Everyone has had a moment of feeling so ticked off that the only way their body knew how to react was by deep cleaning their bathroom. Or a long, stressed day at work leads you to break out the carpet cleaner, or a rough day with your kids has you scrubbing the dishes with fury. It sounds like a joke, but rage cleaning is real, according to psychology experts. In fact, it’s a natural reaction that many of us experience, and is actually kind of healthy.
Tracy Hejmanowski, PhD, clinical psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health, tells Romper in an interview that people who rage clean are just taking control of what they can. “When we feel disarray in our mental or emotional world, the easiest or most concrete way to counter that is to make our physical world tidy and neat, the way we want our mental world to be. It’s a very natural reaction,” she says.
“You have such an intense sensation that feels like it needs to be released and you don’t want to do it on a person, but you can do it on an object,” says Natalie Buchwald, founder and patient coordinator at Manhattan Mental Health Counseling, in an interview with Romper. “Cleaning is a great way to channel that because it is focused. You can take that energy and displace it onto something inanimate. It also allows you to take a break from whatever it is that triggered you. When you come back to whatever triggered you, you can come back to it more grounded and use more parts of yourself to tackle that issue.”
Taking a negative emotion and turning it into something else is actually a psychological coping mechanism, says Hejmanowski.
“There’s a psychoanalytic term I think applies to this: sublimation. When we sublimate, it’s a defense mechanism, but it’s one of the better ones. It’s this idea that you take some kind of impulse, urge, or emotion that’s undesirable and divert it into something more socially acceptable as an outlet. Sublimating is, if it’s not socially or internally acceptable for me to yell at my child, instead I mumble to myself and go into the pantry to clean it,” she explains.
Especially during the stress of a pandemic, why might folks find themselves scrubbing their grout with a toothbrush and muttering profanities? Well, there’s the fact that you’re probably home more than usual anyway, but also looking for ways to feel in control during all this uncertainty.
“We’re creating more of a mess in our home because we’re home more, and we’re also around to see it more and witness it,” says Hejmanowski. “Our collective anxiety and angst, it’s been on this very macro level and we’re hearing from the president and upper echelons of leadership. But on the micro level, how do I manage my job and my kids? How do I not get cabin fever?”
Is rage cleaning, or cleaning while anxious, upset, or stressed, a healthy way to cope? Hejmanowski feels that as long as you’re not using tidying to avoid something important, it’s A-OK.
“I think controlling what you can is going to help you in dealing with the lack of control that exists everywhere else,” Buchwald says. “If cleaning is what you choose, wonderful. I’d rather you choose cleaning than over-exercising or over-dieting. Given that we’re home so often right now, if you’re taking your energy and making your home a better place to be in, you benefit from that situation.”
“I think that it really is a great thing and something we should celebrate," says Hejmanowski. "If it means putting myself in time out to clean my closet so I avoid yelling at my kids, great. If I’m avoiding my own bad behavior, that’s a constructive use. If we’re avoiding something really important because it’s going to take a lot of emotional work and time, and maybe cooperation from another person, then it probably makes more sense to work on that."
So, what projects might be good to take on when you’re cleaning furiously, and what chores might be counterproductive?
“If we’re smart about it, we’re not going to try to tear down the ceiling and put up a new one, but take on projects that will give us a sense of accomplishment,” says Hejmanowski. “I can’t fix this problem in my relationship right now, but I can clean the grout and start and finish this now.”
“I would encourage people, if you’re going to rage clean to make yourself feel better, that you also incorporate some beauty. Don’t just clean; pick up some flowers. Enhance the space so that you feel delighted, not just clean,” says Buchwald.
If you find yourself cleaning way more than usual and your stress is affecting your quality of life, Hejmanowski wants you to know you’re not alone.
“There are resources online, helplines and hotlines, and it’s a very reasonable problem to bring up to a therapist, chaplain, or clergyman. A therapist can help you tease apart whether it’s temporal because of everything going on or if it’s more ingrained in your habits.”
Tracy Hejmanowski, PhD, clinical psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health
Natalie Buchwald, LMHC, founder and patient coordinator at Manhattan Mental Health Counseling