Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Putting on Your Company Best: Do We Owe to Ourselves What We Give to Others?

It is very hard for me to clean my house. I don't just mean that it is hard because I don't like to do it (although, yes, that's true) or that it takes a lot of time (although, for the love of all that is holy, that's true, too). I mean that it is hard for me to clean my house because it requires a disposition that I can't easily call forth.

It's okay. It's this same disposition that makes it easy for me to do things like, say, grade papers. I hone in on papers with an eye to detail that is quick and discerning. I am able to oscillate back and forth between big picture (the student's argument) and tiny minutiae (a misplaced comma) without any difficulty. It's the way my brain wants to work if left to its own devices.

Those same habits of mind make housecleaning a nightmare.

I oscillate back and forth between big picture (a clean house) and small minutiae (this dirty spoon. Why is there a spoon in the bedroom? How long has it been here? Oh, man, is this from last week? Have I really left a dirty spoon in my bedroom since last week? That's shameful. Maybe we should stop bringing food upstairs. That'd be a good rule. We need more structure around here. It's especially important for my daughter to learn structure. Maybe I need a chore chart. I'll make one right now. Where are the markers? Oh, they're in the craft drawer. Oh my God! What else is in this craft drawer?! Is that . . . is that a jar of corroded batteries? Why in the world would I have that? Oh, what's this? A tube of super glue! I've been looking for that! I wanted to fix something. What was it? Oh! That broken light fixture. I should go do that . . .)

I think you can see why things don't go well.


Both because of the immensity of the task and because it's just generally inefficient, my house never really reaches that mythical level of "clean" that I hear people talk about like a unicorn or a good public school with open spots.

Instead, I tolerate a general level of clutter. Sure, there are times when the clutter gets to me, and then I swoop into action and clean it up, but most of the time, the cleaning is sparked not by a desire to make my own habitat more habitable but to give it the appearance that I think is expected.

That's why I read with interest this xoJane piece from the creator of Unfuck Your Habitat (the profanely and aptly named site full of cleaning tips that I have turned to for inspiration more than once).

The argument in this piece is that making a house "company ready" is an unfair idea. You deserve a house that's "you ready" and the standards should exist without the pressure of an external audience:
Listen, the bottom line is that other people do not deserve a better version of your home than you do. You’re the one who lives there. You’re the one looking at it all the time. You deserve to have it be a haven for you, not a source of stress or embarrassment.
The tips in this article are solid, and they'll have your house looking nicer and feeling more manageable, but I want to question this idea that you need to hold your internal expectations up to the ones from the outside.

The way I see it, my actions are sparked by two different kinds of motivations: centripetal motivations and centrifugal motivations.

Centripetal and Centrifugal Motivations

Centripetal motivations generate internally. They are the motivations I place upon myself. I am highly motivated by centripetal forces. I place internal pressures on myself that the external world largely does not care about at all. For instance, I have a hard time putting down a book that I started even if I don't like it. I have a self-imposed pressure to finish the book. No one else is going to care if I finish it. It's not like they'll even know. But I'll know, so I pressure myself to complete it.

Centrifugal motivations come from the outside. When we know that someone else will be judging us, we are operating under centrifugal motivations to live up to these external expectations. For instance, I am motivated to make sure my daughter's clothes match not because I care so deeply about it, but because I am afraid people will think I am negligent if I don't.

Essentially, this article is arguing that all motivations should be centripetal, originating from within.

I understand the inclination. Why should we bend ourselves beyond our own desires for other people? Centrifugal motivations have to them a feeling of manipulation, superficiality, or even oppression. Doing things that you don't want to do because other people want you to do them, especially as a grown person capable of making your own life choices, feels like a loss of freedom.

But the argument here is not to eschew the external pressure to clean your house. That article would be really short: "Don't clean your house." Instead, this argument is that you should take those centrifugal forces and somehow internalize them, switching the motivational origin so that it is coming from within.

I don't think that's a good idea.

Responsibility and the Collective

Western cultures are  highly individualistic, and America ranks the highest in this domain. But even within our individualistic culture, it's clear that we are social beings who depend upon one another to make meaning of the world around us.

Those centrifugal forces remind us of that collective responsibility and partnership. I attempt to meet cultural standards when I have an audience because I recognize that I'm playing many different roles throughout the day.

I don't think I "deserve" to hold my house up to those same standards of organization any more than I "deserve" to wear my work clothes while I'm watching TV on my couch. I'm not cheating myself out of my "best" self by pulling my hair into a pony tail and changing into pants with an elastic waistband. I'm accepting that, once the centrifugal forces are removed from the equation, I don't have much motivation to perform that particular role.

I suspect we all fall on a spectrum of where our primary motivations originate. I also suspect that I'd fall pretty heavily on the centripetal side. Most of my actions are done because I have an internal sense of responsibility and reward.

But when I get dressed for a meeting with my boss, when I put makeup on because I'm getting pictures taken, and--yes--when I clean my house before a guest comes over, I'm letting those external pressures shape me a little.

I don't want to pretend that they come from within because they don't. It's okay to recognize that I play different roles for different audiences. I don't have to pretend that everything I do is done for me and me alone because I'm part of a bigger whole.

So, please, give me an hour notice when you're coming over. I'll hide the overflowing laundry baskets in the closet, run the dishwasher, and stack the books on the kitchen table into a neat little pile. I don't do it for me; I do it for you. And that's okay.

Photo: Kent Landerholm

1 comment:

  1. Stephanie WhitenerJuly 21, 2014 at 10:10 AM

    Great discussion. I think it is always interesting that most people have a routine to clean clutter before guests come over. And we all know that we do, so why does it even matter if we are comparing ourselves anyway. Also I had to laugh about the dirty spoon rant...that conversation is a regular occurance in our household.

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