Feeling triggered by a mess? I can relate. Messes are triggering for many reasons that have to do with the brain, how we were raised, and what we think about ourselves, our families, and our lives.
The power is in knowing—when you understand WHY messes are so triggering, you can breathe a small sigh of relief, knowing it’s not *you* and is something that you can change, if you want. So let’s start there…
Here’s a look at the five reasons why you may find messes so triggering.
We see our homes as an extension of ourselves, which means that when it’s messy, we think we’re messy, and that it’s reflecting poorly on us.
One simple way to work around this is to notice it when it happens. Pay attention to how you feel when you see a mess and remind yourself that your home means nothing about who you are as a person; that you and your home are separate. And in fact, that a messy home means it’s a lived in home.
Messes show us that other people in our homes can do whatever they want and that we can’t stop it. This can be irritating (at best) and infuriating (at worst). While, yes, all actions have consequences (and you may have consequences for when kids leave messes), it doesn’t change the level of irritation that can come from thinking just how little control you have over people in your life.
What helps me in this scenario is to remind myself that I can control myself, and I always have a choice in who I want to be and how I want to show up. Instead of focusing on what I can’t control, this shifts my focus back to what I can.
With perfectionism, you want everything in your life to be perfect so you can finally feel good enough. So when your house is messy, it feels like an attack on your life, specifically leaving you feeling less than and not good enough.
This likely won’t be conscious. I’ve yet to meet a client who says “when I see a mess I think I’m not good enough.” Instead it shows up through anger or frustration, hating the mess and needing it to be fixed in order to be happy.
This is different than wanting a tidy home and coming up with solutions for when it’s messy. The difference is in how you feel. If you’re “triggered” by a mess, it’s an intense feeling in your body because of what you make the mess mean.
You can get to a place where you still keep a tidy home, but instead of being triggered by a mess, you feel content and confident in your problem solving skills. One feels out of the control while the other feels in your control.
If you stay home with kids and don’t have a goal, job, or hobby that gives you validation, then it’s likely you’ll look to your home for this validation.
I had a client who experienced this. She was obsessing about her home, feeling triggered by messes from her kids. Then she started a new hobby and suddenly she didn’t care about messes at all. She was getting her validation from her hobby, instead of her home.
Notice if this is you—if your brain is fixated on your home so much because it doesn’t have something else that’s interesting to fixate on. In this case, allowing your curiosity and interests to lead you to your next thing, may be the solution for you.
Part of motherhood means teaching our kids how to live together in a home and take care of it. Often, we can confuse the “teaching” part with “learning.” It’s our job to teach our kids, it’s their job to learn it.
If you get triggered by a mess and you’ve taught your kids how to keep a room clean, you might find yourself thinking “they know better” or “how can I get them to pick up better?” This mindset stems from thinking you know exactly how your kids should behave, including how they should take care of their things in your home. While structure and standards are great values in a home, if taken to far, it can end up looking like control. This happens when you think your family members should be different than they are. And of course this isn’t limited to kids, either. It includes your spouse and anyone else living in your home. In fact, if you’ve ever stayed with extended family and they’ve made messes, you might particularly know what I’m referring to here.
One helpful way to get out of this mindset is to remind yourself of this: “we all have different minds.” It sounds so simple and obvious, yet it’s very impactful. On default, we think everyone in our home should think like us and behave like us (i.e.: clean up like us). When we simply remind ourselves they’re not us, they have different brains and therefore different ways of being in the world, it can help us de-center ourselves.
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Now let’s dive into what you can actually do when you’re triggered by a mess.
Feeling triggered means you have a strong internal feeling. Notice it. Name it. Say, “I’m feeling a strong urge right now.” Then keep paying attention to your body, how you’re breathing, your temperature, and anything else you can do to describe your feelings.
By doing this, you’ll process the emotion instead of resisting it, reacting to it, or avoiding it.
The goal isn’t to get you to stop caring about your home, but instead, it’s to stop being so triggered, so that you can react from a more neutral-feeling state. You’ll figure out what to do about the mess, but it won’t be so urgent.
All feelings are created by thoughts. If you feel triggered (a strong feeling) by a mess, it’s useful to find the thoughts causing that feeling. So take one specific example where you were triggered, and out of the moment (possibly the next day), write down the specific thoughts you were thinking that created the feeling.
For example, if you were triggered by walking into your daughter’s room and seeing piles of clothes everywhere after having asked her to clean it up, the specific thoughts you might be thinking were: 1) she doesn’t listen to me, 2) I taught her better than this, and 3) this shouldn’t be happening.
Simply writing down your thoughts shows you exactly why you felt triggered and gives you space to see that your brain is the cause of your feelings, not the actual mess.
This is what I teach my clients how to do inside Grow You, my mindfulness community.
Once you see that it’s your thoughts creating your feelings (and it’s not the actual mess), you can create a plan for how you want to think and feel about messes in the future.
This doesn’t mean you want to be happy and encourage messes, but instead, you can feel calm and confident, still have rules and expectations, but not feel so out of control by the mess.
Here are examples of thoughts to think about messes:
You may find coming up with your own thoughts even more helpful, but at least this is a starting point.
I can totally relate to being triggered by a mess and have found these steps so comforting, particularly as my family grows and things get messier. Instead of aiming for either end of the spectrum (everything tidy or everything messy), try to land in the middle with caring but not obsessing. This way you can make strides while knowing that life is meant to be lived fully, messes and all.
Up Next: Listen to the podcast— Being Triggered By A Mess