Broken windows and unopened mail

Monday, April 1, 2013 Permalink

We’ve all experienced that feeling when everything starts to seem as if it’s slipping from our fingertips and out of control. Some of us are aware of the small warning signs; others remain ignorant until their world comes crashing down around them.

I read a post by Gretchen Rubin over a month ago on this very subject and it’s been marinating in my mind ever since.

In her blog Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home discussed the ‘broken windows’ theory.

The ‘broken windows theory’ of policing, she explains, suggests that when a community tolerates minor examples of disorder and petty crime, such as broken windows or graffiti, people are more likely to commit more serious crimes. An indicator that something worse is yet to come, perhaps.

Apparently the idea is controversial in terms of law-enforcement theory, but she suggests it’s true on a personal level and I wholeheartedly agree.

Rubin’s own ‘broken windows’ are the particular signs of disorder that make her feel out of control and overwhelmed.

Oh yes.

Another blogger I follow, Jules Joyce, talked recently about her unmade bed. As it happens, she wasn’t talking about it in the same sense as Rubin, but the visual has stayed with me. And resonated.

I’m a huge (self-confessed) control freak so when things around me start to slide, my own state of mind follows. Similarly (0r conversely?!), when my mind or emotions start to get screwy, things around me show signs of impending doom.

But… no matter how f*cked up I might be feeling mentally and emotionally, I generally try to portray the image of someone COMPLETELY in control; someone perky and zen-like. Sometimes the only evidence 0r indicators of my stress or angst are my ‘broken windows’.

Rubin’s ‘broken windows’ examples included: stacks of newspapers, piles of laundry, cluttered counters, and wearing stained or torn clothes.

Again… oh yes. And… oops.

I sit here writing this post in my standard wandering-around-the-house-garb. Which is kinda okay, except I often wear my grotty t-shirts and baggy sweat pants out in public.

Never fear… I’m not currently teetering on the edge of insanity or depression, but I have been thinking about the signs or indicators in my own life that I’m struggling:

Clutter and mess
Although I’m naturally untidy I hate clutter so when dirty dishes appear or stuff isn’t put away, you know things are about to go pear-shaped.

Unopened mail
It took me months to open the letter which contained my redundancy payout (as I suspected it wasn’t correct) and even now I have refused to check the figures. Similarly I have a water bill that’s been sitting in my letter box for more than a week. I know it will be bad and I’m just delaying the inevitable. Perhaps it will go away?!

Overdue grocery shopping expeditions
I hate grocery shopping and when I’m feeling particularly fragile or lazy I cannot bring myself to go shopping. No matter how desperate I become.

Being slack at work
I have a pretty good worth ethic, in fact I was a bit obsessive about delivering on what I promised, but I did – from time to time – find myself achieving SFA over a period of days.

Washing lying about
Somehow, sometimes even putting my washing in the washing basket can be overwhelming. It will litter my ensuite bathroom or walk-in wardrobe until the pile becomes unbearably high.

Unpacking things
When  overwhelmed with apathy I avoid unpacking things: the dishwasher, my work bag, suitcases, the dryer. You name it… it’s full of crap.

Rubin notes that when she asks people about committing to a resolution to make them happier they tell her they’d like to “Make their bed”.


My bed is never made. I know this also means something but bizarrely it doesn’t worry me. At all.

But… I know what Rubin is getting at in her post. She agrees that tossing a pile of newspapers doesn’t really make a lot of difference in the overall scheme of things; BUT she says, small signs of order make us feel more in control and happier.

This I get.

As I said, it’s hard to know which comes first… the funk causing my apathy and unread mail, or the unread mail and my inability to go grocery shopping being sufficiently overwhelming as to cause my malaise.

Either way, it doesn’t matter. I know (as do we all) that by taking some small steps we feel better. For me, it’s clearing my surfaces or putting my bloody washing in the laundry basket. And it’s the foray into the local supermarket which may only take 15 minutes but feels like a huge accomplishment and reminds me that all is well in the world.

Meanwhile, I’m off to unstack my dishwasher…

What are your broken windows?

  • Sandra
    April 1, 2013

    Sounds a little familiar. I have a friend who is obsessed about making beds. But when I go there, often I find that is the only thing done. But it makes sense, that is her thing, and if that is done, she can get on with other, bigger things. I suppose mine is just keeping toys and shoes off the floor (we have a games room so I chuck the toys in there) and well shoes, they are usually mine! But yes, the clutter thing is me too. The silver lining is you have a beautiful bed! 🙂

    • Debbish
      April 2, 2013

      Oh I do have a beautiful bed Sandra. The quilt is new (bought when I moved to brighten my room / life!).

      I suspect the clutter thing is common… though when I worked my work desk was always cluttered (‘cept I knew where everything was!)

  • Jules Joyce
    April 2, 2013

    First of all thanks for the shout out. I haven’t read Rubins but it is similar in many books I have read. It really comes around full circle of being mindful in ALL areas of our lives, paying attention to the little things and it seems easier to take care of business especially when we don’t have the routine and/or excuses to avoid the things we need or want to do…like art for me.

    • Debbish
      April 2, 2013

      I like the notion of paying attention to the little things. I know how much better I feel if I take care of them!

  • Mel
    April 2, 2013

    That is such an enlightened theory; I am completely on board with it. I actually feel irritated and angry when my house is messy so it’s always spotless BUT my ‘broken window’ is unfolded washing. I just can’t bring myself to fold it straight from the line/dryer so it piles up until it’s almost falling out of the basket and then I just have to fold it.

    • Debbish
      April 3, 2013

      The theory itself does make sense, though I’m surprised it isn’t just common sense. I suspect any ‘bad’ behaviour going unchecked / unactioned leads to more and worse!

  • Katy Potaty
    April 2, 2013

    I think my broken windows are my health. It reveals more about my emotional state than I’d like. Particularly to my mother.

    • Debbish
      April 3, 2013

      Oh yes… I’ve been sick for weeks now. Wonder if that’s a sign. I never used to get sick when I worked (occasional day here and there), but have had the flu a couple of times now and am getting an ear infection at the moment…

  • Annaleis from Teapots and Tractors
    April 12, 2013

    I know all about this kind of thing. Look behind me at my house and there is kid stuff everywhere. I can handle that – but the clutter and mess in my own room means that I’m not coping. Its where I pile everything, kinda of like a visual wall around my bed.

    • Debbish
      April 13, 2013

      Oh yes… and usually only ‘we’ know the secret signs of not-coping!

  • Jess
    April 4, 2014

    Ha all of this is totally me at the moment. One of the downsides to living with others is the negative, but accurate comments they make about such things, which only makes me worse. Ha. Like I didnt notice I hant opened he mail, out away the laundry or cleaned my stupidly heavy purse out in monhs!

    • Debbish
      April 5, 2014

      The thing I’ve learned since blogging (where people reach out anonymously or without fear of subjective criticism) is that we’re all more alike than we think. I’ve occasionally confessed to some bizarre things here and find others agreeing. We have our own broken windows (or unmade beds / unopened mail)… I think it’s important to identify when that happens as it’s a sign something worse could be coming or that we’re really starting to struggle. Perhaps in that sense the broken windows aren’t a bad thing!


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