Lifestyle Mental Health

Confronting Sources of Guilt and Overwhelm in the House

Bookmarked How to cleanse your home of negative emotions – The Aesthetics of Joy by Ingrid Fetell Lee by Ingrid Fetell Lee (The Aesthetics of Joy by Ingrid Fetell Lee)

If you’re looking for a clean slate for the new year, go beyond decluttering to purge your home of regret, guilt, shame, and overwhelm and create more space for joy in the year to come.

Guilt, shame, anxiety, regret: these emotions can take up residence in our homes without us realizing. And while all emotions have a purpose, dwelling on (or with) them when we’re not actively processing them can weigh us down. This is because when triggers for difficult emotions are present in our space, it’s impossible to escape their influence.

Guilt arises out of things that we feel we should do, but haven’t done for one reason or another. I have a tendency to leave things out to remind myself to do them… Guilt can also come from self-betrayal: when you violate your commitments to yourself.

Where to look for guilt in your home:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Items related to hobbies or habits you haven’t made time for
  • Things you bought but never used
  • The pile of books to read that you’ve lost interest in
  • Gifts you feel like you should keep, but don’t actually like

A major source of regret is spending. If you’ve spent money on something you don’t use, or you’ve overspent, the item can feel like a reminder of lack of self-control or foolishness.

Where to look for regret in your home:

  • Things you overspent on, but no longer love
  • Things that remind you of choices or hurts that you’re struggling to leave behind

Anywhere where our true selves rub up against the judgments of others, be they family or society, can be a place where shame might creep in. The closet, the bathroom, or the kitchen — places related to the body — are especially prone to being sources of shame.

Where to look for shame in your home:

  • “Skinny clothes”
  • Clothes you don’t like but feel you need to wear to look “presentable”
  • Books, music, or other media that you feel you should like but don’t actually enjoy

If you look around your home and feel overwhelmed, it may be because you have a lot of things in your home that are demanding your attention… each of these is a reminder of an action you need to take… Overwhelm can also come from broken systems.

Where to look for overwhelm in your home:

  • Piles that need to be sorted
  • Broken things
  • Things in need of maintenance
  • Places where you repeatedly notice a sense of frustration or friction
  • Organizational systems that aren’t working well

Anything that makes you feel on your guard can aggravate anxiety.

Where to look for anxiety in your home:

  • Things that are uneven or wobbly
  • Awkward things that don’t quite fit or feel uncomfortable to use
  • Things that jangle your senses with unpleasant noises or textures
  • Sharp edges that you have to be careful around
  • Fragile things you’re always worried about breaking
  • Formal decor that you worry about messing up

I’m a very mise en place / out of sight is out of mind person, and I do tend to leave things out as reminders for myself. But that’s not in keeping with the kanban method I also try to practice of picking your next work and keeping all my to-do’s in one spot. I used to have a “project shelf” in the garage but stopped putting stuff in there after we had some water and mouse problems — but I think I need to reinstate it, perhaps in a new home.

Right now I’m trying to address the overwhelm factor – and also the equity of housework – by not doing all the little stuff that needs doing myself, but instead making a list that DH and I each spend ten minutes twice a week knocking out. This is in contrast to Gretchen Rubin’s rule that if it takes less than two minutes you should just do it right away — because I can easily blow half an hour doing these little tasks and then feel resentful that I did extra housework when I already do the lion’s share, even discounting cooking time. I still deal with a lot of things immediately to prevent task buildup, but hold off on things like refilling the olive oil ewer and hand soap when it’s low.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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