Healthy Body

Why a Therapist Says Tapping Into Your Emotions Is the Secret to a Cleaner Space

Photo: Well + Good Creative
Cleaning and care tasks like brushing your teeth, doing laundry, and washing the dishes come easily to some and not-so-easily to others. It is this ethos that inspired licensed therapist and best-selling author KC Davis's mission to help everyone understand how their emotional relationship to caring for themselves can be their biggest roadblock.

I first came across Davis's work not via an advanced copy of her compassionate and thoughtful book, How To Keep House While Drowning, but instead via my own TikTok DMs—specially, the book recommendation (and referral to Davis's brilliant, actionable TikTok videos) came in a message from my best friend when I was in a period when I was struggling to stay on top of housework. The TikToks she shared featured Davis taking a dinner plate-sized timer and setting it in the middle of her messy kitchen. Slowly, the videos featured sped-up footage of Davis cleaning her own kitchen, and the audio overlay discussed different tips and strategies for not only the cleaning tasks themselves, but also how to handle the feelings that come up.

@domesticblisters Let me teach you how to clean when you’re messy & when life is hard. Preorder my book How to Keep House While Drowning (link in bio) #strugglecare ♬ Darling - Trees and Lucy

Why KC Davis wants to help people who struggle with care tasks

The timer always stood out to me like a prop on a kid's show like The Big Comfy Couch—a visual representation of Davis's compassion and patience for her own care tasks and everyone else's. I actually bought my own timer because any mess always felt immediately easier to approach with the big cartoonish clock chugging away: It's my visual reminder that mess has nothing mean to say, that however long I need is okay, and whatever I have to do can get done. (I learned most of this from Davis, not my timer.)

Some folks may hear Davis's advice and think, "Feelings? What do feelings have to do with doing your dishes?" However, in Davis's book and on her TikTok, she demonstrates that they actually have a lot to do with each other. "I think that my book is really helpful for people that need a non-judgmental approach to care tasks," Davis says. "I don't promise to change your life in 30 days; instead, I offer ways to change your mindset about tasks you might struggle with."

For instance, one central message in Davis's work is that cleaning and caring for yourself are both morally neutral. Cleaning doesn't make you a good person, and not cleaning doesn't make you a bad person. Instead, Davis's work is about compassionately explaining to people who might be struggling with a whole host of different roadblocks that they're a person worthy of clean bed sheets, clean dishes, brushed teeth, and a cared-for self.

"A primary goal of my work is to help people understand their emotional relationship to cleaning, which can be a more considerable hindrance than skill building."

Intrigued? For more insight into Davis's work as well as how to help yourself accomplish cleaning and self-care tasks no matter your emotional state, read on.

Hannah Schneider: I have benefited from your TikToks so much; they have really helped me feel less shame about a messy room and just start picking up one thing at a time. Would you say that part of cleaning is hard because it's a skill, or is there more to it?

KC Davis: I think that cleaning is a skill, and it's important to realize that it's very learnable. Like many other things we learn, there is information, cultural differences, natural talents, and gaps in education for people for different reasons. Sometimes, though, there isn't a gap in information. When someone knows that they need to brush their teeth for a lot of reasons but they still aren't doing it, then something else needs to be worked on.

That's why a primary goal of my work is to help people understand their emotional relationship to cleaning, which can be a more considerable hindrance than skill building. There are a lot of resources for cleaning tips out there, but not a lot of resources for understanding the emotions that go with cleaning, which is why I wrote my book.

HS: Oh, wow, that's a good point—what does it mean to have cleaning slowed down by your emotions? I assume that it's not just about being too sad or anxious to clean.

KC: Being too sad or anxious to clean is absolutely a part of it; that is the first initial feeling. Underneath that, there's a lot more, though. For example, a lot of shame comes with feeling as though you're not good at cleaning. Or people can see a messy room and feel anxious because, in their childhood, it meant that they'd get yelled at or treated badly for the mess. It's a lot like our relationships with food. When you want to have a good relationship with food, it requires knowledge, resources, time, planning, education, and understanding. Your relationship with food is often defined by how your parents talk to themselves about food, to you, and about others. Cleaning is very similar in that respect.

HS: What are some of the emotional impressions people can absorb that make cleaning hard?

KC: The way some people talk about food and use moral words like bad and good—people will see cleaning the same way. Some folks associate being clean with being a good person and being messy or dirty with being a bad person. This, then, can make cleaning your room hard when you're depressed because you can look at the mess and feel like a bad person. Additionally, if you had a mother that was very critical of your room, you might have complicated relationships with cleaning either too much or too little.

If people weren't taught to clean, they can feel a lot of shame or not know how to do care tasks as an adult. Those are the real things that we need help unpacking. And they're so connected to these feelings of shame and worthiness that we really kind of need a delicate handy to unwind those.

HS: Do you have some examples of how emotions can influence someone's cleaning habits in the present?

KC:  Some folks who were punished by doing chores can be messy as adults because they associate cleaning with punishment and time out. Not cleaning and messiness could feel comforting because of these associations, so if they want to be neater, it might be about reinvigorating joy and positive emotions with the actions of cleaning.

On the other hand, if someone grew up in an environment where there was a lot of neglect and abuse, and they weren't cared for. To the extent where they didn't have food, clean clothes, or nice things—maybe there was mold and bugs in the house. This person might constantly clean and be super neat and tidy. They might find it hard to stop cleaning and miss out on other things as a result.

HS: You talk a lot about ADHD on your page. Does this factor into an emotional relationship with cleaning, or is that more symptom management based?

KC: Oh, it's definitely emotional, too. For example, with ADHD or depression, if someone was undiagnosed and told all their life that they were lazy or stupid for not being able to do certain things. Even if they have a diagnosis in adulthood, they might find themselves trying to clean up and fall into thought patterns where they say those same things to themselves. Approaching a pile of laundry, messy floor, or pile of dishes while mentally saying, "I am lazy and worthless for letting things get this bad. Something must be wrong with me if this feels hard." This self-talk can be really hard on you and make the activity even harder. There's just a huge laundry list of ways that our emotional relationship to these kinds of tasks can interfere with our ability to take care of ourselves.

Caring for yourself is about doing something because it benefits you, not because it is inherently "good" or inherently "bad."

HS: In your book and on TikTok, you talk about care tasks being morally neutral. Can you explain what that means?

KC: In my work, I say that care tasks are morally neutral, and that means that they don't have a reflection on your character. You're not a good or bad person because you're messy or tidy. Sometimes people misunderstand me and think that I am trying to affirm that messiness is good. My goal is to help people function and do tasks that make their lives better. My goal is for people to function; my goal is for people to be equipped to raise their quality of life. When someone is having a hard time brushing their teeth, they won't magically change because someone says you have to do that or you're gross. The person knows that they need to. There's no barrier of information in this instance. The task is then about figuring out what the other barrier is, whether that's neurodivergence of some sort, shame, trauma, sadness, or need for positive reinforcement.

HS: What if someone is just stuck and doesn't want to do something?

KC: So, in line with brushing your teeth, we want to throw out external standards like "you're gross if you don't do this." Instead, we want to look at why brushing your teeth is important: Not brushing causes pain is expensive and is hard to handle down the line. And then alternatively, the messaging can then become about how you deserve cared for teeth, and you deserve to not be in pain in the future. You deserve to spend money on things you want and need, and not dental bills. You deserve to have healthy teeth, and that is accomplished via this task. So caring for yourself is then about doing something because it benefits you, not because it is inherently "good" or inherently "bad."

HS: As far as gentle skill building goes, do you have any favorite tips?

KC:  Yes, so my favorite tip is my Five Things tidying method. Essentially, even when I feel extremely overwhelmed about a messy room, there are really only ever five things in a room: trash, dishes, laundry, stuff that has a place to go, and stuff that doesn't have a place to go. That is also the order of challenges they are to take care of. So I start by clearing all trash, then I put all of the laundry somewhere to sort later, dishes go in the sink (but I don't wash them), and then the sorting. Putting things away and making a pile of things without homes is last. That last pile is what usually causes stress and clutter. So that pile I save for when I am watching TV, and I just decide where each individual thing should go.

Last words on cleaning, emotions, and self-care

Davis also explains in her book that organizing and tidying are two separate things. She explains that tidying is simple and about putting things into their categories fast. Organizing is very strategic and takes a lot of brain power to make decisions on how a space should function. For example, deciding how you should store your laundry while you're putting it away is going to be way more tiring than putting away your laundry in a pre-set system. Organizing is a separate task that definitely should be done, but Davis's clear-cut explanation of this distinction basically threw me a life preserver when I felt like I was drowning in my room and worldly possessions. If you thought the above tips were useful, there are plenty more waiting for you in her book.

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