Organization or Obsession?

Visual System using PostItsWhat happens when a person is unable to adequately filter or sort sensory information from her environment?

She spends a lot of time feeling threatened.

Not emotionally threatened but physically threatened. Her body reacts to sensory input. She can tell herself, “You’re fine, relax.” Other people can tell her. But all the emotional soothing in the world can’t change the fact that, when she is in a sensory intense environment, stress hormones are being released into her bloodstream and her central nervous system is reacting. She is growing increasingly more uncomfortable and if she doesn’t control her exposure she is headed for a meltdown or a shutdown.

So what does she do about it?

  • She avoids places and situations that assault her senses.
  • She goes to great lengths to make her own environment as soothing and predictable as possible.

What is her first line of defense?


If it is important to me, personally, I will organize the snot out of it.

I have systems and routines for everything. Everything. I am not exaggerating. [See post regarding Grocery Shopping]. Systems and routines make my life manageable. Whenever I am working outside of a system of my own making, sensory input plus decision making (on the micro or macro level) quickly overwhelm me. I become anxious and then exhausted. But with systems and routines I can accomplish very complex feats.

Brief entertainment break:

I love Nick Hornby. He writes very funny novels. See A Long Way Down and Juliet Naked. He also wrote High Fidelity. By the time I got around to reading the book, I had already watched the movie twice. Why did I watch the movie twice?

Because I loved it! And not just the solo Jack Black (Barry) sang, although that scene itself was worth the DVD rental price.

No, what bonded me permanently to the main character, (Rob) and to Hornby himself was this:

When Rob slammed headfirst into a relationship crisis, when his heart was broken and his love lost – his most immediate response was to…. re-organize his personal vinyl music collection.

Here, in case you couldn’t hear it, is the dialogue:

Dick, friend and coworker, who came by to check on Rob sees stacks of lp’s lying everywhere on the floor inside Rob’s apartment and says: I guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?

Rob: No…

Dick: Not alphabetical…

Rob: Nope.

Dick: What?

Rob: Autobiographical.

Dick: No fucking way.

Maybe you have to be a chronic organizer to find this as funny and heartwarming as I did…but anyway, back to the blog…

Helpful and not so helpful people in my life have offered up the suggestion that I might have an Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. They get confused and think that the organization precedes the anxiety. That if I didn’t insist on having the details of my life organized so tediously I could relax like a normal person. But contrary to what these helpful/not helpful people believe, my need to organize is a byproduct of the anxiety I feel trying to navigate my way through a complicated sensory world.

In her chapter titled Secondary Effects, Sharon Heller author of “Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight” wrote: “As the sensory defensive feel victimized by sensations they cannot control, they go overboard trying to control what they can.” She said our behaviors are often confused with an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I looked up OCD so I could make a more complete assessment of where my SPD-life-enhancing-organization ends and the disease of obsession begins.

I am going to confess here that I do meet several criteria for an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

  • I have a preoccupation with details, lists, order, organization, schedules and rules (rules of my own making – of course.)
  • My need for perfection causes quite a bit of anxiety and often interferes with my successful completion of a task. (I must question, is the anxiety caused by the obsessive need for perfection? Or is the need for perfection caused by the anxiety which arises from the often barely-manageable complexity of the task?)
  • I am excessively focused on being productive with my time. (I’m not convinced this is a bad thing for the world at large. Lots of projects simply would never get completed if some people were not excessively focused on being productive).
  • I am very conscientious, (although my values are not always in line with those of the mainstream culture.)
  • I am reluctant to trust another with a task that is important to me…. unless I know and trust the abilities of said person. (I added the second half of the above sentence which I think negates the pathological first half. And, I would like to point out, I am quite fond of people with excellent abilities – they appeal to me in the same vein as exquisite art and brilliant ideas. I am very happy to be in their capable hands).
  • I do have an “excessive conscientiousness, scrupulousness and undue preoccupation with productivity to the exclusion of pleasure and interpersonal relationships.” (These are Wikipedia’s words, not mine. This one actually hurts. But projects are just more controllable than people. I admit, I am a workaholic and often substitute work for friendship because work occurs in an environment that I find infinitely more manageable – and thereby more serenely satisfying – than the urban playgrounds of friendship.)
  • But….I am NOT obsessed with cleanliness. (However I do have a low tolerance for messiness. I keep a tight rein on clutter in my own home. I am somewhat adept at ignoring clutter in other people’s homes or work spaces, but if I have to interact with clutter, it makes me tense. Unsanitary conditions bother me however I can go an awfully long time not cleaning my own bathroom.)

I manage these traits to the best of my ability. I work hard to keep them tamed especially when they interfere with others. I have studied and practiced the Zen art of appearing to relax while others muddle through projects that I am sure I could attack with much greater efficiency. I can usually refrain from sharing with muddling others my bulleted list explaining how I would perform the feat, including (if the task is particularly complex) the associated excel spread sheet. Unfortunately, the Zen-like mask of patient acceptance uses lots of precious energy that is in short supply for folks with SPD.

Yes, real live friendships are more taxing for me than, say, building a blog or writing a book. But if you are a reader, of blogs or books, you may not find this a particularly disturbing trait in your (writer and virtual) friend Lane. (The image at the top of this post is a portion of the visual organization I need to keep a handle on the Sensorina Blog.)

How do organization and routine fit into your life? What do you organize the snot out of? What routines are mandatory for your life to run smoothly?


One Reply to “Organization or Obsession?”

  1. I am 37 years old and I just recently was diagnosed with SPD and I really cannot overstate how to a T this post sums up myself. Also that little diagram you made with the stick figures is extremely helpful with explaining to only the 2nd person I confessed to. Thank you!

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