Psychiatrist Carl Jung liked to ask people, and I am paraphrasing lightly, “But then what is your myth? What is the story that inspires and motivates you?” He wasn’t presuming that they were soft-headed nincompoops. He was just trying to understand the foundations by which we all live.
Many of us may borrow from multiple myths to create our own personal myth. But I suspect that one myth in particular motivates many people with obsessive-compulsive personality: the myth of the eternal battle between Chaos and Order. In this story, Order is the hero or heroine that makes everything copasetic after the Villain Chaos has wreaked havoc for far too long. We tend to identify with Order as a personal hero or heroine and live accordingly.
Participation in this larger story of the world can bring meaning and fulfillment. We are engaged with, and part of, something larger than ourselves. It can feel like we’re part of the Solution, are doing the Right Thing, and experience pleasure all at the same time.
But we can also be taken over by the story.
These mythical characters have a way of taking up residence in your psyche, stretching out comfortably on a neurological throne, and giving orders to maintain Order as if this had been their kingdom all along. Then we have a despot in charge rather than a hero at our disposal. Bringing Order to Chaos is no longer a choice, but a demand.
Adopting this particular story and its hero, Order, means that you’ll do everything in your control to fight Chaos. In effect, creating Order becomes the unspoken religion of people with obsessive-compulsive personality. Or, if that doesn’t resonate with you, Order functions like your operating system, such as macOS, Windows, or Linux, and is always running in the background. And it guides just about everything you do.
That’s a heavy burden to carry.
Your entire world may seem chaotic and in need of rescue, but that’s partly because you’re seeing it through the lens of Order, in which Chaos is evil. And since you can’t see your own contact lenses, much less your own eyeballs, this viewpoint affects you more than you may be able to see.
This isn’t to say all this Chaos is imagined. Some of it is real, and thank god there are stalwart compulsives around to fight it.
But, that kitchen chaos you thought your partner created last night, that’s not real Chaos.
Myth as Nonsense and Myth as Knowledge
Before we go any further, in the sense that I am using it, “myth” doesn’t denote a common falsehood, but rather a universal truth told in story. Myths convey the accumulated and refined wisdom that has endured over millennia because they offered insight that served humans. In many cases we have internalized these myths and we run our lives based on them–without realizing it.
Creation myths used to be a central part of the ongoing education of the people in a tribe. The idea was that members would be well aware of the underpinnings of how they saw the world. When their world seemed in danger, they would tell the story again to re-establish a sense of Order. We don’t bother with such poppycock anymore.
Much to our detriment.
So, I’ll try to bring some Order to this Chaos by telling the myth and raising it to consciousness.
The Myth of Chaos and Order
The myth of Chaos and Order itself isn’t written down once and for all in definitive form, stored in an ancient version of a hard drive, and hidden in the mountains of Mesopotamia. But you can see its theme underlying most creation myths. The central motif is that the universe began in Chaos and moved quickly toward Order.
Here’s the essence of the story as our Healthy Compulsive Project staff reporters documented it, on location, many, many years ago:
We’re here witnessing a huge expanse with no boundaries: wet, windy, dark, and menaced by unidentifiable booming sounds. Everything is unknown, in constant flux, and indescribable. No right angles. No symmetry. No place to charge your iPhone much less your Tesla. It’s a total mess. No Association of Tennis Professionals or Las Vegas shows to entertain us. Believe me you, you don’t want to be here.
But wait, now there’s a force swooping in and settling down all the commotion. It seems to have a large “O” for Order on its costume. Light is becoming consistent and vision is becoming possible. Water is being separated from the land. The wind is settling its differences with the air it was pushing around. Plants and animals are starting to grow and thrive. The landscapes are incredible. It’s good. Really good. Suddenly we see vending machines dispensing Frappuccino, deodorant, and Charred Jalapeño and Peach Guacamole. What had felt like a very disturbing and chaotic universe has become a place of beauty, awe, and haute cuisine.
So you see why we began to venerate the forces of Order.
The Compelling Urge for Order
Even if you reject the story as it shows up in Genesis, you can’t get away from it. The theme still lives in lots of other places. Including your psyche.
And that’s not bad. Without this urge we would not have built villages, learned to farm, and deputized referees to maintain Order when 22 large and otherwise unruly men converge on an open field, competing for control of an inflated pigskin.
The urge for Order operates not just on a cosmic level, but also a personal one. Each day I try to bring a little order to my world and to my psyche. I put words in Order. I clear hiking trails of deceased branches. I play in a cover band wherein I’m constantly seeking precise rhythm, perfect intonation and a piquant pulse that makes people want to dance.
And I try to cultivate harmony among the many parts of my personality. At times it’s like herding cats, but I still manage.
So, Order is a deep, and deeply natural, impulse with significant benefits, one that most of us have inherited to some degree. Some more than others, as we will see below.
Is Chaos So Bad?
But there is also an urge to bring Chaos to Order, to shake things up so we don’t die of tedium or pigheadedness. The people with this urge are often artists, certain politicians, and brazenly disruptive fashion designers. Composers like Beethoven, Bartok and Chuck Berry challenged the status quo through music, and, while people were very upset with them at first, their audiences eventually recognized that they had made generous contributions to a higher Order of civilization.
Case in point, Chuck Berry’s revolutionary rock anthem, Roll Over Beethoven.
Chuck was sick and tired of his sister dominating the family piano with classical music. So, he channeled his capacity for musical Order to bring a little Chaos (Rock and Roll, Y’all!) to the musical atmosphere in their living room. The rest is history.
There are some people out there that have tendencies to embrace both Chaos and Order, but they’ve been stuck inside the Convention Center in Des Moines, Iowa for 137 years because they go back and forth and can’t make any real progress.
Well, that’s not actually true. In fact, one of my points in this post will be that we need a certain amount of Chaos to go along with our Order to live well, and that most compulsives have a diet deficient in Chaos.
Someone once asked the great Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki to boil Buddhism down to its essence in a phrase. He paused, pondered and answered, “Everything changes.” So, get used to Chaos. Make it your friend. It will visit often.
Order and Chaos in Therapy
This dynamic of Order alternating with Chaos also shows up in therapy. I’m always looking for the connecting themes that help bring Order to the many feelings and episodes that can leave clients feeling overwhelmed. Bringing Order to these helps them to understand themselves and calm what had felt like a nightmare inside.
But it’s also my job to shake things up when they’ve gotten stuck. For instance, I may need to deflate their inflated idea that they can and should be perfect. While this can feel disruptive, it’s also indispensable to becoming a Healthy Compulsive.
Establishing priorities requires Order. Rearranging those priorities may feel Chaotic.
You might have thought that re-arranging the closets was a higher priority than just sitting with your partner and talking about the Rangers’ current slump. Depending on your understanding of the place of hockey in the hierarchy of the universe, this may seem meaningless and a chaotic misuse of time to you.
But the presumption that hanging clothes in closets is more pressing than hanging out with your partner needs to be challenged. It may feel chaotic to you because you believe that efficiency is next to Godliness, and that wasting time is DisOrderly. This needs to be questioned not because hockey is so important, but because your partner is.
While I usually root for Order over Chaos in the eternal conflict, I sometimes welcome Chaos as a necessary detour to reach higher levels of Order and complexity.
Using Order to Quell Internal Chaos
Order accounts for the urge that’s at the root of the compulsive personality. We experience Chaos with visceral discomfort: imperfections of any sort, broken rules, asymmetry, and loud, competing conversations in which no-one hears anyone can all constellate the experience of Chaos. And this discomfort activates energy to do something about it: complete the incomplete, perfect the imperfect, and correct the incorrect—despite any consequences.
This energy needs a productive outlet.
This is primal for us. We can’t simply talk ourselves out of it. Our best hope is to recognize that energy has been triggered by disOrder and try to ascertain exactly what it is that really needs to be remedied. Sometimes this might actually be about Chaos on the outside that needs our attention. But that’s always going to be there.
More importantly we need to develop the capacity to tolerate and even welcome Chaos on the outside, while honing the skill of attending to what feels chaotic on the inside.
Since creating Order is one of the superpowers of people with obsessive-compulsive personality, we can apply that to our internal reaction to “Chaos,” not just what seems like Chaos on the outside.
Learning the discrete skill of letting go is essential to making this switch.
Here are some examples that might not seem like they are about Chaos at first, but look closer and you may see that your lens projects assumptions about the myth of Chaos onto many different situations:
• If your partner’s spending seems out of control and chaotic to you, recall why frugality is important to you. A happy, secure family, perhaps? Would this particular episode of spending really get in the way of that? Or could it be that it’s your frugality gets in the way of both family harmony and your own comfort? With the same energy that you’d like to curb your partner’s spending, question whether it’s your reaction that’s more out-of-control.
• Therapy might feel like it invites Chaos so you’re reluctant to try it. After all, you would need to trust someone that’s out of your control, and it might release disturbing feelings–both of which could feel chaotic to a mindset hell-bent on maintaining order. But might this be more about your anxiety about delegating to others, and a fear of emotions getting out of control? Is it possible that your current emotional status is worse than trying therapy?
• You may procrastinate rather than following through on projects and tasks because you imagine that the result will be better if you do it later. But what might actually be holding you back is that launching something from the realm of ideas to the realm of reality seems too chaotic to you. Is it possible that completion opens us to the imperfections of reality and the scrutiny of others? That may feel dangerously messy.
• You feel that your friend has been treating you badly, but you don’t tell them how you feel. Conflict feels chaotic so you avoid it. Instead you try mightily not to cause problems with this friend. But resentment is building. You fear losing their friendship, but since the Real You is no longer in the relationship, is it a real relationship? You may need to enlist your capacity to meticulously craft communication in an orderly way to save the real relationship.
• If emotions and passions seem chaotic to you, ask whether these particular feelings are actually dangerous, or perhaps might have just the right amount of Chaos in them to dissolve some of the rigidity that has robbed you of a richer life.
Making any of these shifts may feel like you’re handing over the wheel to Chaos, upsetting your usual approach to life. Could be, but I suspect that by this point you’ve already handed the wheel over to Order, and it drives you, rather than you driving it. And the idea that you are in control, is just a myth–in the worst sense.
Chaos is not always the real Villain. Sometimes it’s our reaction that causes the problems. Bringing consciousness to our participation in this larger story can help us to make better decisions about when we need to bring Order to Chaos, and when we’re all better off letting go and letting the forces of Chaos work their inevitable change.