“Out of chaos, come
order” – Fredrick Nietzsche
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order”
I have a messy desk. My car is cluttered and my home…well, I won’t go there. I try really really hard to tidy my desk, office, car and life because I value
beauty and spaciousness. It’s a challenge, one that I can accomplish for brief periods of time only to inevitably fail in the long run. Sustained order is an uphill battle for me – and I know I’m not alone.
A messy desk is a widely misunderstood phenomenon so much so that for the purpose of this post I am calling it a syndrome. That’s right –the Messy Desk Syndrome. Many a person has been deemed “disorganized” “chaotic”, “slovenly” and so forth because of the fear of “what’s in there”. Some people have been denied promotions because this, and others just live with constant shame, wondering what is wrong with them – and why they can’t be like the rest of their organized work cohorts.
However I’d like to propose new understanding of the messy desk syndrome – one that sees the value in the expression of this behavior –and doesn’t judge a book by its cover.
I believe that messy desk syndrome ( MDS) is biologically based. Think about ADD or ADHD. People living with this have a range from mild to severe deficits in their prefrontal cortex –a part of the brain which is involved in planning, organization, and decision making. They are often prescribed stimulants to help them manage their lives. They also tend to thrive in chaos because it stimulates them and helps them perform. Ever hear the saying “grace under pressure” – people with ADD/ ADHD know it well. Many people also have what’s called sub clinical ADD/ADHD because they don’t fit the full diagnostic criteria but have enough of the symptoms for a therapist to say “close enough”. They function very well in their lives, but often have, yes, you guessed it, messy desks.
I also believe the work of Anthropologist and best-selling author Helen Fisher, is applicable to the messy desk syndrome. In her book Why Him - Why Her? she shares her research about the biology of why and how we choose our mates. She postulates that there are four basic personality types ( with many subtypes) which are governed by different neurotransmitters in the brain. Explores are governed by dopamine, a powerful and stimulating neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, risk and reward. Negotiators are organized around the hormone estrogen and value relationships and connectedness. Directors are ruled by testosterone – they are ordered, driven, focused and well, - direct. Builders
are heavily influenced by Serotonin which helps people feel calm, safe and
secure. People with the most organized desks probably fall under the Director or
Builder personality type while Explorers are most likely at the opposite end of the
spectrum. Why? My guess is- just as the person with ADD/ADHD needs constant stimulation, so does the explorer- as dopamine governs their brains. ( However if they have Director or Builder as a secondary type then they may be spared from MDS). As for Negotiators– that’s a toss- up. They aim to please so will definitely try to keep their desks neat and depending upon their subtype (Builder or Director) may be able to do so. I’m a Negotiator/ Explorer. I’m a psychotherapist (Negotiator) Yoga instructor, ( Negotiator / Explorer) independent television producer, (Explorer) and former actress (Explorer). This means the dominating neurotransmitters that make me - me, are estrogen and dopamine.
I am designed to seek new experiences, and to nurture relationships. When my life starts to feel stagnant, my brain unconsciously creates chaos (just enough)to help boost dopamine, which then allows me to make necessary changes and perform at an optimal level. I suppose I could try to take up skydiving but
the Negotiator in me who values connection and relationships does not want to deprive myself of them by a premature death. Then there's always Adderall, Ritalin or Wellbutrin - but even so, nature will be as it's meant to be.
So my argument is - expressions of chaos such as a messy desk, are biologically driven and like all behavior have a well intended purpose. By no means am I suggesting not trying to organize your desk, yourself and your life. I’m just offering a new perspective on the matter which is meant to help those who struggle with this let go of the shame. So the next time you find yourself overly stressed about trying to find that piece of paper lost somewhere in that pile on your desk, thank your brain for doing its job – as its hidden agenda is solely to stimulate your mind and help you thrive!
-Maura Matarese is a Psychotherapist, Yoga Instructor and
Artistic Director of Wednesday Morning Productions. To learn more about Maura, visit her website www.mauramatarese.com.