go down a rabbit hole. Be aware of when ADHD is redirecting you away from a task.

How Can I Neaten Up My House NOW?

These strategies will help you keep things neater as you move forward. But how do you tackle the mess that’s already there?

  1. Break it up. Trying to organize your house all at once is a lost cause. Better to do a little bit at a time. Decide how long you will spend, when you will do it, and which part of the house you plan to work on. Clearing one end table is better than avoiding the entire project because it’s too overwhelming.
  2. Don’t go to OHIO. Some organization and time management experts advise us to Only Handle It Once (OHIO). That’s great if you don’t have ADHD. But our brain wiring does much better with yes/no type decisions. Is it trash — yes or no? Can I sell it on eBay — yes or no? Whittle down your piles in multiple passes and you’ll be done sooner than you think.
  3. Get the right stuff. The easier it is to put things away, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. Antique furniture is nice, but if the drawers don’t open smoothly, you’ll be reluctant to open them. Even better than smooth-opening drawers are open shelves. Three-ring binders? Avoid them — too many steps. When it’s time to store all that stuff, get clear plastic bins that you can see inside of.

You will get your home straightened up, and you will love its neatness. But the trick is maintaining it. Keep practicing your strategies. Things will get better over time. Who knows? Maybe your friends will start calling you a neat freak!

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  1. Great article! My best years in life were the 3 years I lived in Mexico and could afford a daily maid. She took care of all this and I was peaceful, happy and productive on so many levels. I do agree that the SHAME
    about my house is even more debilitating than the mess itself. I have twice subscribed to Flylady reminders.
    She provides multiple reminders into your IN BOX and helps you break the job down into little parts. Her best tip is to: Shine Your Sink. When you don’t know where to start, clean your sink and keep it empty. It is like “home base”.
    My impulse buying is part of my issue. As my EFT tapping counselor Laurel Brookes says (EFTSoulPath.com) says: “You like multiples.” If one is good, 4 are better!….Especially if it is on sale or in several different colors. Lately I’ve been paring items down to 1: Example ice cream scoops. I don’t eat it that often, why do I need two of these? I take a moment and compare them…which one do I like the best, and put the less favored one in a box I have in the corner for “giveaways.”
    Thanks for a great article.
    John Bradshaw wrote a book calling Healing the Shame that Binds You. He has videos on You Tube. My story is complicated by the fact that I suffered childhood abuse and neglect. I think both my parents and all my siblings had ADD too…so I grew up in a bucket of shame. For me, it is hard to distinguish between emotional toxic pain and my “brain chemistry”. One thing for sure…I can beat me down to a tiny pulp of anguish pretty easily without a “kinder, gentler” version of myself saying: Its OK to take a break and sit down with a cup of tea and watch the birds at the feeder for awhile. That Driven to Distraction feeling is relentless for me.
    My BEST cleaning tip is to “Decorate” first….make it pretty. I pick an area and start making it pretty and that means I have to declutter the stuff that distracts from the visual pleasure. I will often decorate a container: such as an old oatmeal box with pretty paper and labels and repurpose it for a storage item for that particular room. When the element of creativity, joy, playfulness and beauty coalesce for me, I am stimulated in a positive way.
    If I am giving a party, I’ll decorate the room first, and then clean it. (Backwards, but it gets me “in the mood” and I watch the transformation unfold as we have the joy of the party in the space).

    1. Everything you say makes so much sense. I love your tips and strategies as well. I love the way you have learned and know about yourself. I love that you have found ways to make things better especially coming from a not-so-typical family situation. Not meaning to make light of this issue. One thing you seem to not have a problem with is prancing your thoughts to right them down. I think your concise writing skills are impeccable.

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