When better isn’t best

The 2017 Self-Care Project: Entry #7

This week I am just taking a minute to refocus. I think I got a little off track there, at least in my head, and somehow all this thinking about self-care and learning to take better care of myself started quietly morphing into self-improvement and learning to BE BETTER. It came from a good place, eat better and exercise so I feel better, learn to meditate and plan and stay on top of the mess in the apartment and admin stuff, in order to mitigate my stress. But I lost focus a bit, and found myself just trying to pack in way more than I’m capable of, and feeling heaps of self-critical at the end of the day. One evening last week Achim came home and suggested maybe I could remember to close jars of nuts so we don’t get moths/turn off lights/not stack tons of shit on top of the key basket or something else reasonable and not laden with judgement and personal attack and I just kind of crumbled.

And I thought about this conversation that I’d just had with one of Jonah’s preschool teachers. To preface this, I want to say that Jonah is the loveliest, kindest little soul with a zillion talents. That said, he has his quirks, for example, the kid sometimes has a tough time leaving the awesome thing he’s super engaged in to follow the class and do the thing that they (suddenly! totally out of nowhere!) all have to do now. Things like getting him into his coat and boots and hat, which he is very capable of doing in about 45 seconds flat, can sometimes lead to just ridiculous shenanigans.

But I get it, I understand him, I know what’s going on. That’s my Jonah, I get how he works, and I can see that the same qualities that make him the curious, engaged, awesome little nerd he is, also sometimes make things, uh, colourful. And while I know what works best to keep him on track, I also know that I am not going to be able the fundamentally change this aspect of him, nor would I ultimately want to (although, geez kid!! It sure would streamline things in the morning!). So I had a really nice talk with his teacher about strategies, and what we do, with full respect for him as the sweet, funny little person he is. And they were happy and I was happy and when I came in to pick him up yesterday, whaddaya know, his teachers were so excited to tell me how quickly Jonah got dressed to go outside.

And now we come back to me. The area of “self-care” that has been taking up the most of my emotional and physical energy is trying get on top of the mess in the apartment. As they say, “outer order contributes to inner calm”, and plus I feel guilty that my kids and husband have to live with my chaos, and yeah, it’s pretty embarrassing when my four-year-old nephew visits and screeches to a halt as he hits the kitchen threshold, bewildered by the tile floor, strewn with last nights supper and breakfast and spilled coffee and who knows what else. Sigh. I have always had a baffling capacity for making messes. “How I was raised” may play a part, but honestly, I think my tireless mom really did all she could short of corporal punishment, and as evidence, my three siblings are all reasonably tidy people. 3/4 ain’t bad, Ma. Ya done good. No, I think in my case it’s a combination of aptitude and personality. Growing up, I was fully caught up in the sparkling whirlwind in my own head. I would sit cradled around my overflowing pressboard secretary (it once toppled over under the weight of my crap and crushed a guitar), knee deep in a sea of things, Big Shiny Tunes 2 cooing on my little CD player while I busily tinkered, crafted, doodled, scribbled, chatted, and dreamt happily (or melodramatically) away.

I know that my messiness is a manifestation of the same cluster of characteristics that make me creative and playful and passionately in-the-moment. As in Jonah’s case, it’s the maddening flip side of some of my better qualities. I know this. The part that I have trouble recognising is that I am always going to be this way. Like my boy, I can’t fundamentally alter the aspects of myself that make me the way I am.

This is hard for me to accept. I agonise over trying to just BE BETTER. Work harder, work constantly, give it all my energy and attention (because it really, literally takes ALL my energy and attention). Try this strategy and that one too, or that one. And it is okay for a minute, or a day, but mostly, it’s still messy. I mean, yeah, over the years I’ve gotten better and better. My husband can attest to that. Really, I’ve made impressive gains. I don’t live out of overflowing cardboard boxes anymore. I don’t stuff my closet with dirty clothes, washing only underwear loads for months at a time, or work on 6 square inches of free desk space (usually…), or sleep amidst a week’s worth of crusty dishes (true story). But I am still just plain old well below average when it comes to housekeeping. And I do not like it. Although by necessity, I’ve learned to function somewhat in chaos, like most people, I feel better and function better when things are in order, and importantly, so does my family. But I am finding that at the end of the day, I am drained and it just feels futile. With everything I have to do in a day, in terms of responsibilities and just quality of life, I simply can’t do it.

When I talk about this, I tend to get two responses. The first is the don’t-worry-about-it-be-easy-on-yourself-they-grow-up-so-fast-let-the-dishes-sit-enjoy-your-kids response, the second is “have you tried this or this or this…” To point 1, I say, I’m not shooting for house beautiful here, I’m shooting for more of a normal level of mess, so that my family can function reasonably well. Just trust me. To point 2, well, yeah, I probably have. The issue is more intrinsic than anything I can “do” differently. It involves a level of self-stopping and mindful self-control that is frankly not in my nature. And I don’t say this defensively, at all – I’ve spent years jazzed about new techniques, ideas and strategies.

So what do I do?

In occupational therapy, there is a very elegant model used to address “occupational performance” (basically, how well a person can do the things they need to or want to do). It’s called the PEO model (Law et al., 1996). It’s a three-circle venn diagram, where the circles represent the person, the occupation (the thing the person wants to do) and the environment (the context in which they are trying to do the thing). These three aspects constantly impact each other, and when OTs help people figure out how to solve problems, strategies can address any of these three aspects. Although most people think of therapists as doing rehab-type therapy, which would be aimed at changing the “person”, a lot of the time, it makes way more sense and is much more effective to change the occupation (the way something is done or approached) or the environment (aspects of the context in which the thing is done).

If we use this lovely little model in the case of my mess issues, I have been mainly addressing the “person” aspect. I do also try and change the environment in minor ways, trying to get rid of stuff, organise the place better, etc. And we do address the occupation aspect too – trying to optimise Achim’s time so he can take over aspects that I find most challenging (I should note here that Achim is not shirking, he really does what he can with the time he has at home).

But mostly, I just try and work hard and get better at it myself. Be less messy, clean up after myself better, more immediately, more systematically, and trying this and that, etc. And not that I am going to give up on this entirely, but I think it would serve me well to acknowledge, once and for all that this is simply not the best approach. First of all, from a happiness and well-being perspective, this is inane. As positive psychologist Martin Seligman points out in his book Authentic Happiness, we are much better off pouring our energies into the places where we thrive – this is where we can make true, life changing gains – as opposed to making tiny, hard-won improvement in our weakest areas. Second of all, trying to simply get good hasn’t really been working, and never will. Never. It will never work, Elena. Get over it, stop trying to type “probably” in there, seriously, girl. Accept this. NEVER. I will never be able to fundamentally alter the aspects of myself that make me a person who tends to be messy, and I wouldn’t want to. 


But, that doesn’t mean we are doomed to a life of mess. There are options! That venn diagram has two more circles that have not been getting enough love. Deep exhale and chill, I think it’s time to give my ol’ self a good hug and start channelling some of the energy I’ve been pouring into trying to be better into changing the apartment and the way the job gets done in bigger ways. Like, finding help in various forms. Like, prying my white knuckles off The Way Things Are and letting my husband do some of the organisational stuff he has been wanting to do for ages. Like addressing the surplus of crap we have. Like, I don’t know what else. I have to do a good PEO analysis.

But the point here isn’t the strategies, anyway. Those are going to be very much tailored to us. It’s more about the idea that balls-to-the-wall “self improvement” is perhaps not the best route. There are times when it isn’t good for us to spend precious energy trying to do better. Rather, the most effective, and, as it happens, kindest way to change a situation that needs changing is to accept ourselves and figure out how to make it work anyway.

Until next week. ♥


p.s. Random side note: In the process of finishing up this post Jonah and I made a paper airplane using this easy tutorial. Flew like a dream!

Law M, Cooper B, Strong S, Stewart D, Rigby P, Letts L. (1996). The Person-Environment-Occupational Model: A transactive approach to occupational performance. CJOT 63(1), 9-23.

3 thoughts on “When better isn’t best

  1. Johanna

    Great post, Lanie. Love you and your
    mess. I always found it kinda fun to come over and clean and organize you, albeit baffling and futile. And despite the mess, your house still looks super pretty in the background of every FaceTime call we have. Just don’t ever move into an open concept house where you can’t shut the door on the kitchen. And aim for a laundry ROOM someday. So that mess can be shut in too. And you got a bigger dishwasher, right? Just throw EVERYTHING in there. These would be environmental changes, right? This is a good way to approach things, me thinks. Xo

  2. Lena

    I am always annoyed by the “kids-will-only-be-little-once-leave-the-dishes-in-the-sink” comment because as far as I can tell, dishes don’t clean themselves. When will the dishes be clean? Am I supposed to be cleaning my dishes after the kids are asleep? What about “me” time? Or should we just give up and go to paper plates? (I know those people too!)

    I have found a balance in having my kids help me clean, but some of my kids are older than yours and this works okay(ish, sometimes, when they are not in a “mood”). Although getting rid of tons of stuff has also helped in keeping things clean. I want to point out the truth that less stuff equals less to put away!

    And it’s honestly my sanity on the line. People come over and are (apparently) amazed that we are not living in a filthy mess because we have 6 kids. But I respond, “No, I would be an angry, horrible witch all day long if my house was a complete disaster.” So it’s not that I am a great housekeeper, but rather, it comes back to the “being kind to future Lena” and also being kind to my husband and kids too.

    I hate being mean and angry, and having a somewhat calm house (materially, because volume wise we really need some work!) can keep me (more) sane.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *