She has color-coded folders to organize her take-out menus and bills. Clear containers to stash her toddler’s toys. A fridge with condiments neatly in a row.
Welcome to the world of a compulsive neat freak.
“I do drive myself crazy,” confides Donna Sullivan, a mother of two and a part-time accountant in Scituate, Mass. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t like this. But when I come in and everything is clean, I feel calmer. I think that’s why I do it.”
Call them neat freaks or clutter-phobes — the types who lament their house is a total mess if one coffee table book is slightly out of place. Experts say the desire for neatness runs along a spectrum, from finicky Felix Unger-types with a need for control to those with a truly life-hampering disorder, such as TV’s Adrian Monk, the obsessive-compulsive detective.
“It’s who I am,” says Perri Kersh, owner of Neat Freak Professional Organizing in Chapel Hill, N.C., who was dubbed “neatest” by her high school classmates and, at age 4, carried around an imaginary device for organizing ties. “I don’t think anyone who knew me would be surprised to know what I do for a living.”
Our attitude toward neatness is likely shaped during childhood, from parents who frown on messy rooms to picture books like “The Cat in the Hat,” with its implicit message against trashing the house.
Those who take it to the extreme as adults often have taken that message too far, associating neatness with a quality required to be a good person, says Amie Ragan, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Ala., who runs the blog Psychology of Clutter.
Clutter-phobia may also be programmed into certain people’s genes, since extreme cleanliness likely once conferred a survival advantage by warding off germs, disease and death.
"Anxiety has evolutionary value — it keeps us alert and vigilant,” says psychotherapist Tom Corboy, director of the OCD Center of Los Angeles. “The problem is people can develop this over-the-top anxiety to things that don’t deserve it, like knickknacks on a shelf.”
When it crosses the line into pathology, psychologists say, is when it begins to negatively affect your life. “It’s a problem when your need for constant order causes you extreme distress or problems in your relationship,” says Ragan.
Kersh says she hasn’t gone that far.
“I don’t think I’ve moved into the pathological side,” she laughs. “I’m not an obsessive hand-washer.” Instead, she sees hanging onto too many possessions as the true hang-up. “It’s just stuff, it’s not our memories, it’s not who we are. You’ve got to let go or you’ll be living in a storage unit.”
'It's not just putting up cool shelving'
In her quest for complete clutter control, Kersh and her family even underwent a “six-month experiment in buying nothing.” (Necessities excluded.) “We were so used to saying, `I want it, I’m going to go get it.’ Now, we’re very conscious of what we consume.”
Kersh believes anyone can rid their lives of clutter, but it requires commitment. “It’s not just putting up cool shelving,” she says. “It takes work.”
Erin Doland, editor-in-chief of the blog Unclutterer and a contributor to RealSimple.com, was once an amateur hoarder, saving everything from college T-shirts to ticket stubs, until her husband laid down the law. “I started purging, and it felt so good I kept going,” she recalls. “I went from one extreme to the other. Everything went.”
Today, she stacks her shoes in plastic tubs, has a firm re-gifting policy, and snaps digital pictures of sentimental items before tossing them in the trash.
Before her transformation, Doland says her clutter weighed on her. “I always felt like there was a cloud hanging over me,” she says. “Now, I can say, if something doesn’t have a purpose, why is it in my home? And I think that’s healthy.”
As she and her husband prepare to adopt a baby from China, they have already sat down the grandparents for a stern chat about limiting the influx of toys. “The kid’s not going to grow up in some minimalist bubble,” she says, “but we want to limit the insanity.”
After being on the receiving end of too many gifts that weren’t being used, Doland entered an agreement with her in-laws to re-gift any unwanted items with no hard feelings. “We started by talking about clothes that didn't fit and moved into other gifts that didn't necessarily ’fit’ either,” she says.
Kersh believes in taking a firm line against becoming a storage facility for your relatives’ castaways. That means not feeling obligated to inherit your grandmother’s set of china when you already have one. “You could host a dinner party for 60! Who’s going to do that?”
But when neat freaks and slobs must live under one roof, compromise is key. Kersh has inspired her once-messy husband to organize his dress shirts by color, while he has forced her to let the dirty dishes wait until after their Saturday morning stroll. “He’s helped me relax,” she admits.
Closer to God?
Still, conventional wisdom holds that neatness is the “morally superior” choice.
“Neat people are generally conscientious — they pay attention to order, think before they act. These are the people you want in the air traffic control tower,” explains Sam Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin and author of the upcoming book “Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You.”
But while most of us tend to think well of someone who is tidy, assuming that they are more considerate than their peers, that’s not necessarily the case. Gosling, who dubs this misperception the “Mr. Rogers factor,” did research that found neat people are no more likely to be kind or sympathetic than their messier counterparts.
David H. Freedman, co-author of the book, “A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder,” argues that extreme neatness does have some drawbacks.
One, he says, is the loss of creativity. “If you make your environment very neat, you’re making everything predictable,” he says. “You will lock out bad things — you’re less likely to be late, things are less likely to spill or break — but you’re also locking out luck.” That messy desk or kitchen is more conducive to making the random connection that could lead to a scientific breakthrough or a new recipe.
Another, surprisingly, is time. True, messy people waste time rummaging for their keys. But, Freedman says, neat people spend all their time constantly putting things away throughout the day, while those who let things pile up and tackle them in one chunk save precious minutes in the long run.
“I’ve had hundreds of people tell me about neat freak habits, and not a single one has denied suspecting there is something a little wrong with them,” Freedman says. “People who are neat are helpless to be otherwise — they’re prisoners of it.”
Even the clutter-phobes admit their strategy can backfire. “I have one regret,” Kersh says. “Getting rid of this awesome pair of brown elk skin cowgirl boots.”
Melissa Schorr is a Boston-based freelancer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, Reuters Health, Working Mother, Self, GQ and People. She is the author of the young adult novel "Goy Crazy."