At least once a week, someone I know remarks how organized I am. How tidy my house, how spotless my pantry, how early I make deadline, how on the ball I am.
I wish I were that organized, women tell me. I should be more like you.
I never really know how to respond to these women (they’re always women).
I thank them, and mention that my organization is an elaborate coping mechanism for my absent-mindedness, which is true.
What I don’t tell them is how I get panicky when I can’t find something or forget something or am late because it makes me anxious and I just really cannot afford to forget anything and ohmyGod what if I messthingsup?
What I don’t tell them is the fear behind my organization.
What I don’t tell them is this story.
My eighth grade biology teacher—one of my favorites that year—was a cheerful, engaged woman who clearly loved her job.
Back then I regularly auditioned for commercials in Los Angeles. When I missed school, my teachers sent work with me.
Remember how I’m absent-minded? Back then I also procrastinated. A lot.
At the end of the school year, my teacher read out a list of incomplete assignments. She called my name.
Apparently, I had not handed in a project. I had never heard of said project. It counted for a large portion of our grade.
I raised my hand, trembling. “I think you assigned that while I was out of class on an audition,” I said.
She looked at me with such hostility I felt my entire body go cold. “I prepared that assignment for you and gave it to you in a manila envelope when you left campus. Later that day, I found that envelope next to the trash out in the quad. Did you think I wouldn’t notice you’d ditched it?”
She turned away.
Oh, guys, junior high was hard. Beside the usual story of eating lunch by myself and hiding in the library, my brother was in jail for stealing some cars. My sister had recently run away from the Acres; I was afraid Katie would do it again and disappear for good. I was carrying so much.
This teacher looked at me and saw a spoiled suburban kid who blew off assignments.
I looked down at my desk, tears in my eyes, a roar blotting out all other sound. Every eye in the room bored into me. I deserved it, I thought. I had lost the assignment through my carelessness. It was all my fault.
That was a long time ago. My anxiety about my forgetfulness has gotten better. I’m better at coping with my absent-mindedness. I have more grace with myself.
I also have just a little side-eye for that teacher.
But I ache when women compliment me. Because we wear our organizational shame heavily.
The phrase being on the ball sums it up. That’s how I imagine us—trapped on these giant balance balls of shame, wobbling back and forth.
Not long ago, my therapist encouraged me to write down a list of every task I was responsible for in our household. My husband is an equal partner who more than pulls his weight, but he’s the sole breadwinner. I do more.
Finishing the list, I realized why I felt flustered all the time. My list went on, and on, and on. It was like death from a thousand paper cuts.
Do we realize how much we juggle—single, married, childless, or not? Do we give ourselves credit for how hard competence is? Do we let ourselves off the hook when we aren’t on the ball?
When women compliment me about my ability to make deadline or keep my pantry organized, I always see this unspoken plea in their eyes. Do you know I am doing the best I can?
Oh, honey, I do know. Because I am too. And I know exactly how shitty it feels when people only see your screw-ups, instead of seeing you.
Is it any wonder we procrastinate, given the stress and shame? We’re afraid of f-ing things up. So we forget, ignore, stress, and shame ourselves even more.
I don’t judge you for any of it: procrastinating, being afraid, being clumsy with time or deadlines or pantry organization. I have been there.
Can I suggest something?
Instead of being more organized, be more you. Feel empowered to color-code the legumes in your pantry if that floats your boat, or choose to never organize your pantry again. Set goals because they help you spend your time intentionally—or scrap them because they make you anxious. Blow off a deadline because you need some self-care, or figure out how to stop blowing off deadlines because you don’t like living with the chaos that results.
Get off the giant balance ball of shame about how you spend your time and whether you are using every second of it productively.
Melt that $&*@ing ball down to plastic sludge.
Look around your life and ask: how could I make this more mine? How would I treat myself if I were an honored guest? How could I show myself hospitality?
And if I did have a pantry, what might I offer myself to eat?
Image credit: Annie Spratt