Discovering Yourself in Poorly Organized Spaces (Chapter 2)

Here’s chapter 2 of the book I started posting chapters of last week.

 “Space is as infinite as we can imagine, and expanding this perspective is what adjusts humankind’s focus on conquering our true enemies, the formidable foes: ignorance and limitation.”
– Vanna Bonta –


More often than not, we are forced to work within physical spaces we cannot change. But when we feel uneasy in physical spaces we are usually not aware of the real reasons for our discomfort. To create physical spaces that are pleasing mentally and emotionally, we often first need to understand ourselves.

Overcoming Irrational Fears

I still have days when I believe that our newly constructed (and therefore presumably perfect) house has several design flaws. On those days I want to take a walk down the street, knock on the builder’s door, and ask him to share the rationale behind his decisions.
When the house was being built, my husband and I would drop by occasionally to check on progress, and I can remember our excitement on the day we first recognized the skeleton of a real kitchen: the doorless, topless cherry wood cabinetry punctuated by open spaces for various appliances. We were given an allowance from our builder to purchase a refrigerator, along with information about the height, width, and depth of the area allocated for it.
After several fun but tiring visits to both major home improvement stores, we eventually found a stainless steel, side-by-side model that we liked. Since it also fit the dimensions and was within our budget, we thought we were golden.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that the style of the refrigerator we had selected wasn’t great for the space, which is between a counter top and cabinets on the left side, and a wall jutting out to the right. Not only do the refrigerator doors open out from the middle, but the handles of these doors also bow out slightly. So whenever we try to open the right door, the arched handle hits the wall, and the door doesn’t quite open all the way. (Luckily we don’t order a lot of pizza, because getting a pizza box in there is next to impossible!) During our first few months in the house, the situation was further complicated by the fact that the builder had installed a phone jack on that same wall, reducing the space to open the refrigerator door even more.

 Closed Refrigerator Door
Partially Open Refrigerator Door
We’ve since removed and plastered over the phone jack, and cushioned the wall with a round protector where the handle still hits. The ridiculousness of this design still aggravates me though, because any style of refrigerator or door handle configuration wouldn’t resolve the issue (or would introduce new problems). The only solution is to remodel and move the refrigerator to the opposite end of the kitchen, which isn’t feasible in a house but a year old!
Another flaw in my kitchen is one many of
you can probably relate to: we have a nearly unusable corner cabinet. It goes so far back that you can’t reach to put much of anything in there, and if you do manage it, good luck getting those things out! A custom cabinet system can probably resolve the issue but they are expensive, and required measuring and installing. As a temporary improvement, we removed the shelf to make a larger, more open space—but this means the cabinet inside now has no structure, so items are stacked precariously, frequently falling over or out whenever we open the door. It is frustrating that a homeowner’s point of view seems not to have been considered, especially early in the building process when structural changes
Unmanageable Cabinet
could have been made. And even after I made the small changes to work around these design flaws, they bothered me a great deal, because I‘m unable to organize the contents of these spaces the way I’d like. After getting annoyed about it several times and fighting with my husband over it, I started asking myself why these things took so much of my energy, and what more I could do to fix these problems. That’s when I stumbled upon my real problems, as well as some more challenging solutions.
Turns out, the root cause lies in the house I lived in when I was twelve years old.  One of my many chores at that time was to dust. One time, I moved a knick-knack a half-centimeter from its original location, and my father easily spotted the discrepancy. He always could and would point out anything that was out of order, including minuscule scratches on cars you had washed, fresh marks or dents on newly painted, pristine white walls (which clearly you made), wrinkles in sheets that you folded, and so on. And my father would not gently point these things out either—he would erupt into sudden, violent rages, screaming and yelling, flailing his arms and pointing. He would ultimately dismiss me with a wave of his hand that might have caught me in the face had I been standing an inch closer, as I broke into tears for doing this wrong thing (which I initially didn’t notice until it was pointed out). Because having the house in a particular and perfect order was clearly very important to my father, it became critical to me to do the same, because making him angry was not something that I wanted to do.
As a result of this early conditioning, my default reaction is to get upset at the refrigerator, because the door issue prevents me from arranging items on shelves in a specific way. I’ve been known to get hysterical when I open that corner cabinet and things fall out in disarray. These disorganized spaces make me feel extremely fearful and anxious—my breathing gets shallow and my chest tightens up, almost like I could have a deadly asthma attack. I become laser-like focused on only one thing: organizing what I’m looking at as quickly and perfectly as possible. This can be tricky, since there are so many things that need to be put away or better organized, and there is no realistic way to keep up with everything. After about a year in the new house, I realized I was living a stressed out life, sometimes just because of Tupperware! I realize now that on some level I’m still worried that my father will see these imperfections and let me know about them. But this threat doesn’t exist anymore, except deep in the internal, emotional space of my memory. What once was a fear rooted in reality is now an irrational one that doesn’t serve me in my life as it is now.

Thought Experiments
  • Think about a physical space that makes you uneasy. What in particular makes you feel that way? Ask “why?” each time an answer comes up, to get at the deeper reasons for your discomfort. Notice when you’re thinking vs. really getting to the heart of the issue.
  • Beyond practical workarounds for any “design flaws” in your living spaces, what can you do to let go of the emotions you’re attaching to them? For example, try putting reminders in places you get anxious, to encourage yourself to react differently.

Making Courageous Choices about Your “Time Space”

Another example of a poorly designed space is our laundry area, which is a closet containing a stacked washer and dryer. The door to this washer/dryer closet opens out to the right, which is fine. In fact, it opens in the same direction as the door to the dryer that’s inside it (stacked on the top). Unfortunately, the door to the washer that’s also inside (on the bottom) opens out to the left. This causes a bit of “door angst” when I’m trying to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer. But that’s not where the madness stops. This washer / dryer closet is also directly opposite a linen closet, which is the only natural location for the laundry detergents.
Laundry Door Trap
The door to this linen closet opens to the right as well. Because both the washer/dryer and linen closets are opposite each other in a small, hallway-sized space, opening both doors at the same time (which you need to do) traps you inside a small square, where you have to contend with the oppositely hung washer and dryer doors. One day I was trying to fit the chore of “doing laundry” into an already overbooked Saturday, and while working with the clothes in this space (in other words, having all the doors open), I leaned forward and banged my forehead against one of them. Instinctively, I pulled back and hit the back of my head against another. I felt my body getting warm with anger at this delay, as I leaned forward and hit the front of my head a second time. And then, visualizing my skull as a ping pong ball, I just started to laugh. After all, what else could I do?
When I first started speculating about why this design flaw aggravated me (besides the bruised head and ego), I thought it was because the builder of my house didn’t take my multitasking workflow for doing laundry under consideration. After all, I don’t have all the time in the world for this chore, and I want to be able to move freely and quickly to get at what I need! But this was a rational, surface-level explanation that offered no real solutions, and I suspected there was something deeper to be explored. So one day I asked myself: why do I need things to be so efficient? Well, because I’m so busy. And why am I always so busy? Hmmmm….
It’s true; I enjoy getting a lot done. Usually I feel very accomplished and proud of myself when my friends are exhausted just hearing about what I packed into a morning. But I also recognize that I struggle to give myself downtime—time to relax and just “be”, which on some level, I know is really important. I thought about the differences between the two lifestyles, and discovered I’m actually pretty uncomfortable with the concept of relaxing, for two reasons.
First, I got into the habit of extreme multi-tasking and working quickly because my father repeatedly told me I was lazy whenever I wasn’t doing something he deemed important. For example, if I sat on the sofa with a book (something my mother thought was valuable and relaxing), he’d come inside from working in the yard, call me a princess, and yell at me to “get off my butt and do something productive”. As a child, I had a whole list of chores I had to do around the house every day before I could even entertain the idea of taking time to play. As an adult, I’m always doing something, doing more than I should be at once, and working more quickly than I should be, all in a futile attempt to prove to my father that I’m not lazy, and that he should approve of me. Second, my filled-to-the-max “time space” (which I often visualize as a closet that’s gotten out of control because too many things have been stuffed inside) protects me from feeling any sadness, loneliness, inadequacy, guilt, shame, and so on, because these emotions don’t have any room to get inside me. Staying continuously occupied how I cope with my childhood, and helps me to avoid reflecting on and accepting what happened. Inefficient designs like the washer/dryer closet mean that I have to slow down, which can trigger these difficult emotions I’d rather push aside.
But time is also a space I can now fill as I please. Like accents in a room, many things are attractive and pleasing in reasonable quantities, and too many end up looking gaudy and feeling cluttered. And like any hoarder, I need to work through the fear of letting go, so I can discover all the new possibilities for me in life. I realize need to take more opportunities to reflect, to think–-but more importantly, to feel. That’s what makes life truly joyful and rewarding!
I’ve learned that it’s important to be curious about my negative reactions to things because often what I’m feeling isn’t really about the thing I think it’s about. I still sometimes catch myself flying off the handle about my refrigerator door or corner cabinet, or rushing around with chores like laundry or walking to fast to meetings. But whenever I’ve been able to stop, breathe, and be curious about these reactions, I’ve found it both fascinating and rewarding. I can look at a problematic physical space, pass through all the surface-level explanations about why it’s affecting me emotionally, and discover deeper meanings deep inside myself.
I’m starting to see these connections more and more, but I’m not sure that many people do. So the next time something in one of your physical spaces upsets you, I encourage you to think more deeply about where your feelings are stemming from. This can be really powerful stuff, and with practice, it can change your outlook on not just your stuff, but on your life.

Thought Experiments
  • Consider whether there’s someone whose love or approval you might be seeking by letting things in your physical spaces upset you, and whether it’s really necessary to please that person at this point in your life.
  • Decide to do the opposite of what you normally would, even if it’s just for a few hours. Or, on waking in the morning, making a conscious decision to accept just one thing that normally bothers you.
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