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How can I stop shame-cleaning?

Curbed’s advice columnist urges you not to be a mess about your mess

Welcome to House Rules, Curbed’s advice column; today, our columnist delves into cleaning and anxiety. Other house-related dilemmas? Send them to advice@curbed.com.


Dear Curbed,

Help! I live with the dysfunction of being cleaning-averse yet stressed out by clutter and dust. My biggest motivator for cleaning is people coming over (shame-cleaning!), which contributes to greater anxiety about hosting. This is something I really want to work on, because I would like my home to be a nurturing place for myself, my family, and my loved ones. But I feel I can’t manage to keep up. How might I start to address this piece of self-care avoidance?

—Dusty and Anxious in Massachusetts

Happy New Year, Dusty! Or rather, Happy Newish Year! We’re at that stage in January when we’ve had a chance not only to think about what we’d like to work on in 2020 but also to be reminded of how difficult change can be. Maybe we’ve even given up on our resolutions and reverted to the status quo. But it’s not too late. Lunar New Year is a great chance to try yet again. A whole fresh year still awaits us!

Like you, I’m a cleaning-averse person who wants to make some changes in my approach to housekeeping this year, so thanks for giving me the chance to research and reflect on ways to do that. And thanks also for introducing me to the term “shame-cleaning,” which so perfectly captures that familiar frantic feeling of triage tidying before company comes. I know it well. Last month I had a dozen of my students over for dinner, and one of them surprised me by showing up 40 whole minutes early! She caught me with a kitchen full of dirty dishes, but at least the living room was more or less ready to go. If she’d shown up just a few minutes earlier, the couch and coffee table would have been strewn with stacks of books and papers. Luckily, I’d bundled most of the clutter into the bedroom before her arrival, so there was somewhere for her to sit down.

“Shame-cleaning” conveys the truth that cleaning is often a fraught emotional issue as well as a practical one, and as a result, housekeeping problems should be addressed from both angles. I have more to say about the practical side of cleaning, but I’ll start out with a few psychological observations that might be helpful.

First, while it’s true that messy houses can cause stress, messy houses can also reflect stress. Some kinds of everyday anxiety can be solved with a feather duster, but sometimes self-care avoidance needs to be tackled with sleep or therapy as well as with a new cleaning regimen. My home always looks its best when I’m feeling my best (and vice versa).

Second, it’s worth reflecting on the roots of your relationship with housekeeping and how it might inform the way you clean (or don’t). In my book, I write about growing up in a big, messy, hospitable family that was somewhere on the milder end of the hoarding spectrum, as well as about my subsequent difficulties sharing a house with a much tidier friend who was deeply troubled by the chaotic state of my bedroom. I currently live alone in a bright, cozy, welcoming apartment, and I get a lot of pleasure out of spending time here and sharing it with guests. But as a product of my upbringing, I’m also messier than I’d like to be, and I know what it’s like to be shamed and judged for my housekeeping lapses. Something I’ve had to figure out as a family member, roommate, friend, and host is how much (or whether) to internalize that shame.

As my therapist would say, shame is not a great long-term motivator. While it might spur us into action for a hectic hour or two, for everyday living and long-term change, it’s so much more sustainable to focus on positive motivations, like your desire for your home to nurture you and the people you love. So, as much as possible, try to reframe cleaning as a practice of care as opposed to a response to shame and anxiety—while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that like a lot of feminized care-work, it is frequently unpaid or underpaid labor, and it’s totally legitimate to feel burdened by it and resentful about it!

It’s also worth remembering that a certain level of mess can mean different things to different people, and houses don’t have to exist in a constant state of company-readiness in order to be comfortable for their inhabitants. Some people are made anxious by dust and some aren’t. (I love Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “On Going Home,” where she talks about bringing her neatnik husband to visit her parents’ house in Sacramento: “‘D-U-S-T,’ he once wrote with his finger on surfaces all over the house, but no one noticed it.”) Time and energy are finite, so reflect on the kind of cleanness that really matters to you emotionally. It’s okay to choose your battles and invest your energy where it will have the most impact. Is there something that would instantly make you feel better every day? A made bed? A clear dining room table? Start there, and build on that. And if you can live with messy closets, leave them till last—or never.

Once you’ve got your list of cleaning priorities, here are some tactics for you to try:

BIG STRUCTURAL CHANGE, OR INVESTING IN INFRASTRUCTURE. Some chronic problems can be instantly solved by changing something about your physical set-up. To keep my nephews’ Legos from carpeting their entire house, my dad made them Lego boards that contain all the tiny pieces in one place and allow their creations to be moved easily from room to room. Maybe there are some infrastructure changes (e.g., a coat tree or more underbed storage) that would get you instant results?

HABITS. Willpower is hard; habits (once you’ve formed them) are relatively effortless. Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before synthesizes a lot of research on how to make and maintain habits. One trick is to attach a task to a pre-existing part of your routine. I already have a habit of taking my dirty dishes to the sink right away, so my new 2020 habit goal is to wash the dishes then and there, rather than letting them sit.

THE MARY POPPINS APPROACH. “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. Just find the fun and snap, the job’s a game!” There are definitely limits to this—cleaning up cat vomit is never going to be anyone’s favorite game—but it can’t hurt to try to make cleaning more entertaining. I love BBC radio dramatizations, and I only let myself listen to them when I’m cleaning. It helps!

THE PEG BRACKEN APPROACH. Peg Bracken, author of the hilarious self-help classic I Hate to Housekeep, suggests writing a bunch of dreaded tasks and fun treats on pieces of paper, mixing them up, and randomly picking one out of a hat and doing it. It adds the frisson of gambling to the tedium of chores.

THE POMODORO APPROACH. The basic Pomodoro principle is that you set a timer for a manageable amount of time, do a task for that amount of time, and then take a break. I use an app called Forest that rewards me for staying on task by growing cute little animated trees.

PROFESSIONAL HELP (THE CLEANING KIND). Ever since I moved into a building without laundry on-site, I’ve had trouble keeping up with my dirty clothes, so letting myself indulge in a wash-and-fold service has been a game changer for me. If your budget allows, it might be worth looking into some kind of professional help, though my friends tell me hiring cleaners can result in its own kind of shame-cleaning. As one of them says: “One of the strongest reasons why I have hired a house-cleaning crew is that it forces us/me to clean up our crap regularly before they come over. Also, our house got way cleaner after having a kid because it meant that we suddenly had babysitters come over regularly, and god forbid they saw our mess.” Maybe there is no way to totally get away from shame-cleaning!

To put everything in perspective, I wanted to share some final thoughts from a friend who works full time and has three young kids:

I desperately run around and try to clean before people come over. But our mess is so catastrophic that I eventually had to let people come over (playdates for the kids mostly) even when I couldn’t clean much. I rationalized that I was providing a service for other families by boosting their own sense of worthiness: “Our house might be a mess, but it’s not as bad as that family’s,” others could say after picking their kids up. And then I try to make myself feel better by thinking about all of the other ways I try to make the world a better place even if I can’t clean my own house very satisfactorily. So everyone gets a morale boost in the end.

Here’s hoping 2020 brings us all tidier, more dust-free houses if we want them! But I also hope that, regardless of the tidiness of our homes, we’ll feel unashamed to share them with people we care about, and we’ll remember that our neatness is not an index for our worthiness.

Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York magazine/the Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.