April 17, 2018

Tax Day strikes fear in the hearts of messy people.

On the most adult of all days, when you have to pull your stuff together—literally, metaphorically, financially—it can be incredibly intimidating for someone who’s a little disorganized or whose life isn’t just magically gliding by with ease.

When it came to my own taxes this year, I had a new solution: Rather than flail and debate and stay up all night gathering old receipts, I leaned into the mess. And I—gasp!—asked for an extension on my taxes.

And you know what? Actually owning my messiness—admitting that I didn’t have my financial life beautifully squared away in color-coded Excel docs—felt like the most responsible and adult decision I could have made. It was me saying, “Yes, I may be a little bit of a mess, but I can also come up with a plan.”

Most people have proclaimed “I’m a hot mess” at one time of another, and this usually means you’re spiraling and not on track, but there’s another way to look at it: Being messy means things aren’t set in stone, and that affords us wide open spaces for opportunity. Change. Growth. The ability to mold that messy little ball of clay that is your life into whatever you want—whenever you want to.

Being messy means things aren’t set in stone, and that affords us wide open spaces for opportunity. Change. Growth.

Because that’s the beauty of “messiness”—it can contain unbridled joy and fear and anxiety in equal measure. Being a “mess” doesn’t have to be a put-down you hang on yourself. In fact, it’s time to reclaim the term “being a mess” as just, well, being human.

The next time you feel stuck in emotional clutter, walk yourself through these steps to reclaim your mess:

1. Survey—and Accept—Your Current Messy State


Sometimes it’s helpful to put numbers on these things—how are you feeling, messy-wise, from a scale of 1 to 10? (Ten being you are in complete and total control, and one, well, one is a capital-M Mess.)

Once you know the level of “mess” you’re dealing with, it’s easier to accept it as your current state—which is key to moving forward. Psychology professor Brett Ford devised a three-part study that found acceptance is linked to long-term thriving. “Acceptance involves not trying to change how we are feeling, but staying in touch with your feelings and taking them for what they are,” she told Quartz.

2. Know That You’re Not Alone


Despite the public faces that most people put on—or filter over—the great big secret of the universe is … no one knows what they’re doing. Often, even the most capable, put-together people must navigate their day-to-day with the same “what-am-I-even-doing?” attitude you might be having.

And sometimes, messiness paves the way to breakthroughs. Exhibit A: J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter author wrote the first book in the series while she was a penniless single mother, battling depression and going through a divorce. Accepting her situation helped her finish up that first book, which she explained in her iconic 2008 Harvard commencement speech:

“I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.

I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

3. Let Someone Else See the Mess in All Its Glory


Laughing off a friend’s frantic “Oh gosh, I’m such a hot mess” is one tactic, but if you want, you can also try cracking their veneer—and your own. Confiding in a close friend about how you’re feeling—whether it’s work drama, relationship troubles, or career struggles—can make you feel less alone in your apparent “messiness.”

When you open up to someone, when you’re truly vulnerable and honest, you allow other people to feel comfortable enough to do the same. You realize that none of us have it all together.

So there are two choices: Fake it ’til you make it—or just admit we’re all glorious messes.

4. Take One Single Step Forward


If you’re feeling really overwhelmed by everything, it’s time to zero in from the macro, get the magnifying glass, and look at the micro. I’m talking single steps. Focus on one task you can accomplish today—and let yourself be OK with the fact that other things on your to-do list will be left undone.

Focus on one task you can accomplish today—and let yourself be OK with the fact that other things on your to-do list will be left undone.

As happiness expert and bestselling author Gretchen Rubin likes to say, “Outer order contributes to inner calm.”

Personally, when my work life feels topsy-turvy, I look around at my physical space. Usually scrubbing the dishes in the sink, vacuuming my living room, or doing my laundry can wrestle back control of my emotions. (To be clear, I’ll do one of these things, not all of them at once.) Sounds super simple, but I swear it works.

5. Look for the Small Wins


“Messy” can so often be a catch-all—a term used because we don’t want to get down into the nitty-gritty of what’s actually going on. Even if other aspects of your life feel jumbled, take care not to let them bleed into the rest of your life (easier said than done, I know). With a little bit of clear-eyed optimism, you'll uncover many ways your life isn’t actually a mess at all.

Think about specific parts of your life—career, relationships, your enviable yoga streak, whatever—and look for the small wins. Maybe you killed that presentation at work, or just had a really wonderful, illuminating chat with a friend. Those things don’t feel messy at all. Those small wins are concrete bricks. And there’s nothing messy about a brick.

6. Lean Into Your Messiness


Our world right now celebrates and elevates tidiness in all forms, from super crisp Instagram photos to Marie Kondo’s obsessive shirt-rolling technique. But sometimes creativity or calm doesn’t come from order. Sometimes it comes from half-read books scattered around your apartment or accidentally triple-booking your Friday night out—then cancelling them all for some much needed me-time.

Remember, a full and glorious life doesn’t come from a perfectly captioned facade, but from really living and leaning in—messiness and all.

Read next: How Permission to Live Big Can Free You From Feeling Lost

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