The mental neat freak
A few weeks ago I went to the salon to get my hair cut. One of the little lifehack-y things I do is to think carefully about what luxuries I’d most enjoy, so that when Joe or my parents ask what I want for Christmas or my birthday, I can give them a list of things that I actually love and would use. The result is that I have a nice collection of gift certificates to my favorite salon, and I’m able to get my hair cut by a talented stylist.
It’s a nice place: music that was somehow both hip and soothing pulsed in the background while I had an aromatherapy scalp massage before the shampoo, and while my hair was cut the resident masseuse came by to give me a hand massage. It was a luxuriously relaxing way to spend a couple of hours.
Which made it really weird when I was all stressed out and frazzled at the end of the day.
When Joe came home that evening, I was at my wits’ end. I was mentally fatigued to the point that I felt like I was on the brink of a breakdown, and could barely restrain myself from yelling at everyone about everything. When Joe asked what was wrong, I snapped, “I’ve been doing nothing but working ALL DAY. I JUST NEED A BREAK.”
It was kind of awkward when he reminded me, “Didn’t you spend half the afternoon at that nice salon?”
I stopped whining immediately, per that law of the universe that states that you’re not allowed to complain about anything for at least six hours after you’ve had an aromatherapy scalp massage. Yet I still felt miserable. No matter how many times I admonished myself to FEEL GRATITUDE NOW, I still walked around in that red-zone state where I desired a break like a drowning man desires oxygen.
As summer drew to a close, I had more and more days along those lines. Then, once the Fall semester got in full swing, almost every day played out that way: on paper, it looked like I had gotten some relaxation time. My daily schedules were busy, but they included some moments like a leisurely conversation with a friend at a Scouts meeting or going to the grocery store by myself, which gave me nice breaks from the usual toil. Yet, without fail, at the end of each day I would feel so maxed out that if one more person asked me one more question I thought I might morph into the Incredible Hulk and go throw the car into the neighbor’s tree just to vent.
Clearly, something had to be done.
But I worried that maybe there was no solution, because the problem might be that I’m pathologically ungrateful. Part of me had come to suspect that nothing short of hiring a chef and a live-in masseuse and a butler straight out of Downton Abbey would make me happy — after all, I’m the kind of person who isn’t satisfied even after long trips to nice salons.
Then I had one of those God-sent conversations with a wise friend who had just the right words at just the right time, and I came to see the real source of the problem.
My friend pointed out that there have been plenty of days when I did not end up in the red zone, and, unless I had been leading a secret (and very fabulous) double life, none of those days had involved butlers or personal chefs. With saint-like patience, she had me walk through each aspect of a good day, and analyze what made these kinds of days less stressful than others. I’ll save you all the fascinating details of my minute-to-minute schedule, and just skip to the part where I had a thunder-and-lightning realization.
The big moment occurred when I was trying to explain to my friend why I did not find the salon trip relaxing. “What would you have rather been doing?” she asked.
I knew the answer immediately: “Writing.”
“Because I’m a lazy shut-in nerd. I don’t know.”
I really didn’t know why. So I just started thinking out loud. “Because it’s relaxing — like, relaxing in a way that other ‘relaxing’ things are not. Because it gives me energy. Because I feel clear-headed and energized when I’m done.”
“This is good. Keep going.”
And finally, after digging my way through piles and piles of words, I hit the core of the issue: “It brings order to my brain. It’s like…there are all these things that happen in my days that make my mind feel — I don’t know how else to describe it — messy. Like I’m surrounded by chaos, but on the inside. And it keeps piling up and piling up, to the point where sometimes I feel like I’m drowning.”
“And writing helps you tidy up, so to speak,” she said, finishing my thoughts for me.
“Exactly!” I replied. And then I fell silent for a second. Because I knew that this insight she’d led me to was huge.
After talking through it some more, I realized that:
- Just like with physical space, it is possible for your mental space to get “messy.”
- Again like with physical space, it is critical to your sense of peace and wellbeing to regularly clean up your mental space.
- I am a mental neat freak.
It was fascinating to figure out what kinds of activities lead to that feeling of internal disarray — and it wasn’t necessarily activities that I don’t enjoy. Basically anything that requires mental multitasking leaves me needing time to put my thoughts back in order, which explains why I often feel most stressed at the end of afternoons when I do playdates with other families, even though I considered them to be good days. Socializing while trying to keep track of six young children is the equivalent of throwing a big party in my brain: fun, but it takes forever to clean up afterward.
I think the biggest insight, though, was this:
Just because an activity is relaxing doesn’t mean it’s good for helping me regain a sense of internal order.
At my friend’s suggestion, I asked myself, What activities most help me “clean up” my mental space? The list I came up with surprised me:
- Jogging while listening to music (oddly, it has to be both — one or the other doesn’t do it)
- Reading a well-written book
Plenty of activities that I might enjoy and even find calming in a certain way (going to the salon, for example) were not good activities for ordering my thoughts. I might walk away feeling happy, but the mess would still be there. I still don’t understand why this is the case. Why does reading a book help me process scattered thoughts more than, say, watching a TV show? No idea. I’ll analyze that to death later. What matters right now is that I understand that it is the case.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m a mental neat freak. You know those people who get all stressed out if their houses are messy? That’s me, but in my head (which I guess makes sense, since that’s where I live most of the time). I can stumble along for a while without mental clean-up time, but, like a neat freak living in a house that keeps getting messier and messier and messier, if it goes on too long, I snap.
This is a huge insight for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it helps me manage my time and energy in this crazy season of life. I already knew that different people need to do different things to unwind, but it gives me a new level of clarity to realize that:
a) different stressors cause a different level of “mess,” and I need to plan for “clean-up time” accordingly, just as I would with my real living space, and
b) when my down time is limited (which is always), I need to distinguish carefully between relaxation activities that do and don’t allow me that critical time to order my thoughts.
Anyway, I have probably just made myself sound like a robot. I’m guessing that people who live more in the real world and less in their brains might not find this to be as important as I do, and may not know what I’m talking about at all. But I wanted to share because I figured that there have to be at least a couple of other people in the world who are wired like I am, who might find it helpful to realize that they’re not necessarily ungrateful if they don’t feel great after doing something that was supposed to make them feel great — the problem might be that they just needed a little time for (mental) clean-up.
(And, for the record, before I sat down to write this post I was in Incredible Hulk mode again. I feel great now.)