A Field Guide to the Neat Freak


In the film As Good as It Gets, as soon as the character Melvin Udall enters his apartment, he pulls a bar of soap from his medicine cabinet (stacked with nothing but soap), rubs his hands under scalding water for a few seconds, drops the bar in the trash and grabs another and then another and another. He fears dirt and mess so much that he brings his own plastic silverware to the one restaurant he patronizes. And he has never allowed another human to step into his home.

Udall suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But he has many kindred spirits—those who are not clinically diagnosable though they still inspire both admiration and scorn in their quest for cleanliness and order. Your roommate might arrange her shirts by color, or your husband might alphabetize all the books on the shelf. Such folks are neat freaks.

John Ratey, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, says that hyper-concern about order could be a "shadow syndrome" of OCD, a mild and indistinct—perhaps even undetectable—expression of the more severe disorder. "OCD has to be at a level where it interferes with a person's functioning, and neat freaks can often function well. "The fact is," he jokes, "we used to just call them anal."

According to Ellen McGrath, a clinical psychologist and president of the Bridge Coaching Institute in New York City, most neat freaks tend to have "hot spots"—extremely high standards for neatness in very particular areas. These trigger points spark feelings about childhood routines and can touch off relationship battles: The sock left on the floor suddenly holds all of a couple's buried tensions. If neat freaks find their special terrain in disarray, they start overreacting and get angry. The problem, from their point of view, is that disorder signifies a lack of control—precisely what they fear. "'Neat freak' is another term for a control freak," says McGrath. Neat freaks are often perfectionists in other areas of life, continually setting themselves up for frustration and disappointment.

If you're a neat freak who wants to shed your fastidiousness, you can—even without a professional's help, says McGrath. First, make an honest list of the costs and benefits of your ways, and have a family member or roommate also make a list for you, for comparison. Acknowledge how you may be distancing others with your zealous cleaning. Then promise to relinquish one neat demand each week for a month.

Varieties of the Species

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The Fussy Groomer

He can't run to the corner deli without ironing his shirt, polishing his shoes, clipping his nails and trimming his beard. For this fellow, control takes the form of extreme care with personal appearance. While some attention to one's looks can increase confidence, such fanatical concern often leaves this put-together type painfully self-conscious and paralyzed by something as innocuous as a spot of spaghetti sauce.

The Germophobe

Germophobes lead a personal crusade against the bacteria, viruses, fungi and dirt that exist everywhere. They dread ATMs, computer keyboards, handrails, library books, babies, you name it. The terror can manifest itself in disruptive ways: obsessive hand-washing, for example, or an aversion to others' touch (scientists debate whether there really is any reason to fear germs so much, but marketers of hand sanitizers receive great profits nonetheless).

The Nitpicking Nester

She swipes her shoes vigorously on the doormat even though she's planning to remove them and still vacuums before doing anything else. A sense of peace washes over her as she aligns the pencils on her desk. This home sanitation expert, who may take her habits to the office, cannot handle clutter, confusion or the slightest surprise in her physical surroundings. She might become incensed with a loved one who fails to return an object to its proper place. She may even decide to live alone.

When Neat Freaks Move In

Peaceful cohabitation is possible, says Ratey, but only if the neat freak in the house is aware of his tendency toward excessive order and eases up on his judgments of those not so inclined. Understand he may be resistant to change, since his immaculate habits may have been reinforced over the years with high praise.

Once all parties concerned are ready to negotiate, says McGrath, write a list of problem areas. "Find out where the places of conflict are and make a plan for coping." Then decide on a consequence for any violators of the compromises. "Maybe the one who makes the mess pays extra for a housecleaner."

Full disclosure: My husband is a neat freak, and I am, let's just say, not. We have reached a settlement on one issue—if I leave dishes in the kitchen sink, I have to clean the bathroom. For his part, he's agreed to ignore the mess in my half of our home office.

Ratey points out that some people are quite content to shack up with neat freaks. "Partnering up with a neat freak is like having a built-in coach," he says. "You get someone who helps you establish order or does it themselves."

Get Neat-Freakier

Let Go

Get rid of half of your stuff, says Ariane Benefit, a professional organizer who runs an advice blog, neatliving.org. As for sentimental cards and gifts, she insists: "You're not disrespecting the giver by throwing it away later."

Create Havens

Each of your possessions needs a designated place, says Benefit. If you're not consistently putting things away, it may be that you don't like its home: If your drawers are overstuffed, roll up your shirts so that you can see each one.

Just Do It

Messy people may have the same perfectionist tendencies as neat freaks, says Judith Kohlberg, author of Conquering Chronic Disorganization. They are paralyzed by the thought of not being able to do it all, and so they do nothing. Don't wait for the perfect time to be organized, she says. Target a small area that you're sure you can manage.

Make It Fun

Invite a friend over to keep you company while you de-clutter, Kohlberg suggests. Put on some music; even have a glass of wine.

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