Do You Have “Cleaning Burnout”? Here’s How to Recover When You’re Overwhelmed by Mess

published Feb 27, 2023
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America is experiencing unprecedented levels of burnout — from employment to parenting and even in cleaning. While burnout is commonly applied to a work setting, it’s not the only place you can feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to keep up. 

“We forget that there is so much to remember with cleaning,” explains Katie Berry of Housewife How-Tos, and there’s no validation: “Once you’re done cleaning you just get to do it again.” Feeling burned out or depleted from cleaning and other homecare tasks negatively affects a lot of people, but predominantly women, who still tend to take primary responsibility for housework

What causes cleaning burnout? 

A lot of burnout happens when you’re trying to live up to a fictional standard. Intellectually, you might know that picture-perfect “magazine standard” homes aren’t realistic — but seeing them every time you open Instagram can still induce those feelings of guilt and shame. You compare yourself negatively to those things you see on social media, and start to believe that you’re lazy. 

People grew up with this binary view of care tasks as being either “done or not done,” explains KC Davis, a professional licensed therapist and author of “How to Keep House While Drowning,” where “done” is good and right and “not done” is lazy and irresponsible, so we feel like everything needs to be done all the time.

Angela Brown, a professional cleaner turned trainer at Savvy Cleaner, explains that a lot of people associate cleaning with punishment. By telling kids to “go clean your room,” parents can create an unconscious hate for cleaning. And if you grew up with a parent with very exacting standards there can be an even stronger emotional reaction: “there’s a lot of trauma involved with cleaning, and there’s a lot of trauma involved with mess,” says Berry.

“It’s not that the chores themselves are tough — it’s just that our emotional connection to them is tough,” adds Brown. For people in a partnership, one person (especially if they are the primary parent or a stay-home parent) might start to take on all the responsibility for the mental load, too. 

With cleaning, you don’t even really get any validation for all that effort. “It’s almost inevitable that burnout is going to happen at that point,” says Berry.

Moving past the mental block of cleaning burnout

Cleaning burnout is physical overwhelm from homecare tasks that just keep piling up, but it’s also mental overwhelm that usually manifests as shame. You can feel ashamed that your home is messy, and that you can’t seem to keep on top of it, and if homecare intersects with other caring — for children or a partner — you can start to feel that shame around cleaning creep into those relationships. You can start to tell yourself “I’m such a bad parent” or “I’m such a bad spouse” when actually you’re experiencing burnout.

When you use shame to bully yourself into cleaning or doing other care tasks, it’s a very short-term form of motivation, says Davis. But long-term shame is not motivating. It’s extremely paralyzing. “We want to move to a place of motivating from self-compassion,” adds Davis. 

Remember that you’re not the only person struggling with this and that the cleanliness (or otherwise) of your home doesn’t reflect who you are as a person.

Credit: Photo: Sidney Bensimon; Prop Styling: Anna Surbatovich

How to recover from cleaning burnout

Below, steps you can take to help you recover and break the cycle.

Take a cleaning vacation

Sometimes, the way to get through burnout is to just stop. “Figure out your bare minimum and give yourself permission for a while to only do that,” says Berry. Just take care of the things that are really bothering you and that affect you (though you may need to extend this to kids too, especially if you’re the primary caregiver for young children). 

She suggests keeping up with cleaning food preparation surfaces and toilets as well as “your spot” (so you have somewhere to relax), as your minimum. “Take a week or two of filling your soul with things that make you happy,” says Berry. 

If you have a job outside the home, you get to have a couple of weeks of vacation, so why not with cleaning? Your house is not gonna fall apart in two weeks, she adds, “if it’s a mess, then it’s a mess. That’s not you. You’re not the mess.” 

Avoid a “big clean”

If you’ve taken a cleaning vacation, or after a hard bout of cleaning burnout, you’ll probably find you have an overwhelming mess to attend to. It can be tempting to try to tackle it all at once — I call this the “big clean” — whether that means spending the whole weekend on it or bringing in a professional. But this probably won’t solve your feelings of burnout. 

“I don’t ever recommend huge projects,” says Brown. “If you didn’t have time to do it in the first place, and it got to this point, you don’t have time for a great big overhaul.” While we might find the overwhelming mess of the burnout state stressful, we’ve also become accustomed to it. And even if you do have the resources for a big clean, a couple of months later it’s probably going to be the same way because we haven’t built the skills to maintain it.

Start small

You have to break that cycle of burnout. Most people suffering from burnout don’t just wake up one day not burned out anymore. When you first begin to emerge from a period of cleaning burnout, there will be a lot of days when you just don’t have it in you to clean at all. But, Davis suggests, instead of saying “I don’t have it today so I’ll do nothing” change it to “I don’t have it today so I’ll just do one thing.”

“Care tasks are cyclical,” she says. The goal isn’t to have everything done, it’s just to turn the wheel often enough to keep your home functional, but not so often that you don’t have time for rest or quality of life — and that balance is going to be different for everyone. She recommends using category cleaning (like the five things method) to give yourself an action plan. 

Similarly, Brown suggests habit-stacking for coming back from burnout. Find one habit you can start with and slowly, as that starts to become second nature, stack more on top. If you can take a shower every day, can you add in wiping down the bathroom or squeegeeing the shower doors down? And once that becomes a habit, you can add in something else, until you have a manageable cleaning routine.

Feeling burned out and overwhelmed from cleaning and other care tasks is okay. It’s completely normal — even for cleaning influencers and professional cleaners. “It’s just an ongoing process,” says Brown, so instead of beating yourself up, remind yourself that you did the very best you could today: “Celebrate your wins. And then let that be enough.”