The soothing (and unsoothing) nature of cleaning

It’s Boxing Day, and I’m enjoying a little tidying up. That’s right, I’m enjoying it. What’s that about?

Having a quick research, it appears to be that psychologically, cleaning can be what is termed a self-soothing activity. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing as the term doesn’t carry any judgement. A self-soothing activity is just something that helps bounce us out of the doldrums, distracting us from negative feelings for a while. That little bit of breathing space is good for you, even if it is just temporary. Sometimes negative feelings and thoughts can be overwhelming, and a bit of distance is a welcome relief.

I know cleaning is a distraction for me. It requires fine motor skills and attention to detail, and that stops me from thinking properly about other things. Thoughts arise and depart, but attention is elsewhere, so although I note them, I don’t pursue them or dwell on them.

However to be really satisfying, distractions need to both suck you in, and actually interest you. Most of the time cleaning isn’t interesting, but it does have the potential to be really satisfying. Take today. We have a black mould problem – it’s one of the joys of living in a 1980s house with double glazing. Water condenses, dust accumulates, and before you know it there’s black mould growing along your windows and up your walls. It demands constant vigilance, or it spreads, mould-suppressing paint or no (though if you have any suggestions on this, do drop me a comment!). So today I did the bathroom window with bleach: a few very careful squirts, ten minutes or so waiting, and some cautious washing down, and the window was white again. Visible, satisfying, results!

There’s a more recent aspect to cleaning and tidying for me too – not just resetting the situation to regular levels, but actually making it better. Decluttering. Today I hit the bathroom stuff. I didn’t just tidying things up by arranging them, I chucked out a bunch of old things I won’t need any more. I know it’s not frugal or green to just throw stuff away, but I honestly will not use these in the coming years, and neither will anyone else who I’m close enough to actually ask them if they want my half-used dusty old bits and pieces! THis kind of decluttering makes cleaning interesting in a way it isn’t usually, as I try and work out what I actually need, what I can do without, what can be charity-shopped. Maybe that helps to make it a psychologically self-soothing activity.

It does feel odd to enjoy cleaning. Less odd, when I think of it in terms of my ever-present but as-yet-unrealised desire to do a full declutter. But still, enjoying cleaning? Surely horribly gender-normative. I struggle so much when things I want or enjoy are the same things that I’m expected to want or enjoy. I don’t trust them. I feel like those are the things I ought to struggle against – why does society want me to enjoy or be good at these things? Cleaning is just part of the female-dominated work that anyone could do but that usually devolves to women, most of which isn’t recognised and isn’t thought to matter. I try not to do more than half of the cleaning, but I usually do. Isn’t it somehow even worse to actually enjoy it as well? Buying into all that bullshit about women and wives from the mid-20th century?

Balancing these things is difficult, and I’m not there. I don’t know how to reconcile these two aspects. How do you balance house work in your home? How do you fit being someone who likes cleaning and cooking with someone who also wants equality and to reject gender- and sexual-normative behaviour? Answers on a postcard…(or comment!).



The soothing (and unsoothing) nature of cleaning

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