How to maintain good personal hygiene.
December 9, 2009 9:32 AM   Subscribe

Need any help I can get overcoming a lifelong major set of bad habits, all related to personal hygiene.

This is a really big question for me. I don't know if anyone else can help me, but I have to try.

I have terrible personal hygiene. I don't remember learning good hygiene habits as a child. My mother was severely mentally ill (and had iffy hygiene herself, and continues this way).

The extent of my problems, and I will be very honest: I can go months without showering. I brush my teeth maybe two or three times a year. I've never flossed. My hair is always tangled and full of lint because I only do it when I shower. I rarely wash my clothes. From grade school to my first job, authority figures (teachers, counselors, boss) would pull me aside about my BO. The shame wasn't enough to overcome it.

If you're wondering how I can live like this and still interact with the world, well, for the most part I don't. I typically go weeks without leaving the house, and then only if I have to (and often looking like a bum). That's been due to a number of mental and physical health problems, combined with natural isolation tendencies. I have done a lot of work with therapy and medications over the last few years, and I will continue to do so. My therapist and I agree that I have taken comfort in the way my lack of hygiene sets me apart and protects me from relating to others, even as it has hurt me. It's one of many isolation and invisibility techniques I have perfected since I was a little girl. I feel like I am at a point in my life when I have reasons to leave the house and be a part of the world. But I don't know how to overcome this hygiene issue.

Right now I'm superdirty. I can get myself past this. I can get all cleaned up and a few scrubbings later I'll be presentable. I can even maintain it for a week or two. I've done this many times before, but I just can't feel really whole if I don't maintain it. I don't know if I can or if I can't. I don't know if I've really changed this time, if I'm really ready. I don't feel like I have to get it perfect this time, and I can deal with setbacks, but I still want to do my best.

So I am asking if anyone has any advice or experiences or anything to share that can help me make the best at changing for good. I can be emailed at
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (43 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Make a list of things you do every day. Do them. Don't miss a day. If you do miss a day, get right back on track the next day as if nothing happened.

There is no punishment -- not doing what you know you need to be doing is its own punishment. You are already punishing yourself by not cleaning up, so why would you punish yourself more?

There is no reward -- doing what you know you need to be doing is its own reward. You are already rewarding yourself by cleaning up.

The reason most people get up and do this before breakfast is so that it's all out of the way for the day. If we spent all day avoiding or overthinking or dreading it, we'd probably be a lot dirtier too.
posted by hermitosis at 9:38 AM on December 9, 2009 [12 favorites]

Maybe try to gradually move yourself into it?

Take December 17th and make it your clean day. This is the day you wash your clothes, brush your teeth, bathe, and brush your hair.

Then do so again on January 17th.

Then try doing it on feburary 10th and then again on feburary 24th.

Slowly work up to once a week.
posted by royalsong at 9:41 AM on December 9, 2009

I can get myself past this. I can get all cleaned up and a few scrubbings later I'll be presentable. I can even maintain it for a week or two. I've done this many times before.

So you can do this for up to two weeks? That's great because you only need to do it five times in a row - Monday through Friday - to fit in with 'normal'. Soap + water + 10 minutes. Then you can take two days off before doing it again for another 5 days in a row (which is, uh... what my friend does). Short, manageable chunks.

It will be very odd at first, a big change always is. I mean, look how hard it is just to get out from under some warm covers in the morning... So own this new thing. Buy a new toothbrush and a soap you like. Figure out what times work for you to bathe, some go early or late. Some prefer baths. Some prefer lots of specialty soaps and lotions. Some people linger, some dash in and out. Figure out if you like hot or cold.
posted by anti social order at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2009

The reason most people get up and do this before breakfast is so that it's all out of the way for the day. If we spent all day avoiding or overthinking or dreading it, we'd probably be a lot dirtier too.

In my experience, this is absolutely completely and totally true. I work from home, and frequently wake up, make coffee, and work in my PJs all day. If I have not done the minimum (shower, cleanish clothes, brush teeth) in the morning, it won't happen all day. On the days where I don't, like today, I feel sleepier, less motivated, dull, not-smart, etc. all day, and am very unlikely to leave the house for any reason whatsoever. It's depressing.

A lot of people find that nice shower in the morning really helps them wake up, too. I find this especially true when I use a shampoo that has some kind of mint smell. It feels like it gets in the pores of my scalp and just makes me feel alert, and awake. If you can take "being clean because I should" out of the equation just a little bit, and maybe recast it as "awesome morning wakeup experience" maybe that will be a little bit more motivating?
posted by bunnycup at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2009 [10 favorites]

Is there anyone who you can enlist to help you with this? It doesn't have to be in person, it can be someone online.

If you can find someone, here's what you do: every time you do one of the things you're supposed to do, IM them or send them a text message. Their job is to respond and let you know that you've done well. If you miss one, or a few, or a whole day full, IM or text message them and let them know. They then can tell you "That's okay, tomorrow's another day."

It might seem strange at first ("Why on earth would anyone want to know about all of these things?"), but this kind of feedback, even if you know it's coming, can be incredibly helpful in changing habits.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I can't really relate to the problem, but what hermitosis (heh) said rings true. I usually stumble into the shower and brush my teeth etc while barely awake. The shower is probably the thing that begins my "waking up."

But on (rare) days when some work problem or surprise phone call or building fire alarm wakes me, though, I'm forced by circumstances to wake myself up by some other means: usually panic or coffee, or both. And on those days, I almost never do shower or brush my teeth until night.

Because now I'm already dressed, I'm already thinking. I'm "already up and doing things", so now the idea of doing the showering and hair and teeth cleaning just seems like a giant chore... and it's easier to just skip it.

So my experience, here, suggests another vote for: make it part of the early morning routine, before you have too much time to think about it.
posted by rokusan at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2009

Can you find something to reward yourself with? Like 5 clean days = a movie night for yourself?

Maybe a special calendar to track these achievements would also help?

It may sound childish, but there is a reason that calendar tracking and rewards work for children.

Good luck and congratulations for working on this.
posted by k8t at 9:58 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

One suggestion to add to what others are saying: Find what enjoyment you can in the water.

Make it a point to notice the relaxation and massage aspects of it when you're next in the shower. Take a little extra time; perhaps run the shower a little hotter. Consider getting a showerhead with pulsating and other varying types of spray.

When showering, take some time (at least an extra 2 or 3 minutes) to do some basic massage of your long muscles in your back, arms, chest and legs. You don't have to know any massage skills; just do what's comfortable. Notice how much more relaxed the extra heat and moisture makes the muscles. When done, do a 5-second whole-body shake (arms, hands. torso) and feel how much more loose you are all over.

Pause after the water stops for a few seconds and notice the quiet. Then try to remember all of that the next time you step into the bathroom.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:09 AM on December 9, 2009

Break it down into small steps.

Back story, I'm Type II diabetic. After being diagnosed I had to radically change my eating habits. It was extremely overwhelming and I'd often slip, make mistakes, get frustrated and resort to bad habits. What helped a lot was my nutritionist advising me to just try to change a little bit at first, say working on changing just one meal at a time. So rather than trying to change everything I ate through out the day, I just focused on a single meal and learning to eat right for that one meal. It was still a bit hard, but it was SO much easier and there was much less of the "OMG I'M COMPLETELY FAILING" mindset, which I think is what you're suffering from.

So start small. Maybe just go from head to toe? Start with trying to keep your hair regularly washed, then move to your face, then neck, then torso. Try to get a general area clean, say washing it at least once a week. Don't worry about the rest of you, that can come later, but for now, just concentrate on dealing with that. You can do this anyway you want, say concentrate on the genital areas or go from the bottom up or extremeties (arms and legs) in, whatever. The point is to break it down into a small task which is much easier to deal with.

The other point is to not worry so much about it when you fail or mess up. It's going to happen, that's normal and natural 'cause change can be hard. Just recognize that it happened and try to prevent it from happening again. You can do this, it may take time and longer than you or society at large may like, but you can do this.

Good luck, I'm rooting for you!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:13 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

make the cleaning process and being clean as enjoyable as you can.

try soaps and/or shampoo that smell good to you. if you like scents, try buying or ordering from lush cosmetics. i love their solid bar shampoos.

if you're not a fan of heavy scents, go for less-scented stuff. i'm a big fan of kirk's castille soap because it makes me feel extra clean and doesn't have a strong scent. dr bronner's unscented gentle bar soap is also good.

also, if you're only showering once a week or less often, try to change the sheets right after you shower. getting into clean sheets to go to sleep after taking a shower that day is one of the underrated physical pleasures in life, i think.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:15 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

since it sounds like you don't have a job, or any other time restrictions, a helpful tip might be to do the showering/toothbrusing/etc as soon as you remember to do it, and not procrastinate. Work on the rigid schedule later.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:17 AM on December 9, 2009

Alternatively, you could shower the night before. Make it the last thing you do. Go to bed feeling proud of yourself for doing it. Wake up clean.

You can also try making your bathing time more rewarding for yourself. I love my detachable shower head. I love girly scented bath scrubs and bubbles and have made a hobby of finding and trying different kinds. I'm just dorky enough to be the same way about tooth-brushing. I try a different kind of toothpaste/brush every time I have to get a new one. Actually, I'm that way with laundry soap too. Heh. All of this reminds me that I'm doing it for me and not for other people, because if I were only making myself clean for other people, there wouldn't be much point. Especially when I'm doing freelance work and not leaving the apartment.
posted by katillathehun at 10:22 AM on December 9, 2009

I used to not brush my teeth regularly. I still resent having to do it sometimes, even though I know it's better for me, and I'll feel better after.

The trick for me is to take the thinking out of the equation. I don't even let myself decide whether I will brush my teeth before bed or not I just do. Routine is also part of it. I am less successful at brushing my teeth in the morning because my routine changes so drastically.

It can take a really long time to create new habits. Don't let that get you down. This may take some work, but you have your therapist to help.
posted by Gor-ella at 10:23 AM on December 9, 2009

Make a list of what you have to do in the morning.

1. Wake at 7:30
2. Shower 7:45
3. Brush Hair 7:55
4. Brush teeth 8:00
5. Do laundry 8:15

And so on. Tape it somewhere where you will see it 1st thing. Cross items off as you go. Make another copy for tomorrow and everyday.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:32 AM on December 9, 2009

Every time you eat, you have to brush your teeth. That's the new rule. Don't worry about any of the rest of it, just brush your teeth after each meal and snack. Failing to wash your hair won't have long term health effects, but neglecting your teeth will, so start with that. Once you're doing that every time, then you can move on to the bigger stuff.
posted by decathecting at 10:38 AM on December 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

Do you have anxiety about being clean? Do you feel exposed when you don't have that 'protective layer' that lets people see (and potentially) judge the 'real you'? I ask because it sounds like you may have some deeply rooted psychological issues, and possibly some genetic predispositions, that are directly related to your hygiene difficulties, and make this transition to regular healthy practices a much more complicated task than simply setting and escalating a routine.

I have a similar struggle with exercise. I have time to do it, need to do it, desire to achieve the results from it, everything I need to do it really. But I have some issues surrounding the sedentary mindset I was raised with and perpetuate in my head...makes getting out the door damn near impossible at times. My point is, I feel for you and I think I can relate, albeit in a very small, tangential way.

The key to this for you might be continued therapy, getting you to the point where you love yourself more and feel safe and secure enough to cultivate desires and habits that align with that self-care-driven mindset. To the point that this is a regular, ingrained part of your being. It sounds like this is where you want to be, so I think it's a matter of a healthy blend of cultivating that routine (some people upthread have suggested some good ways to start) and continuing to work through the thought patterns and bad feelings and whatnot that you've been carrying around for so many years. That second part is the bigger piece here.

Good luck and remember that all experience is progress, and all progress, in any direction, is experience.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2009

Honestly, when I normally shower I clean very basic areas, unless I feel particularly filthy from camping or some other activity. You can wash the face, the armpits, and the nether regions, and then get out. It doesn't have to be some huge production.

Since you're not so great on cleanliness, I would also recommend cutting your hair, as short hair is far easier to take care of.

Anecdotally, I always find it easier to clean up if I've got something I'm motivated to be clean for. Find something that you want to do that's outside of the house (it sounds like you already have) and use that motivation to help you get clean.
posted by scrutiny at 10:42 AM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I keep a toothbrush in the shower so that even if I manage to forget to brush the other two times a day (this happens less often since I started keeping a toothbrush in my bag), I still always brush at least once a day.

Now, I know this isn't going to help you right now when you can't even make it into the shower, but once you've got the showering routine down pat (and you will!), you can add the toothbrushing aspect.
posted by elsietheeel at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2009

I'm gonna go on a slightly different tack here, and recommend that you try something along the lines of psychomagic: I think maybe it's possible that your mind here somehow sees your mother's mental illness as a symbolic "stain" on you that you can't clean off, and that's why you have so much trouble with hygiene.

Hey, stranger things have happened, and I do believe we inherit a lot of our "Life Drama" almost directly from our parents and other anscestors through their social influence.

What I would do is make an effigy of my mother, perhaps out of a Barbie doll or something similar. I would dirty her up real well... then I would give her a nice cleansing bath, verbally forgive her for her mental illness, and then be done with it. And then, give yourself permission to be clean.

I know it sounds a lot New Agey, but it could help.
posted by Theloupgarou at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I hope there are suggestions here that will help you. But you might need more than just lifehacks or armchair therapy to get through this. You still haven't gotten better in this regard after years of therapy. Do you want to change this aspect of yourself? If so, then you should tell your therapist next time you see them. Ask them to help you work through this and come up with a plan for you to get better. If they can't, then switching therapists might be in order. Good luck.
posted by grouse at 11:12 AM on December 9, 2009

"The recluse bathes not out of duty to others, but out of selfish desire to enjoy one's own company".

Masturbate in the bath/shower. I'm not being flip, I'm quite serious.

That will ensure you stay for more than just a few seconds, it will make getting clean something to look forward to, and it is its own reward.

Or, if that's not your thing, then meditate or burn scented candles or install a nice stereo system in the bathroom or even hang a flatscreen TV on the wall across from the tub (bearing in mind usual precautions of electronics near water, etc etc I am not your electrician).

Buy a waterproof keyboard and read Metafilter while you bathe. Whatever gets you in there without it being negative or feeling like a waste of time.

If there are any friends or family in your life, they will be profoundly grateful. Do it for them if you can't do it solely for yourself. Not out of shame of yourself, out of respect for them.
posted by discountfortunecookie at 11:22 AM on December 9, 2009

Honestly I think your issue is you never actually developed the habit of hygiene. You are used to feeling dirty, and unused to cleaning up on a regular basis.

Make yourself a chart-thirty days long. Each day check off your hygiene-shower, toothbrushing, whatever. If you complete the thirty days reward yourself with something you really really want. I bet by then cleanliness will feel a bit more natural, and also by then you will begin reaping the benefits (feeling clean, etc. It really does feel nicer.)

You can do this!
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:37 AM on December 9, 2009

Considering keeping your hair short, so it won't tangle or attract lint (I have fairly short hair and rarely even need to use a comb). One less thing to worry about.

And treat yourself to some nice bedding (high-thread-count cotton sheets; maybe even flannel ones if it's cold where you live) so getting into a big, cozy, warm, clean bed feels like a reward.

If you don't have access to a washing machine, maybe you could take your clothes and bedding to the cleaner's and let them do your laundry for you. That's another layer of things not to worry about.
posted by vickyverky at 11:55 AM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mom went through a long "we're poor and can't afford soap and water" period, with punishments handed out for using those things "unnecessarily." My father's side of the family still tells stories about my visiting them on holidays: they got in a routine of seizing everything I brought with me at the door, and tossing me in a tub until my clothes had been washed and dried. It was the only way they could stand having me around, and make sure I wasn't bringing any uninvited guests.

I'm not sure our situations are comparable because I was quite ashamed the many times I got pulled out of class for the "are your parents neglecting you" speech, and I tend toward forgetting to clean as opposed to actually not wanting to be clean. But in case it can help, here's some hacks I've used to reach at least a socially-tolerable level:

- I have many sets of tweezers, nail clippers, nail files, and portable tooth picks (not toothpicks, but the little metal scrapers), placed basically anywhere I sit for any length of time. This is so I can mindlessly use these things while watching TV, surfing on the net, etc. I basically set myself up to replace other nervous habits with ones that are at least mildly productive.

- Once a week is "maintenance" day, where I force myself to do a complete once-over on myself. I clean more often than that (now), but I still have to force myself to do this once a week because if I don't, I forget "optional" things that really aren't. Folks at my workplace wondered if I was insane for a couple years, because I kept going from shaven to stubbled to bearded on a seemingly random basis instead of ever keeping a consistent length.

- I hate the morning shower, and have never taken it to it no matter how many times I try. What I've had to do is take baths, at night right before bed, and make them "relaxing" things instead of "cleaning" things. I bring in music to listen to, and make it a wind-down routine. If I take a bath without bothering with the "relaxing" part, then I just rush it and hate it.

- Gum and mints help with the teeth. I am happier when I'm carrying them, and not only do they directly help with the tooth/breath issues, but I find that they actually make me want to brush my teeth! It's easy to not want to brush when there's build up on teeth, but once they've been partially cleaned up, it actually becomes more irritating to have them "half-done" like that. I've been known to keep mouthwash in the kitchen, too.

- It also becomes more irritating to have things like my face and hands "half-done", so I put either washcloths or small packets of tissues practically everywhere in the house... as well as inside every bag, coat pocket, and drawer. It means there's always something near to use to wipe up any mess, or just a little oil off my face, that doesn't involve my pants, sleeves or the furniture. It's too easy to be mindlessly dirty without them otherwise, and as I said, once I clean that little bit, I start wanting to finish the job properly.

- I throw my dry dirty laundry right on the floor of my bedroom -- on purpose. I have a hamper, but it's only for wet/stained items because the laundry has to actually get in my way and annoy me so that I am compelled to do it (even though I own a perfectly capable washer and dryer). This usually happens on maintenance day, predictably.

But most important is this: try to find something else to use as your armor. It's likely that a big reason you can't stick with cleaning is because you feel so naked and vulnerable without that "armor" to keep people at a safe distance. I feel safer with a beard than without one, for instance... and I carry some combination of a wide-brimmed hat, long riding coat and shoulder bag in public at all times, because those things "buy" me extra personal space when in public. What works for you will differ... but you're probably not going to be successful at this without dealing with that issue first.
posted by Pufferish at 11:57 AM on December 9, 2009 [11 favorites]

It could be a broader issue about learning the skill of habit building. I'd start there, and then apply it to hygiene and a few other areas of your life (such as social activity, leaving the house, being timely, etc.).

Here are some habit-building resources to check out. Ignore the fact that some are aimed at children, as it seems like you missed out on picking this skill up when you were young -- it could be an important place to start.
  • Adapt this habit forming worksheet for your own needs OR simply buy the worksheet. I liked the addition of habit topics such as "Today I helped with and "This week I enjoyed as possible hopping off points with some of your larger concerns.
  • Explore the basic elements of How to Form a Good Habit.
  • Check out this nifty blog devoted to the topic of keeping goals on track and forming habits.
  • If you're analytical, why not try using Daytum to log your criteria and track your outcomes? In a similar vein, check out Joe's Goals.
Congrats on your efforts and keep up the good work.
posted by cior at 12:01 PM on December 9, 2009 [9 favorites]

I agree with others who've suggested making it into a mindless routine. Write down a list (minimal: shower, brush teeth, comb hair) and follow each step as soon as you get out of bed. Also, try the suggestion for scented or otherwise luxurious bath items if you can; I love ginger and citrus and mint scents, and have dozens of bath products to rotate around (scrubs, moisturizing body washes, etc). So try to make it enjoyable.

Also, one other thing would be maybe if you scheduled something you had to do outside the house each week. Not sure what your work situation is, but if you have the time you could schedule a once per week volunteer gig (tutoring children, sorting food at a food bank, whatever level you are comfortable with and would be most likely to stick with). If the everyday routine is too daunting, maybe just start with a shower/teethbrushing/hair combing once per week on the day you have your scheduled outing. Volunteer work makes you feel good, too.

Best of luck to you; you can do this! You deserve happiness, just repeat that to yourself until you believe it.
posted by JenMarie at 12:05 PM on December 9, 2009

Just wondering how the rest of your living habits you vacuum? Do the dishes? Wash your sheets? Do your laundry? Generally keep your living area picked up? I have problems motivating myself to get in the shower because I HATE being cold and inevitably, I'm always cold getting out of the shower. However, when the rest of my apartment is clean, I don't like being the only dirty thing it in. It makes me feel awesome to have a clean me and a clean living space :) Cleaning your house or apartment first might make cleaning yourself a little less daunting and may make you want to match your surroundings.
posted by whitetigereyes at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2009

I have to repeat the suggestion to cut your hair short. I have a LOT of hair, and have had it quite short (about the length of a trendy yuppie boy) all the way to halfway down my back, and hygiene is infinitely easier when it's very short. Keeping it short through regular visits to the salon helped my keep my hair in order through a bit of social pressure, too. Having short hair might be scary to you, since you may use your hair as a barrier or shield, but consider that with short hair, you can easily wear hats! You also barely have to brush it, it dries in two minutes, you use much less shampoo and conditioner, and making it look "nice" is as complicated as putting on a headband or parting it to one side.

Continuing on the idea of short hair for ease of maintenance, try making hygiene routines as easy as possible. Cut it down and simplify things, do certain steps ahead of time, and really cut out any of the complicated stuff so that when you *do* accomplish them, it's easier to do it again the next day (or week, whatever) because it's less of a production. For example: You may feel societal pressure to shave your legs and under your arms. Don't. It's totally fine to be unshaven as a woman, and it's a whole bunch of products, techniques, and time that you shouldn't bother yourself with until you have basic cleanliness down pat.

Being a woman with good hygiene is very different from being a man with good hygiene, at least in America. We get a lot of crappy double standards and are bombarded with conflicting information on what is and isn't acceptable. A lot of the advice up-thread mentioning getting nice soaps and whatnot to increase the pleasure of your experience functions on the assumption that you want to feel pampered and feminine, or self-congratulating. This could be true! And I certainly ascribe to it in my own personal ablutions. But honestly, cleaning oneself is a chore, just like doing the dishes. Everything beyond the basic functionality of being *clean* is just an affectation that you can choose to add later. Things like having nice nails, or white teeth, or wearing makeup, or smelling like lavender, all of that is stuff piled on top that and you can safely bypass until you're comfortable, and then you can just do one at a time, if at all.
posted by Mizu at 12:59 PM on December 9, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've had some mild issues with this due to depression. What I have found helps is to make it really, really enjoyable for myself. Buy nice toiletries that you enjoy using, and have fun shopping for them. Don't just go to the pharmacy, but check out some hippie shops that have handmade soaps and natural toothpastes etc etc etc. It's kind of a wonderland out there.

Put a portable music player in the bathroom and listen to music and/or sing while you bathe or shower. (For some reason, this one really does it for me -- helps me do the dishes, too.)

Also, keep your bathroom clean so it's enjoyable to use. I hate cleaning the bathroom, so I use that Tilex Fresh Shower spray, disinfecting toilet tablets, and I keep a roll of paper towels + all purpose spray cleaner in the bathroom for easy cleaning when it occurs to me. If housework is a barrier to your hygiene at all, you might consider getting some help with it from friends/family, or hiring someone to clean.

Brushing my teeth gets to be a real struggle when I am sick or depressed. What helped is that 1) I bought mint floss that I like using and 2) I got used to the "clean" feeling that came right after brushing + flossing + it has become its own reward. I might not do the entire routine twice a day (might only do the brushing part in the morning), but I do it at least once a day, consistently, which is a huge improvement.

I got a good haircut from a professional, and it looks nice when I keep it clean and combed and "fixed" (and is also less work than trying to make straggly hair look halfway decent), so it's a joy to do those things.

I also bought myself some nice, new clothes that I really enjoyed putting on and going outside in. Not necessarily trendy, but colours I like, fabrics that feel nice, and of a style that I really think of as my own.

I enjoy how I look these days, and I have enjoyable things in my grooming routine (like special perfume oils) that make me look forward to getting dressed and presentable in the morning.

Overall, the most important thing is probably to *start small.* Look at where you're at now, and make your first goal ridiculously easy to meet. It's not a race -- you've gone for so long like this that it's more important to build a really solid foundation for new habits, even if it takes a while, rather than go whole-hog all at once and then relapse after a short time.

Also -- this should have less to do with shame and external "shoulds," and should have more to do with how it makes you feel. You need to build habits in such a way that they provide you with *real satisfaction.* Hygiene is its own reward once you become accustomed to how it feels -- it's not something you are obligated to do. Feeling obligated will only make you feel resentful and, likely, rebellious.

In order to do this, focus your overt efforts on *setting up the conditions within which* the desired habit will occur. That means making a plan to go shop for toiletries you need. Making sure the house is clean enough so you can clean yourself. Buying laundry soap and dryer sheets and getting coins, if necessary.

Then, don't FORCE things with the actual hygiene behaviours. With those, start tiny, tiny, tiny, make them enjoyable somehow, and be prepared to be patient and forgiving with yourself.

Good luck!
posted by Ouisch at 1:09 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It might also help to cut out steps and get two-in-ones whenever possible: shampoo + conditioner-in-one, deodorant soap, laundry detergent with bleach alternative added. If all the "pleasurable" things feel too fussy, don't worry about them. It's a matter of taste.
posted by Ouisch at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2009

Make a list of all the things you need to do, and do one each day. Brush your teeth on Monday, shower and wash hair on Tuesday, change your sheets on Wednesday, laundry on Thursday, wash face on Friday, floss and rinse on Saturday, etc. It'll be better than what you're doing now, and maybe eventually you'll like feeling clean. It's really a great feeling!

Also, try all the strategies that people mentioned to you here - even if you fall of the wagon in 2 days, at least you've had 2 days of being clean, and you can see which works better for you and which doesn't work at all.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2009

(Oh, and if you are having trouble leaving the house to go shopping, even, look at online pharmacies. For the most part you can get anything you need there, and it can be fun to browse to get ideas. Look at the packages that come in the mail as little gifts to yourself.)
posted by Ouisch at 1:15 PM on December 9, 2009

I'm an ADD person and I have minor issues with wanting to shower. One of my problems is time management... I just don't feel like taking the time to do a full routine every single day. I generally shower about every other day, and on the days in between I "wash up", which entails taking a washcloth and hitting all the necessary areas: face, underarms, nethers front and rear. Then deodorant and clean clothes. Hair goes in a ponytail if it's less than presentable down, or I do a quick "dry" shampoo with cornstarch. Maybe on days you just can't face doing the whole routine, hitting the basics will keep you presentable and non-stinky.

My other issue with showering is sensory... I HATE being cold and wet, and dealing with wet hair. For awhile I wore my hair very short for just that reason, it dried quickly and I didn't have to fuss with it. The cold-wet thing I dealt with by buying a terrycloth bathrobe to use instead of a towel. I put it on the second I step out of the shower so I don't have to stand there and freeze while drying off. The robe soaks up the water just like a towel would.

One other thing I didn't see mentioned above that might help a little... get yourself an extra-strength deodorant and use it after every shower or wash-up. Mitchum is one I've heard of but there are probably others. A really good deodorant may allow you to skip at least one day of washing without getting funky.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:18 PM on December 9, 2009

I have never had success maintaining a change that I didn't incorporate into a daily routine. With time, it's what allows the doing to be mindless, and easy to approach. Eventually, it feels wrong to not do the thing. Routine has a powerful momentum.

Small steps and gradual approach are important for making any big change doable.

Here is how you can reconcile jumping into a daily routine without overwhelming yourself: pick the easiest, least threatening, quickest-accomplished thing, and do that every day. When that begins to be comfortable, and when you feel you're ready, bump it up or add another thing.

Example: if brushing your teeth intimidates you least, and seems to be the thing that requires the least amount of time and energy, start with that. Brush once a day, at the same time every day. Make it quick; you can build up brushing time and even add flossing in the future, when you're ready. If it feels like what you want to do next, add showering. Make it quick. Maybe start with just soaping your body off. You can add hair-washing and combing later on.

Help yourself by utilizing your current routine and structure. Do you take pills every day? Put your toothbrush on top of your pill containers, so that you must brush your teeth before popping the pills. If you don't take pills, do you access a particular item every day? A drawer holding clothes? A pot? Put your toothbrush there, in your way, to be used first.

You can't move your tub in the way, but maybe you can use a representation, such as a bar of soap. Once you put your hand on that bar of soap to move it out of the way, instead carry it into the shower and use it quickly. Put it back immediately after.

Acknowledge each success when you do it. Tell yourself, "I just did X" and pat yourself on the back for it. Mark it down on a calendar or a list.

Like others here, I find doing things at the very start of the day to be much easier. Anxiety and over-thinking haven't had a chance to build, yet.

Brainstorm about things that will trip you up, and make a plan for how to avoid or overcome them. Do everything you can to make the way easy on a daily basis. The person suggesting you cut your hair is dead-on.

The first two or three months of each thing are going to be the hardest. Push yourself through them. Don't tell yourself you can skip one day. Don't make decisions or take actions that make doing these things harder. Don't get overconfident and lax. I have a mantra: "It will not be easier tomorrow unless I do it today. It will be more difficult tomorrow if I skip it today."

You mentioned you've fully cleaned up before. You might like the feel of getting that out of the way, to start with a clean slate before approaching the first thing and encourage you to start in earnest. You will get dirty again while you gradually build up, and that's okay if it doesn't discourage you. If you think that watching yourself get dirty again while you're making gradual steps, then don't do the big clean-up first.

Finally, you've considered what rewarding feelings neglecting your hygiene gives you. Personal comfort, security, and assertion seem to fall into that. It's important to find ways to maintain those feelings as you let go of the old behavior.
posted by moira at 1:34 PM on December 9, 2009

I've had some (admittedly much smaller) hygiene things in the past that I still struggle with - namely, keeping a clean room and doing my laundry - and I realized pretty recently in therapy that I don't always do those things because I don't think I deserve them. I don't always love myself enough to do a good job of taking care of me.

If you were to see yourself as a little kid - still living with your mom, lonely, unwashed - wouldn't you want to take care of her? Scrub her up, get her a hot meal, make sure she was comfy in clean clothes? You can do that now, for yourself, and it is exactly the same thing.

No matter what your life has been like in the past, no matter how you feel about yourself, you deserve to be clean and warm with silky hair and freshly-laundered clothes. I promise you, you deserve it. So toss a load of laundry in the washer - just start with a little one - and then sit down and watch some TV.

After you stick the clothes in the dryer, go take that little girl and toss her in the shower. Your clothes will be all warm when you get out. Have a mug of cocoa and feel proud of yourself. You earned it.
posted by harperpitt at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2009 [7 favorites]

nthing short hair - right now mine's like Natalie Portman's in the prison part of V for Vendetta. this means you can wash it with shampoo, bar soap, dish soap, or whatever, and it all looks the same and smells clean and dries fast. hats are great if you still want a face defense. I have like fifty baseball hats and I wear them backward if I want everyone to see my eyes or forward and pulled low if not.

toothbrush in the shower is good too, unless showering's the hard part. in that case, toothbrush where it's easiest to get to. also nthing prioritizing teeth, because when they go, it's painful, expensive and demoralizing, not to mention a major contributor to other health problems.

finally, most of all, nthing forgiveness and perseverence when you miss a day. habits are hard to establish and you must thank yourself for your good effort every day that you succeed, and allow yourself to try again with no penalty every time you slip.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:03 PM on December 9, 2009

Do you wash your dishes? Put your toothbrush and a bottle of Listerine in the kitchen, and clean your teeth along with the rest of the eating utensils.

If you spend that long at home, I'm guessing you spend a lot of time online. Somewhere out there (I read about it once, but can't find it with google easily) is a simple program that shuts down your browser (or all internet access) on a timer for a certain length of time after being used nonstop for a certain length of time. If you can find this (or something like it), install it and set it to shut down for 20 minutes every 3 hours (or whatever). When it shuts you out for 20 minutes, just step away and do something you've been meaning to do (shower, brush teeth, vacuum a room, tidy a few shelves, rearrange a cabinet, etc). It might be hard to establish and maintain a boring routine you're not motivated for (like brushing/showering when you wake up if you're not going anywhere) but doing something (anything) for 20 minutes here and there is easier, especially when you get to choose what you do. Boredom will lead you to throw some shower/toothbrushing into the mix. If you don't leave the house much, you don't have much of a routine compared to people with a M-F/9-5. You've got to work with the routine you have. 3 hours is enough time to read Metafilter or play Diablo. 20 minutes is short enough to not watch TV.
posted by K.P. at 4:31 PM on December 9, 2009

Somewhere out there (I read about it once, but can't find it with google easily) is a simple program that shuts down your browser (or all internet access) on a timer for a certain length of time after being used nonstop for a certain length of time.

Workrave for Windows/Linux and AntiRSI for Mac OS X. I endorse this method—many simple chores get done for me while I am on an enforced rest break.
posted by grouse at 4:47 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Some good advice above. Scientists have actually looked into how we form good habits. They found that it takes an average of 66-days of repeating the task to make the habit stick. There's a write-up here.

They noted that missing a day here and there did not matter too much (so don't sweat it).
They also noted though that the harder a habit was, the longer it took to become automatic. So for example, getting into the habit of drinking a glass of water every day was quick to accomplish, but getting the habit of doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast took longer. I imagine that having a wash/brush would fall between these extremes.

Good luck!
posted by jonesor at 5:25 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would echo all these possible solutions, plus add this:

When you are sitting there and have that "ugh, I really should take a shower" moment, what pops into your mind as a reason not to? Is it being naked, or cold, or exposed, or ... what? Is it a "well, if I have to take a shower, that means I have to get all the dirty clothes out of the tub and find a towel and find new underpants to wear", then yeah, creating and sticking to good habits it a good thing. If you really can't define what it is, you probably should try harder to come up with a reason.

(Doesn't even really have to be THE reason, either. Just something to fight against. Like say, clean towels. If you make sure you always have clean towels and underpants ready to go, that's one of your barriers torn down. If you are still having problems, try and come up with a different barrier to break down. Eventually, you will probably convince yourself that even though you never actually figured it out, there really aren't any reasons left to not shower.)
posted by gjc at 6:32 PM on December 9, 2009

I have a trick for dealing with getting out of the shower in the winter. Before turning off the water, turn it so it's a little cooler than what it was. It doesn't have to be cold, or even cool, just cooler than the temperature you were using.

Then step out into the terrycloth robe (as mentioned above) and into comfy slippers. Showering in the winter is not so awful this way.

Also, I use a shower chair (like for the infirm) to sit and shower. It was recommended that I use one after some abdominal surgery and even though I'm healed (and have been for 5 years), I grew to like the shower chair. Sitting down makes it more relaxing while not seeming to be so overwhelming as bubble baths are (because i inevitably have to clean the tub after to get rid of the residue.

Best of luck.
posted by daneflute at 12:56 PM on December 10, 2009

You sound really frustrated, disappointed in yourself, and hopeless. Well, you are working on it, and I think you should be proud of how hard you are working. It was a good idea (and brave!) to ask us for suggestions. I'm going to throw out some practical ideas for smelling and looking better. I also suggest that you look for role models who aren't squeaky model advertising person clean, and who aren't really really dirty. Like, it's totally cool to only shower twice a week or once a week. It's totally cool to not do your laundry all the time as long as you do it often enough. Nobody shaves every day all happy and with sparkling rainbows of colors and perfect makeup.

Some product links to, I don't make money off of them. I made a list on there that you can use if you email me, I will give you the password. Some is "kid" oriented because I'm a nanny, and because I just like using kid stuff. Sorry if you already know all of these things, but I think that a lot of people who don't learn from their parents miss out on the little, specific things.

--Cornstarch/baby powder, if that doesn't work out you can look for dry shampoo
--Cetaphil, you can keep on your desk and use without water
--Aveeno soap bar, or body wash, gentle so your skin won't get dry and tight
--Flushable Wipes, it's basically a washcloth that you can flush! DON'T just use it on your butt, you can use it on your armpits, feet, face, anywhere. I would use one per area, though. Or use it on your face last! ;)
--Detangling spray, if your hair gets gnarly use this and comb from (youtube)the bottom up. When she gets to a tangle, she combs from the bottom of the tangle, not the top. She has crazy long hair! Or you could use a vacuum.
--Vitamins, they are delicious so you eat more of them.
--Toothpaste without mint. I frickin' hate mint!
--Antiperspirant, you have to make sure you use this instead of just deodorant
--Toothbrush, this one looks entertaining. Use the softest kind, it won't be as hard on your gums (I know they get sensitive if you don't brush for a while).
--Floss, I just get cheap stuff that doesn't look like some dude made it in his garage. Not like there's anything wrong with that.

--Cheap cotton underwear, tshirts, towels, and socks. Just go all out and buy a lot from Amazon or something. If you change your underwear a lot, you can get away with washing jeans etc. less often. If it's a shirt and you sweat on it you have to change it but if you have a lot you'll have less stress about running out. Try to get out of that mentality where you're always running out of everything.

Okay, your period and your lady bits and other woman-specific stuff. TMI time so anyone who knows me in person has to stop reading now, thanks.

Pubic hair is totally fine, but if you trim it, it will help keep things cleaner and less smelly. You can use normal scissors, be careful though, and don't try to cut it too short. Just trim it a little bit.

Shaving your legs and armpits is really overrated. Only do your legs if you're really into it. Your armpits, once a week keeps the hair in check which is good because, like pubic hair, it traps smells. I can't recommend a razor because I just buy the cheapest thing.

Periods, not my favorite thing in the world. If you can't shower all the time, this is probably the time to focus on. The wipes I mentioned above will help between showers. Make sure you get into all the cracks and crevices eventually. I use these cups (they can be tricky), tampons, AND these liners/pads at the same time. Oy! You don't have to do that of course, you can mix and match. Put a towel underneath you at night if you tend to leak onto the sheets, easier to wash the towel than the sheets.

I have never figured out how to do laundry on a regular basis, so I have people come pick it up at my apartment, wash it, and then deliver it back. Wish I could help you more with that. If you have your own washer/dryer, you can always put the clothes right in the washer when you take them off...don't forget them in the washer after they're wet, though. Don't worry too much about separating things, just put everything in on warm water and dry it on gentle.

I will pick out a few other people's comments that I especially agree with.

ocherdraco explained a good way to get help from someone else--help is good.
pufferish's advice about keeping hygiene tools everywhere works for me, this is especially useful for floss.
grouse suggested that you rethink your therapeutic relationship and ask for more concrete suggestions from your therapist, I agree.
serene empress dork makes a great point about just doing the basics i.e. washcloth and using corn starch, there are also dry shampoos you can purchase; a robe is a great idea, I too hate being cold (and have the ADD!)
harperpitt is right--you are the person who cares for you now. How can you show that care to yourself, in a way that is easy and pleasant for you? Hygiene doesn't have to be the answer, it can be anything.
posted by kathrineg at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

You say it's a lifetime of bad habits. Are there things/thoughts that you actively do to avoid getting clean? I.e. do you have the urge to brush you hair but then you actively tell yourself that you shouldn't do it? If this is the case, a routine and a schedule might be counter-productive because a routine gives you a lot of time to talk yourself out of doing it. If so, the best approach is to make it so that you can't think about it too much, which means sneaking up on yourself ! with a washcloth the second you get the urge.
posted by kathrineg at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2009

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