Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

What a Mess

The meaning of tidiness and the meaning of mess

Usually it’s about bedrooms but sometimes it’s about other messes around the house – shoes kicked off, underwear dropped, washing up not done, schoolwork strewn across the sofa…. “Tidy up your mess! I’m not having this mess in the house! I don’t know how you can live with it!”

Our journey from babyhood to adulthood is characterized by a tidying up of messes. We know that babies will be mess-machines, producing mess out of every orifice as we slowly teach them to regulate that mess. From older children we expect a degree of mess but only until the clock strikes and then “It’s time to tidy up!” By the time they’re teenagers, young people are no longer allowed to be messy and yet mess is what they feel and mess is what they retreat to when the going gets tough. Physical mess catches up with them – menstrual mess, sexual mess. Feelings about physical mess easily become feelings about emotional mess.

“I’m in a mess!” says Buckland, worried. His latest mess seems to have been caused by telling his ex-girlfriend that he still loves her and by his current girlfriend finding out.

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I suggest to him that he might be quite enjoying the mess.

He admits that it does have its attractions: lots of attention, excitement, gossip. Having a nice, clean, straightforward relationship with his girlfriend wouldn’t be half as interesting.

In my conversations with young people, the word ‘mess’ is always powerful. In one case, it was a therapeutic turning point, unlocking something deeply unconscious and freeing an emotionally constricted young person to behave quite differently, comfortable at last in his own messiness.

Perhaps so many young people feel so passionately about rain forests (even when they’ve never visited one) because rain forests are essentially messes – huge, beautiful, unplanned, creative messes, with no one controlling or tidying them away. Perhaps mess is at the heart of the world and perhaps young people are simply more comfortable with that than adults who dread their own capacity for mess. Adults look ahead to old age and see, waiting there, a return to the physical messiness of babyhood, dependent again on someone else to be on hand, tidying everything up.

Mess is important. Creativity emerges from a degree of mess, from not knowing exactly what’ll happen next, from not having everything neatly planned out. Of course creativity also requires a degree of structure: the apparent mess of a rain forest can be analysed and reduced to a series of ecological principles. But the shame is that we get frightened of our own messiness and frighten young people about theirs. Some young people respond to this by being as deliberately messy as possible (“It’s my bedroom! I didn’t ask you to come in!”) while others go to the opposite extreme, obsessive compulsive in their tidiness, cleanliness, attention to detail.

Learning to live with a degree of mess and a degree of tidiness is part of growing up. After all, life is messy; there are some things that can’t be tidied away neatly; the more we try to cram into our emotional cupboards, the more things spill out. Healthy relationships are rarely neat and tidy. What matters is whether we can forgive the messiness in ourselves and the messiness in other people.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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