Ask UfYH

Ask UfYH: Messiness is Not a Moral Failing

Boy, everyone sure has a lot of opinions about messy people, don’t they? A lot of opinions and a notable lack of empathy.

Everyone knows that Rule 1 of the Internet is to never read the comments. Well, I’m the type of person who just blatantly ignores that, no matter how many times it comes back to bite me in the ass, and whenever I see housekeeping in general, and UfYH specifically, being discussed in non-UfYH spaces (I’m mostly looking at you, Reddit and various Gawker properties), a certain type of comment always crops up. Behold, a sampling:

There wouldn’t be a need for websites like this if people just stopped being so lazy and picked up after themselves.

Why are we making excuses for people who are just dirty? Not everything has to be a “condition.”

Or you could grow the filth up and be a decent person instead of a slob.

Ugh, I’m so grossed out by this. How does anyone live in that and not realize something’s wrong?

These comments are generally made by self-professed “neat freaks.” Or people who like to say they’re “so OCD.”* And these “neat freaks” are awfully judgy about messes and the people who make them. They legitimately don’t understand why someone can’t just decide to stop being messy, and then just do it.

Here’s the thing: people are messy for a ton of different reasons. They could be in the midst of a depressive episode. They could have a chronic illness or chronic pain. They could be the child of hoarders and have an unhealthy association with cleaning. They may be overwhelmed by other things happening in their lives. They may never have learned how to clean. Being lazy is only one of many reasons that a person might be messy, so it’s kind of screwed up to assign that particular characteristic to every “slob” out there.

Why can’t people just decide to stop being messy? Well, just like there are a whole bunch of different reasons someone might be that way, there are just as many obstacles to becoming a person who cleans. As I mentioned above, there are many people out there who never learned the basics of how to clean, so they’re starting from a completely different baseline than people who grew up in households where they were taught to clean and then followed up with practical application of those lessons (chores). That might be hard for some people to comprehend, but no two families are alike, so maybe assuming your own experience is universal isn’t particularly helpful here.

There are people who face physical obstacles to cleaning. People who have a chronic illness, mental illness, injury, or chronic pain have to completely adapt the way that they approach cleaning so that their system works within whatever limitations they have. For some people, it’s simply not physically possible to clean a room from top to bottom in a single day. And yet, so many people impose that standard across the board without realizing that the person they’re judging may be doing physical harm to themselves after a certain point of physical exertion. Mental illness poses some serious obstacles as well. Lack of motivation and inattention to surroundings are really, really common symptoms of a depressive episode. Someone with ADHD may find certain routines difficult to follow and certain tasks impossible to complete. Someone who was raised in an abusive home may find that cleaning is a trigger for anxiety, panic, or even PTSD.

So before you dismiss messiness as a moral failing or personality defect, take a moment to think about if you’re imposing your own set of standards and your own background on people who may have little to nothing in common with you. Think about why you feel morally superior to messy people, as though you have no underdeveloped skill sets or limitations due to various circumstances in your life.

Cleaning can be learned. It is a skill that can be acquired, practiced, and mastered. But how that skill is learned and used is different for everyone. If you’re a “messy person,” it is not something that’s wrong with you. It’s something that you haven’t yet mastered the skills to overcome. And quite frankly, I’ll take any one of the huge number of people who are trying to learn how not to be messy over anyone who thinks themselves a better person because their house is immaculate. Everyone has to start somewhere, and so what if it’s later in life than for other people? So what if you need to learn the skills a little differently? So what if you’re not immediately good at it? It is not a moral failing. You are not a lesser person because of it. You deserve to live in a nice place that you love. You’re better than your mess; you are not defined by it.


* Please don’t get me started. OCD is something one has, not something one “is,” and most people who say, “I’m so OCD” do not have OCD and could use a thesaurus and some sensitivity training. Don’t use “OCD” as shorthand or a humorous description for personality quirks or behaviors. It’s a legitimate medical condition. Words are important, and there are better ways to get your point across without trivializing someone else’s health issue. Not to mention, OCD doesn’t always, or even often, mean that someone is clean and organized.


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10 replies on “Ask UfYH: Messiness is Not a Moral Failing”

As a clean person who has spent a lot of time living with messy folks, this was helpful to read. I *know* that we all come from different places, and what seems intuitive and natural to me might be really, really hard for someone else. Messiness is certainly not a moral failing.

But I would like messy people to understand the other side. The feeling of overwhelming stress, burden and discomfort in your own home, because of what someone else is doing or not doing. The hours spent hiding in your room as the only sanctuary where you can breathe and think and feel comfortable in your own skin. The hours spent cleaning the same messes, made by others, and having the same conversations asking for a little bit of help and a little bit of consideration, over and over.

As much as a messy person can’t just suddenly become clean, I can’t suddenly become messy, and there aren’t enough hours in a day for me to just suck it up and spend all my time doing everyone’s share of the cleaning, on top of a full time job and graduate school. I’m sure I sound resentful, and to some extent I am, but I think there are plenty of “haters” and judgement going both ways. I’m not imagining myself to be superior, or callously imposing an unreasonable standard. I can not comfortably live and function in a messy space, and I don’t think it makes me a bad person to say that I shouldn’t have to pick up someone else’s used dishes and tissues because of how they were raised.

As someone who is a messy person and has had to live or navigate around clean people, I can guarantee you that we feel just as overwhelmed, burdened and uncomfortable in our messes as you do. In fact, for me, it’s largely the overwhelm that has made it difficult in the past to actually get started.

Having a roomie who I know is a “normal”, clean person makes it all the more difficult for me to get started, because in addition to my own stress about feeling like a failure for not being able to keep a space clean and for seeing the mess grow but getting so overwhelmed by it I just want to crawl back into bed forever, I’ve got the added stress of someone angry at me for it.

Trust me, (most) messy people know you’re mad and wish they could change it, but don’t know how. I would encourage you to come up with ways to break down tasks into small steps for your roommates, or figure out ways to make what’s bothering you easier for them. And don’t do it in a way that makes them feel like they’re worse people for being messy, that is honestly the most difficult roadblock to overcome.

No, you shouldn’t have to clean up other people’s messes, but telling a messy person to clean up if they have no clue how is like telling a cat to write a novel. There’s just no template for it.

Thanks. My house is always cluttered. And I always feel badly about it. Thanks again. I’m also overweight and the subject could be used for obesity too. There are a lot of people out there that find fault with “different” so that they can feel better about themselves.

I read this blog faithfully because it reminds me not to fall prey to that hateful thinking about myself. Instead, I pick up and do what I can. I use your lists. And I also remember that my friends come to my home happily, they are impressed that my cats (an animal usually deemed aloof) run to the front door to say hello, my friends have dinner here and eat my treats when I bring them somewhere. Thank you again. You always point in a positive direction and I like that I can head in that direction too.

One of these days I’m going to overhear someone say they’re “so OCD” or joke about how they “have OCD” (which also bothers me, since it omits an indefinite article), and I’m going to feign envy to him or her and lament that my obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn’t cause me to have a clean house.

As for the cleanliness and learned behaviour, it amazes me that both of my parents were officers in the Army, yet only one of them keeps a tidy house and has a regular cleaning schedule, and the one who doesn’t has control issues stemming from their upbringing and so I expect would demand a tidy house.

there are many people out there who never learned the basics of how to clean, so they’re starting from a completely different baseline than people who grew up in households where they were taught to clean and then followed up with practical application of those lessons

THIS. I didn’t think of myself as a clean or tidy person until I moved in with my boyfriend’s family – by my mother’s standards I scraped an acceptable standard of domesticity; but by their standards I was Freaky McClean. That family background is so important; skills have to be learned, like any other area of life. I vividly remember the time my boyfriend learned the black stuff around the taps could be removed….

Just a heads up, my comment might be trigger-y for some people who associate cleaning with negative feelings and/or people who grew up in a verbally and mentally abusive household. If you’re one of those people (like I am!!!), PLEASE proceed with caution!!! And hugs. Because hugs are awesome. *HUUUUUUUUUUUGS*

I really, really, really, really, really love you for this. My biological egg donor never cleaned anything. Just shuffled around piles of crap. My “chores” were to “clean up” whatever room was annoying her that day – starting when I was 7 years old. No 7 year old should be told “just clean it! You damn well know how!” Because no 7 year old knows how to clean like an adult. Cleaning was also a punishment if I ‘misbehaved’. So no, I didn’t know how to clean till I was an adult. And even then, it was a horrible, negative, stress and panic inducing thing till I found UFYH.

So to all the haters: Shut up!

To all the non-haters: Keep it up! You’re doing great! If all you can do is clean one spot for 5 minutes before you have to quit, THAT’S AWESOME because now that spot is clean and you should be proud of it! And for the love of vertical folding – DO NOT let the haters get you down!!!!! We got this. <33333

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