Order Anxiety If you become anxious when things are not in their proper place, it could become a burden on your spouse. There is help through understanding what’s going on in your mind and how to calm yourself. BY DR. NEIL FIORE
Having a compulsion to organize everything and have it in order can be a big strain on a relationship.
Why do I get anxious when things are not in order?
Mr. Monk, the TV detective who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Jack Nicholson, as the compulsive hand-washer in the film As Good As It Gets, are extreme examples of people who are constantly anxious unless they can be sure everything is in order so they can feel safe. There are also examples of people who find ways to overcome their fears and habits when friends are in danger and "to be a better person" for someone they care about, as Jack says to his co-star Helen Hunt. Many of us have milder versions of rituals, superstitions and compulsions that––when not carried out––can make us irritable with our spouse, children and co-workers.
The Root of the Problem
Usually such habits and anxieties begin during the "magical thinking" stage of childhood. In the child’s normal development, he or she attempts to understand and give order to an overwhelming world by making rules and rituals such as, "step on the crack, break your mother’s back." If something awful or unexpected happens, children tend to hold onto those memories and repeat rituals in an attempt to protect themselves and their families. If some wonderful surprise happens, children tend to repeat whatever preceded the event, much the way athletes favor the wearing of their lucky clothes or following the same routines before a big game.
The mind likes things to be predictable so it can efficiently activate a process that prepares you for survival or effectiveness. Your brain uses predictions to subconsciously prepare you to react quickly to danger or opportunities, but can keep you stuck repeating reactions that worked in the past but are not suitable for today’s world and your adult skills.
To break free of these negative habits, you can consciously question your superstitions and predictions and consciously choose to face the consequences of breaking the ritual. You can also use deep breathing and relaxation techniques to calm your body and prove to yourself that it’s safe to exhale and stay where you are. You will need to repeat this process several times until your brain makes the correction (like changing and updating a "default" setting on your computer). More severe cases may require several session of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
You may find that changing your belief system about what you can and cannot control in life will help reduce the fantasy that constantly putting things in order will save you from normal mistakes. Letting go of trying to be perfect and trying to control life will go a long way toward accepting yourself as a perfectly normal human being. After all, we are equipped with many ways to survive and thrive in this world without worrying, becoming hyper-vigilant and added unnecessary stress to our lives and those of our loved ones.
Dr. Neil Fiore is a psychologist practicing in Berkeley, CA, a coach, a speaker, and author of Awaken Your Strongest Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self-Sabotage [McGraw-Hill, 2006]. His bestselling guide to overcoming procrastination, The Now Habit [Putnam, 2007], is revised and available at iTunes under "Audio books," and at www.audible.com under "Self-Development." You can schedule phone sessions with Neil at "Coaching" along with his "Free Articles & Tips" at www.neilfiore.com.