How to stop being a picky perfectionist about cleaning house

Are You A Cleaning Perfectionist? This Mental Shift Helped Me

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Thinking of a cleaning perfectionist may bring to mind someone who has a spotless home where nothing is out of place. In reality, the opposite is often true.

Although cleaning is a necessary task, and many people enjoy it, for perfectionists, cleaning can be stressful and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help overcome this behavior and make housekeeping a less stressful pursuit.

Perfectionism in Cleaning

People with perfectionism have an intense fear of failure, which causes them to set impossibly high standards for themselves.

They believe that anything less than 100% is unacceptable, and will sharply criticize themselves for not reaching that standard. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and procrastination.

Causes

For many women, cleaning perfectionism starts when they’re new brides or are moving into their first home. What begins as a desire to do things well turns into a compulsion to do everything flawlessly. There are various reasons which contribute to this change.

Societal expectations

Women are often expected to keep a clean and organized home, even in cultures that claim to have progressed beyond traditional gender roles. This expectation can be particularly challenging for women who work outside of the home, and can contribute to a cycle of perfectionism and procrastination.

Childhood conditioning

People raised by perfectionists often feel they need to be perfect in order to receive love and attention. On the other hand, individuals raised in chaotic homes may become perfectionists to prevent themselves from repeating their parents’ behavior.

Control issues

For some women, cleaning can be a way to gain a sense of control in their lives. Those who feel out of control in their schedules or unable to meet their own needs may turn to cleaning perfectionism to have a say over how they spend their time and energy.

Role playing

When women grow up without a healthy role model in the home, they may turn to external sources like TV shows or social media to guide their behavior.

The problem is that these sources often promote unrealistic standards where cleaning looks quick and satisfying, and the effort to maintain that spotlessness is never portrayed. In real life, dirt happens and cleaning is hard work.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is a disorder that involves unwanted and intrusive thoughts or impulses (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) that an individual feels driven to perform.

Some cleaning perfectionists may have symptoms similar to OCD, which can make them feel compelled to clean or arrange things in a way they prefer. However, it’s important to note that not all cleaning perfectionists have OCD, and not all individuals with OCD have cleaning compulsions.

Basically, it’s a cleaning addiction.

Cleaning perfectionists spend more time than necessary on housework and obsess over minor details because any sign of dirt or dust is unacceptable to them. They view a ‘lived in’ look as a personal accusation of laziness and unworthiness. They get their self-esteem from cleaning, but because nothing stays clean, their self-esteem is fragile and easily shaken.

Perfectionism Mistaken for Laziness

Cleaning perfectionists often struggle with the fear of failure or making mistakes, which can lead to them feeling overwhelmed when busy schedules or health circumstances keep them from making their home spotless. It can also lead to procrastination and inactivity, because when they cannot do it all flawlessly, they are afraid to do anything at all. It’s important for cleaning perfectionists to recognize this pattern and work on reframing their beliefs to overcome this fear and take action towards their goals.

Struggling to start

Cleaning perfectionists often struggle with getting started on chores, as they may spend a lot of time searching for the “perfect” cleaning checklist or developing a cleaning plan that is tailored to their personal situation. However, this can lead to frustration and anger when their strategies or ideas are not 100 percent doable. Missing one day on a planned cleaning routine can lead a cleaning perfectionist to abandon the routine altogether.

Blaming self for being lazy

A common struggle for cleaning perfectionists is the belief that everything in their home needs to be clean all the time or their home isn’t actually clean. This all-or-nothing approach prevents them from seeing cleaning as a series of small, manageable steps that all count. As a result, they end up doing nothing and feeling even more anxious and stressed.

Tips to Stop Being a Cleaning Perfectionist

For those struggling with cleaning perfectionism, whether it’s causing you undue stress that saps your motivation to clean, or leaving you feeling overwhelmed by your home, there are five things you can do to begin overcoming it.

1. Examine your beliefs.

Whether you grew up without a healthy role model, or you’re trying to create an idyllic home through spotlessness, it’s important to recognize and reframe certain beliefs that can contribute to your perfectionism.

  • “I need or want to be the perfect wife / partner / mother.” Your worth is not tied to your ability to clean, and the people who love you do so despite your worry and stress over cleaning.
  • “I’m the only one who cleans it right.” Cleaning perfectionists may refuse to delegate or share the responsibility for housework, believing that things must be done a certain way or they’ve failed. However, this can lead to isolation and resentment, which adds to anxiety and damages relationships.
  • “If I can’t do it perfectly, why bother?” It’s important to recognize that even small cleaning efforts can make a difference in keeping your home tidy. Small tasks add up and avoid overwhelm.
  • “That’s not enough. I can do more.” Cleaning perfectionists often look at a checklist or cleaning plan and add more tasks, then wind up exhausted and feeling burnout. The next day, when they don’t stick to the planned routine, they get angry with themselves and feel hopeless.
Illustration of reframing beliefs to overcome cleaning perfectionism

2. Set realistic goals.

To get over the all-or-nothing approach of cleaning perfectionism, set realistic goals.

  • Examine your schedule: Start by analyzing your free time and subtracting the time you need for other essential activities like work, sleep, and self-care.
  • Determine how much time to spend cleaning: From the remaining time, decide how much time you want to allocate to cleaning each day.
  • Use a timer: Set a timer and clean for that amount of time. Using a timer can help you stay focused and avoid the temptation to clean beyond your allotted time.
  • Put away cleaning supplies: When the time is up, put away your cleaning supplies and take pride in what you have accomplished.

3. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Rather than striving for an unattainable level of cleanliness, focus on setting realistic goals and working towards them. Celebrate each completed task and take pride in the sense of accomplishment that comes from smaller efforts done consistently.

4. Recognize good does not mean perfect.

A clean home is one in which most areas have been recently cleaned, not one that’s perfect. Dust happens, dirt happens, pet hair, spills, and crumbs happen. That’s part of living. Having a cleaning routine is also part of living, so plan to deal with the messes next time you clean and don’t stress about it in the meantime.

5. Speak kindly to yourself.

Remind yourself that it’s okay to have a home that looks lived in. In fact, most people find that more comfortable than a spotless museum where they’re afraid to relax. Remember that your home is not you, so messes say nothing about you as a person—messes are annoyances, not moral missteps.

6. Embrace imperfection.

Cleaning perfectionists can benefit from remembering what Myquillan Smith said: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.” A certain level of clutter is not only normal, it can be convenient, like having your keys and wallet near the door rather than having to go to the bedroom to get them.

Or keeping small kitchen appliances you use every day on the counter, rather than putting them away after each use. Focus your cleaning efforts on maintaining health, not perfection, and you’ll feel more accomplished and less stressed.

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6 Comments

  1. This is an article that I will be saving to always remind myself that it’s okay to not be perfect when I get the feelings you describe.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Meredith! I’m so glad you liked it. You absolutely do not need to be perfect to be enough and worthy of love. Stay marvelous!

  2. Omg, this feels like it was written just for me! I’m a disabled housewife and the way I want to keep my home and the way I actually am able to keep it tend to not match

  3. Teresa Bryan says:

    Thanks for acknowledging this issue.
    For me, it was OCD. I went so far as to wash the bars of soap in the RR.
    It spiraled around to only cleaning. The toilet twice a week.
    Now, 50 years, I am in Therapy.
    Thank you for giving this subject attention. It helps even now.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Teresa, I’m so glad it helped. It’s an awful condition to live with. You are brave and wise for getting help to manage it.

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