Excessive neatness isn't a problem — right? Wanting a clean floor and a well-organized sock drawer isn't the end of the world. Well, neat-freakery may be more complex, and possibly less useful, than it seems. We tend to think of extremely neat people as good organizers and high achievers, but psychological evidence has begun to show that messy environments are better for creative thinking. So is a neat freak born or made — and is it ever something to be worried about?
Neatness, when it extends into compulsion, becomes the better-known obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD — a serious anxiety disorder in which compulsive behaviors, like washing hands, straightening pens, or counting buttons over and over, become crippling in their domination of everyday life. A person with OCD — which, it seems, is produced by a combination of genetics and environmental factors — is controlled by their compulsions, and neatness isn't actually the point in the slightest. But the neat freaks we're talking about aren't at this point: they just really, really like things to be in order.
We tend to look at neat freaks with awe and a little bit of confusion. What's so terrible about a little bit of dust, and why does everything need to be immaculate all the time? The answer lies in psychological and genetic factors — and neatness may actually be more of a tyrant than it seems. Let's take a look at six reasons why someone might be a neat freak.
A Pathological Need For Control
Psychology is keen to make a connection: neat freak is essentially the same thing as control freak, just with a very specific pattern of behavior attached. Now, a desire for control isn't an inherently bad thing. A 2010 study even says it's evolutionarily necessary for us to feel as if we control our environments — otherwise we're scared all the time, and too frightened to take necessary risks — and being clean and neat is an evolutionary benefit too, because it keeps us protected from diseases. But neat freaks often take the desire to an extreme.
This specific need for control often comes from a deep sense that control is inherently lacking in the world, and needs to be asserted. Control freaks generally believe they have to create order themselves, as they can't trust anybody else to provide that stability for them.
A Tendency To Experience Anxiety
As you may have picked up, neat freakery — and its controlling aspects — is a deeply anxious thing. The fact that OCD is classified as an extreme anxiety disorder is no accident; a serious need for neatness, anywhere on the spectrum, is actually a way of calming serious anxiety about the world and your place in it.
Anxiety can come from a huge range of places: entrenched stress, trauma, substance abuse, even genetics — if a close family member has anxiety, you're likely to suffer from it too. The genetics aren't fully understood, and it's not yet clear if specific types of anxious behavior are encoded in DNA, but if a deep thread of anxiety is the core of neat-freak thinking.
A Possible Phobia
Controlling behavior doesn't make you Darth Vader. It usually develops from an inherent vulnerability — and one of those vulnerabilities may actually be a phobia. Whether it's simple (a phobia of dust) or more complex (a serious aversion to a messy bedroom), a phobia — classified as an extreme anxious reaction to a situation, causing serious aversive behavior — can be the key to a neat freak's motivation.
One of these, mysophobia, is the pathological fear of germs and contamination, and while it's often linked to OCD in an extreme form, it can also be the key to milder anxious neat-freakery. Phobias, interestingly, seem to be partially genetic — but they're also possible to treat with therapy.
A Perfectionist Streak
There's a strong tie in case studies between perfectionism and neat-freakery — and given what we know thus far, that's not surprising. Perfectionism, even though it usually has a good reputation (wanting to do everything 100 percent can't be that bad, right?), can actually be a seriously crippling voice in your head, demanding absolute excellence and delivering horrible punishment if that standard isn't reached. Which it never is. (Trust me: I am one.)
Cleanliness is yet another challenge for the perfectionist, an aspect that must be "completed" to a Himalayan standard or else mark them as a catastrophic failure. Perfectionism is knotted together in a triangle with anxiety (I will never achieve 100 percent) and depression (I did not achieve 100 percent and therefore am a failure), so its link to neat-freakery isn't surprising.
A Neat-Freak Or Chaotic Parent
The family backgrounds of neat freaks can often go in one of two directions. One is that their behavior is actually patterned on a neat freak parent, who instilled values about the necessity of serious neatness in them — usually as a response to some fear, compulsion, or vulnerability of their own. To that extent, it's classified as a learned behavior.
The other direction, however, is a bit more distressing. Chaotic parents, who don't provide stability or a sense of control for their children, can also produce neat freak or controlling kids, according to Psychology Today. That kind of neat freak is reacting against the chaos of their childhood by creating a safe, soothing, controlled space for themselves in adulthood — and reassuring themselves through cleaning. A clean kitchen means everything's OK and nothing unexpected is going to happen.
Childhood Routine Triggers
Interestingly, according to another article in Psychology Today, a neat freak's particular focuses — their "hot spots," or the areas that absolutely need to be clean — are closely related to childhood routines of cleaning. Cleaning in particular areas is something that, for a neat freak, has been done since a young, vulnerable age, and has been a consistent routine for years — and that consistency makes them feel safe.
Neat freaks, according to this theory, are not all the same. Their particular patterns of neatness are based on the things they've always wanted to clean: it's what's called, in anxiety disorders, a reassurance-seeking behavior. Cleaning the sink makes them feel stable.
The key for neat freaks who want to feel safer outside of detergent is often, through therapy, to find that reassurance in other things, to trust the world not to hurt them, and finally, to let go of the scared kid who needs so badly to feel safe.