Overwhelmed by mess

I dislike mess. This fact is impressed onto me daily by a son who seems rather fond of it. Or, at least, a son rather fond of making it and then running off.

If it was up to me, I would have him take one brick out at a time, peeking around in the box until he finds just the right piece for whatever he is making, or whatever game he is playing. Then we would quickly put them all back in as soon as he was finished. My son has other ideas.

Some as-yet only suspected, yet often resented, family member taught him the joys of tipping the box upside down. I can see that it’s fun. Pieces crash everywhere. You get to see all the toys and blocks you have, all at once. However, I find that the surge of excitement quickly deteriorates into indifference, or perhaps overwhelm, and my son soon moves away from the dumping site to play elsewhere with other things. Perhaps finding another box. Dad left anxious, quivering and confused, wondering whether he should tidy up or make his son do it, or just leave it for now.

Similarly, I like to have my messy emotions, hopes, dreams and thoughts all tidy. I dislike their natural messiness. So I keep them neatly in my box, and, if I express them, I have to have peeked around for a while first and found just the right one for the situation. The thought of letting them out as an undefined mess, without being able to say, well this is that and this is that, or because of that, is terrifying. In fact, I would much rather think about all my mess and try to sort it out in my head.

Avoidant or Ambivalent?*

We could rightly say I naturally have an avoidant relationship to my mess. Such avoidant styles are characteristic of those who never quite learnt that their mess was acceptable, or could be tolerated. We might feel like it could consume us. Or that if we start to tip out the box, blocks will just keep pouring out. Often, we haven’t even learned the words for much of what is in there. And so we tend to live and play with lots of order, nice and neat but, ultimately, lacking blocks to play and build with. Lacking the excitement, meaning and inspiration they bring.

Of course, it’s not that my life is that neat in reality. The blocks rattle around my box all day. In the inner chatter. In the way I react. I might not have the words for them, but they affect me. And, when I don’t express them, even to myself, they inevitably end up leaking out. Before long, whether I like to recognise it or not, others are stepping, hurt and confused, on my blocks.

For others, they seem quite happy to tip the box over. To me, they even seem fond of it, sharing lots all at once. But then they move on, overwhelmed by it all. It’s like they enjoy the excitement of them, maybe hope I can help, yet run away from them at the same time. We might call this an ambivalent approach to our mess. This can be confusing. Do you want me to help you? Do you want to do anything with these feelings? We can’t just leave them in a pile here! Should I tidy them up?

For these people, it seems they never learned that their mess could be given a shape. They can access it, almost like it’s always just about to brim over, but it rarely finds any meaningful place in their lives. It remains spilling over yet overwhelming.

The therapy box

We need the security to tip over the box (or at least some of the pieces) and stay near it. This might mean we need to be in the presence of another who can tolerate the mess. Who assures us that this is OK. Or we might find part of us in ourselves. For some, they will need to take out less pieces at once and discover that they have that capacity to manage what comes out. For others, they will need to start taking block after block out, perhaps the best fitting ones first, and then start to risk the ones that don’t have a place yet. In all of this, we begin to realise intuitively that the mess isn’t so intolerable. We start to leak less. We start to run away less.

It is difficult at this point for me not to think about therapy. Therapy provides a safe box. The walls of time, confidentiality and non-judgement can let us risk taking out our blocks and so learn to be with the mess in a place that won’t disrupt our everyday lives. And as we practice being with our mess, we can then start to find ways to bring out our blocks in our normal lives.

The therapist too is a significant presence here. To the extent that they have learned to be with their own mess, to that extent they can be with the client’s. To the depths they have poured out their own box, they can tolerate blocks from the depths of the client. This capacity to be present with mess and not be overwhelmed may be something new, perhaps something rarely experienced before. ‘Oh, it is OK to be messy, it’s OK to have these deep messy boxes; it’s OK for that mess to be brought out and expressed; it doesn’t destroy us or make us intolerable; perhaps it even makes us human.’

Then, as we gain our capacity to tolerate mess, we can start to see some of what’s going on in it all. Patterns emerge. Differences can be identified. We can see that there are red blocks, green blocks, square blocks, and circular blocks. We can start to see that some blocks don’t belong here, perhaps aren’t even ours, and can return them. We can realise that there are some blocks we inherited from our parents or grandparents - or even longer ago - and choose to keep them or to put them to one side. Some blocks may disappear. Some blocks may get smaller. Some blocks remain.

This is how I try to be with my son. I let him tip out the blocks - but only enough that he can handle. I encourage him to see what there is and wonder what we could build. And we build together. We night build the same old buildings and cars. We might build new things, like the time he wanted to build a plane and we spent the next few days flying our planes around the house. Sometimes what we build works. Sometimes, it just looks like more mess! But that’s OK. We might get out more blocks to play with. We might stop playing with that box and put the left-over pieces away so others don’t have to deal with them and then go to another box with all the excitement of discovering how that might inspire us.

And all along, I hope he might just be learning that mess is OK. We don’t have to be all neat and tidy. We don’t have to get it right all the time. Messing it up, failures, disappointments, resentments, misunderstandings, relational struggles are all normal parts of living. More, the mess doesn’t have to stay a mess. It can be sorted through, made into things. It can even be the fertile soil that inspires us. That gives colour to our lives.

And, of course, it can be tidied up again.

*The terms avoidant and ambivalent are intentionally taken from Ainsworth’s development of Attachment Theory. Its application to therapy and emotions is largely informed by Jeremy Holmes’ book, The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy.

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