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Ask UfYH: How Do I Help My Friend With Her Messy House?

Q: My friend’s house is a total wreck. She wants to clean it up, but it’s very daunting and no one else who she lives with will help her. I want to help her clean, but she’s embarrassed about the house and won’t let me inside. Is there anything I could do or say so I can help her?

A: The important part of your question is this: “She wants to clean it up.” Lots of people live in really messy situations, but unless they’re ready to make a change, any offers or mentions of help are only going to serve to embarrass them or worse. If someone’s not ready to deal with their mess yet, trying to force the issue could lead to a whole host of problems, so any dealing with the wreck at hand needs to be on the wreck owner’s terms, if you don’t want to risk pushing them into something they aren’t ready for.

You say your friend wants to clean it up, and that you know no one she lives with will help her. This is good, because I’m going to assume you got this information from a relevant conversation with her. If she’s talking about it, that’s when your opportunity will be, not at some random point out of the blue. Wait until she brings it up, especially in the context of being overwhelmed by the project.

Please understand that your friend will likely see an offer to help, no matter how well-intentioned, as a hit to her dignity. So your job is to find a way to offer your assistance while still allowing your friend to maintain her dignity and not get caught up in her embarrassment. When she’s telling you that she finds the thought of cleaning up her house daunting, let her know that you can help her break it down into smaller tasks so it’s not so overwhelming. This allows you to lend support in a way that doesn’t put her on the defensive about letting you into her house. Help her make lists, schedules, whatever she might need to break the project down so it doesn’t seem so huge.

While you’re collaborating with her in this way, you can offer physical help. Start gently, though. Let her know you’d be happy to help her do some of the actual work. She’s going to balk. Get comfortable with the statement, “I don’t care what your house looks like. I want to help you however I can.” Repeat it as necessary. Also, “I want to do this. I would love to be able to help more,” or, “It’ll be good for me to have something to do outside of the house or work.” Set limits if you have to. “I’ll only go in the kitchen unless you tell me otherwise.” Put her in charge. It’s a big thing, letting someone in like that.

If she ends up being OK with letting you help, it’s really important that you actually care more about helping her than what her house looks like, because at the first faint expression of revulsion on your face, the project will come to an abrupt and traumatic end. Bring music, make jokes, stay positive, keep her comfortable. Let her direct you. Don’t do more than she’s ready for. Be a good friend; you seem like you already are.

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3 replies on “Ask UfYH: How Do I Help My Friend With Her Messy House?”

I am that person. With the messy home, that wants help, doesn’t want to take advantage of you, and am too embarrassed to ask. The BEST advice I saw/have to give is:
-Don’t care about the state/look, that’s not yours to judge
-Positive reinforcement (ie compliments on improvement – this is as “minor” as effort as opposed to actual “progress” by your definition) is key
-Do it on his/her/their terms, not yours. The boundaries thing creates peace of mind. I once brought myself to asking for help and a friend WAY overstepped her bounds and it had me anxious the entire time she was in my house and she isn’t welcome back.

Good luck! Your help and caring is appreciated!

I also sometimes think that people worry that they’re taking advantage of you. A good friend of mine was moving recently and I offered to come over to help her pack and do that deep clean you have to do as you move. She was reluctant because she thought I was being too generous, but I know moving is a pain and wanted to help. What I did was to say that I’d be over between 2 and 4 on a certain day and would bring pizza. That way she knew I was only taking two hours of my day so didn’t feel like I was doing too much. I ended up staying longer while I was there, but I think knowing that I I put a limit on it helped her accept my help.

I have done this, too, except I’m a morning person, so it was, “Get started, I’ll be there around 9 and I’ll bring coffee and donuts so that you can tell me the plans and take a stress break.” I think that bringing food as an icebreaker allows people to stop and see how much progress they’ve already made.

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