The SHAME of A Messy House

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I think there is one common thread among women and that is the fear and embarrassment of being “caught” with a messy house.  I’m not sure if we pick this up from our mothers or from TV or where.  But I think it’s a universal feeling, and it’s worse if it happens in front of another woman.  House shame is the worst type of shame, especially after growing up in a messy home.

See my most popular post – how your clutter affects your children.

If a repairman happens to come over and there are a few dust bunnies or some laundry lying around, it’s no big deal, but if the PTA President, or a neighbor, or a lady from church happens to drop by it is just mortifying if the house isn’t at least close to being perfect.  Or worse, my hyper-CLEAN sister!  Just kill me now….

House shame of a messy house

That Messy House Feeling

I know for many people, they will refuse to let someone in their house at all.  Flylady called that CHAOS – Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.  We will stall them on the porch, or offer to meet them elsewhere, go miles out of our way to bring something to their house, or just flat refuse to answer the door – anything to avoid that awful, shameful feeling of a messy house.

Or even worse, we go into a crazy-lady panic mode and run around the house shoving things into cupboards and closets, or just closing off entire rooms.  Or apologize about every little thing – I think that is almost the worst.  I’m usually even more embarrassed if I hear a string of lame excuses come bubbling up out of my mouth.

Even though I have improved my clutter problems by a ton (literally) over the last 20 years or so, I am still intimately familiar with that feeling and I will go to great lengths to avoid being put in that situation.

In fact, one of the main reasons we purchased this house is because it has a formal living room at the front of the house that prevents you from seeing the kitchen and family rooms from the front door.  That seems like a strange reason to buy a HOUSE, doesn’t it, but that’s at least 50% of the reason we liked this house.  That’s how pervasive this feeling of house shame can be.

Can’t Have Anyone Over Feeling

I used to love to entertain – another reason we bought this house is because it has an enormous dining room that can seat about 15 people.  But, these days, almost the only people I will invite over is my close family and even then I do at least some basic tidying before they are “allowed” to come over.  I used to love having company, but I got tired of my family complaining about the crazy cleaning frenzy I go through any time there is even a hint of someone coming over.  So, I just don’t do it any more and that’s kind of sad.

What if it didn’t have to be that way?  What if we could just relax and be okay with it?  One thing that has always bugged me is that no one has ever accused a MAN of being a messy housekeeper.  That seems so unfair.  And my husband is totally oblivious to this feeling – even though I guarantee that the men living in my house are responsible for a huge portion of the mess.

If someone comes over and there are a few newspapers or some laundry on the couch, he just scoots them out of the way and asks the person to sit down – case closed.  If there are dishes on the counter, he doesn’t even notice.  He doesn’t agonize over them like I would and squirm inside that someone is seeing an unwanted or shameful side of him.  I think the messy house shame is definitely more of a female thing than a man thing.

I’ve got umpty-seven posts on this site about how to clean a messy house.  That’s what I do because it was such a source of shame in my own life, I don’t want that for you.  But we also need to learn to be kinder to one another.  We say to leave the chores and spend our time with the children, but then we give the side eye to someone who actually has a messy house from it.  I guess that’s called irony…

How to Ease Up on Yourself

I think we need to let go of the idea that having a messy house makes you a bad person.  All of the clients I’ve worked with on decluttering projects are fun, interesting, and kind people.  They have a messy house because they’re super busy or they have too many hobbies, or they’re a little ADD.  But that doesn’t make them lazy or bad people.  If you have a messy house – own it.  Admit that housework is boring and you’ve got other ways to spend your time.  That’s a perfectly valid choice and people who are genuine friends won’t care.

It’s kind of like those people who get up at 5:30 on the dot every morning.  That’s a great choice, but it doesn’t make you superior to people who like to sleep in.  I’m one of those – I’m super productive at night (I’m writing this at midnight, for example).  But I’d be a totally sleep-deprived zombie if I forced myself to get up at 5:30.  Different strokes.

Women with beautifully spotless homes work hard.  So do women with messy homes.  They just work at different things.  I worked a 40 hour workweek and ran a business, while raising three kids.  I would’ve been completely exhausted if I’d tried to throw a spotless home into that mix also.  So why feel guilty.  Like it says in the song – Let it go….

Changing the 50’s Thinking About a Messy Home

But I’m starting to think that we need to change our outdated thinking.  This isn’t the 50’s any more and not everyone has the time, the energy, or the ability to keep their homes perfectly clean and uncluttered.  Let’s stop shaming other women and thinking badly about them if their houses aren’t fabulous.

Even if you never say one word, it clearly shows in your body language, and she will know that you are silently judging her.  Instead give her a little grace and compassion.  Now if it’s “call the health department” messy or hoarder level, that’s a whole different ball game, but I’m talking more everyday clutter.  Sometimes just knowing how to organize a messy house can help a lot.  A lot of the problem is just TOO MUCH STUFF for any sane person to manage and not having good systems to handle it.

I think it’s kind of like those uber-skinny, gorgeous model-types who still think they have fat elbows or a big nose.  We are just unrealistic perfectionists sometimes.  I think it’s almost part of our DNA.  My advice is to just let it go and embrace the mess.  Be OK with it.

Your kids haven’t died of some exotic tropical disease, your husband can still find the remote control, and the dog is having a great time licking up the crumbs off the floor.  Just let it be and work on enjoying your life.  And I’m going to try that too – but just in case, can you give me a 15 minute warning call before you drop by?  Old habits die hard….

What works for you on avoiding house shame?

Here are some other posts you might find helpful:

7 Ways to Make Your House SELF CLEANING

Are You Making these Cleaning Mistakes?

Cut your Cleaning Time in HALF


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  1. Thanks for writing this article. I have it so bad that I don’t let anyone inside my house and do all the difficult repairs myself just to avoid the stress of people scrutinizing my housekeeping skills. While reading your article, I started thinking and realized I have this problem because adults in my family constantly called me filthy and lazy while I was growing up and even punished me for messes made by more favored children. I am going to try to stop letting my family’s biased and hateful comments affect how I feel about my life. It’s easier said than done, but thanks for sharing your feelings about this so I know I’m not the only one who has this problem.

    1. That’s so hard. I don’t think anything good has ever come from shaming people. It’s a good thing to focus on the things you can control and focus on making positive changes. I wish you well with your improvements.

  2. I couldn’t agree with this more! While I totally stand behind being organized – to make living life easier – it isn’t about how it looks. In fact, I find people often feel more relaxed in a home that looks lived in vs. the show room. Seems like “state of the house” has become another way for the culture to make women feel badly about themselves, along with having a perfect body, being a great chef, and wearing the perfect clothing. We are real people, with priorities, stresses, conflicts, challenges, and joys. The house is where we live, not a symbol of our worth!

    1. Seana – I couldn’t agree more. Women are FAR too hard on ourselves and each other. We need to learn to just be kind and let people have a few flaws. I just bought a new fridge and I hesitated posting photos of it online because I didn’t want anyone to see that the rest of the kitchen wasn’t perfectly clean. Shame is such a limiting emotion.

  3. Great post! I came across an awesome magnet the other day: “Sorry about the mess, but we live here!” I have to remind myself that when I go to someone else’s house for an event or party, they have spent hours cleaning and prepping for visitors. When my kitchen counter is full of school papers, bills, and backpacks, I just embrace it. And I try to at least have that area cleared at night for the morning rush. The kitchen is where I spend the majority of my day and if I can at least have that one space clean, I feel more in control. Oh, and when I really start to lose my mind (when EVERYWHERE I look there is clutter), I do a 15 minute family cleanup. I still have to delegate (my kids are 8 and 9), but it really makes a huge difference and we ALL feel better afterwards (even if the house isn’t spotless after the timer goes off!). Thanks!! -kristiina

    1. I love a 15 minute family clean-up. That’s a great way to get things quickly back under control. I need a magnet like that. It always drives me crazy when I see those home improvement shows and they have everything all cleaned up and looking gorgeous, but there will be like 3 things in the closet, and every shelf and drawer is practically empty. I know perfectly well that all the family’s actual possessions are sitting around in boxes off-camera somewhere and I wonder how they are going to incorporate them into this fabulous, spotless house! If I ever did a show like that, I would want to do it for “real” people who actually have a bit of stuff and actually LIVE in their house!

        1. I totally agree. My sign says – “Never put something off until tomorrow, when you can put it off until the day AFTER tomorrow”

    2. When I host a party, I haven’t spent any more hours cleaning up the house than I usually do any given week.

      The people that are coming over know it, too – because whenever they come over, the house is in the same state as the last time they came over.

      The 15 minute clean-up is part of the key – but the other part is to tell your inner kid no. NO – you can’t watch tv aimlessly until you have completed your chores. NO – you can’t surf the internet until you have completed your chores. NO – you can’t scroll through FB infinitely until you have completed your chores.

      Sorting the junk mail from the real mail takes about 1 minute. Throwing away the non-personal information junk mail takes 30 seconds. Opening up the personal information junk mail, throwing away the envelopes and shredding the part with the offer takes about 2 minutes for all junk mail pieces. Open up the rest of the mail and filing it where it belong takes about another minute. So, realistically, you can handle the mail in about 5 minutes a day. When you wait until the end of the week or month – it takes much much longer!

      School papers – I have three children in school and looking through their school papers takes about 10 minutes – IF there are things I have to sign. Complete the paperwork that needs completing, look at all the pretty artwork – and then either file the artwork (if you are keeping it) or trash it and return signed papers to backpacks. Important notices can go on the Fridge or Command area.

      So, in about 15 minutes, I have kept the daily paper off of my kitchen counters.

      With the counters paper free – I can then do what it is that *I* want to do. And I never have to shuffle paper from one place to another or toss it in the closet when people are coming over or worry about if I move it I wont know where it is. 15 minutes, MAX, a day and there is order.

      Funny enough, I am a real person with real things and my house has a lived in feel without being cluttered or having crumbs on the floor, lol. People want to make themselves feel better about feeling guilty for being poor housekeepers by saying “It’s lived in”. I wish people would stop. Embrace the fact that keeping your house tidy isn’t a priority to you and stop caring about how the house looks ONLY WHEN OTHER PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT IT. Who cares what people who don’t live in your house think? If you really cared about your house being messy and cluttered – you would tidy it up whether people were coming over or not.

      But don’t expect guests not to have body language reactions when laundry has to be moved so they can sit down, or they can’t put their hands on the kitchen counter because of stacks of paper or other clutter. It is uncomfortable and people will have a natural reaction to it.

      1. I think some people are naturally organized and disciplined and that sounds like you are that the type of person. But there are a lot of people who struggle with those qualities and I’m one of them. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. It’s sort of like dieting – you know exactly what you SHOULD be eating, but when the temptation comes along, you frequently make poor choices and then you have to live with the consequences. I’ve improved a lot, but I still have major embarrassment whenever someone drops in and the house is looking like a train wreck. But you’re right that I have to own it and accept the fact that my blog and other activities have a higher priority for me than housework.

  4. A fellow Flylady fan! I haven’t checked that website in years but there are a few of her standard routines and sayings that are probably the foundation of my housecleaning routines. So what immediately popped into my head while reading this post was the “shiny sink” theory. I have come to realize that if I take care of just a few of my “shiny sinks” (making my bed, straightening up the kitchen) every morning and I know that I’ve done my standard cleaning at least once in the last week or two then no matter who drops by I am ok with that. My house may not look perfect, but I know I’ve paid attention to the big things and the clutter that may or may not be out at any given time is just part whatever we may be currently doing at any given time. If I’m in the middle of a craft project and the kitchen table is completely covered in glitter, oh well. No one is going to look down on me for that, now are they? 😉

    1. Flylady is my inspiration and I’ve been using her methods for over a decade. I need to get back to basics, but I at least have my rooms within the 15 minutes worth of messy guideline, but still I could get a little better at it. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Oh, Adrian! You are working yourself to death! I used to have huose shame so bad!! During my 1st and 2nd marriages (same man), I had to do the full court press- week long heavy duty clean and scrub before I’d let anyone over. My poor kids, didn’t have as many play dates, as they should have because of my slob habits. Since I moved in June, I have it pretty well under control, since I purged SO MUCH stuff!! People have just popped by, and I’ve let them in, with hardly a wince. That is so wonderful, and freeing!
    Of course, I don’t work, and I live alone. except when grandbaby stays. It makes a difference! Houses like museums shouldn’t be our priority, our family should be.

    1. I am working myself to death, aren’t I? I never thought I’d be a workaholic, but I guess I earned those stripes. I do have to say, I am SO much better than I used to be. I can clean up any room in my house in 15 minutes flat and I wouldn’t have been able to do that ten years ago.

    1. I hear ya! My sister, bless her heart, her house is absolutely a museum. Hard to believe we were raised by the same messy woman. But it makes me totally nervous when I’m at her house. I’m terrified I’m going to leave a mess somewhere. I don’t think anyone likes a dirty house, but a little clutter here and there, I think it makes a house look lived in.

  6. This is a great article! I know I feel pressure to keep my house clean when anyone comes over. It’s really hard to keep up with, especially when you work full-time. I’m grateful for friends and family who understand how busy life gets and don’t expect my house to be perfect.

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