Digital Doorbell Dread: If the Zoom bell makes you anxious, you’re not alone! 

I’m sneaking in some writing time this morning while our triplets are in remote school for the next hour. I’m happy for the breather—they’re currently occupied with some remote learning while I drink an entire hot coffee. Life is good!

They’re downstairs in our mudroom-turned-classroom, with all their school supplies, art projects, etc. contained in one room. It’s made a huge improvement over the crisis schooling set-up last year: the four of us at the kitchen table (right next to Dad’s office, no less!) shuffling through a seemingly endless fountain of printouts, workbooks, crayons, and homeschool art projects pouring all over the main living area of the house. 

In the first months of the pandemic, like many, I felt anxious a lot of the time. Global pandemics have a way of doing that to a person. 

But I realized another type of anxiety humming in the background. It took me a while to recognize what it was... 

Doorbell dread! 

It sounded crazy at first. After all, almost no one was ringing the doorbell in late March 2020. But that prickle of nerves was unmistakable if undefined. 

Then it hit me. The bright, cheerful :::bing bong!::: of a Zoom call connecting made my fingers tingle. 

And it’s not simply a matter of presentation. My house is fairly presentable these days— even something as awful as a global virus apparently has a silver lining— but even when things are looking fresh and well-maintained, the sound of a Facetime call still sets my teeth on edge. 

Contrary to the logic on social distancing, we’re actually inviting A LOT of people into our homes these days, at all hours, with sometimes zero warning. These digital drop-ins—with teachers, family, and friends— can put adult children of hoarders on high alert. You may not even realize it’s happening, but you feel the familiar sensation of tensed muscles, heightened awareness, or vigilance.

Doorbell Dread: The Struggle is Real

If you don’t know what doorbell dread is, you probably grew up in a pretty functional environment. But children of hoarders know that feeling: the supernatural crackle of anxiety that accompanies a knock or a ring, my head swiveling toward the door, mind racing. “Who are you and what do you want?” 

Like many relics of an adverse childhood, doorbell dread is the residual ache of an old injury that never totally healed. Even on days where my house is neat and my company is expected, I’m not the most relaxed host, and I spend my time with visitors in low-lying dread that they will find something lacking with my home or my housekeeping. 

Doorbell dread is both learned behavior and a symptom of our upbringing. As children, when outsiders are required to be in the home (for something mundane like a repair, an inspection, or a property tax assessment) we witness our hoarders panic, embarrassed and anxious about the intrusion of others and the condition of the home. Children steeped in this reaction to visitation then adopt the same anxiety about visitors (welcomed or otherwise); it becomes part of their adult emotional response. 

As children grow and understand that the condition of their home is not normal, they internalize the same fears of discovery and judgment, over time becoming adept at crafting the excuses and deferrals necessary to keep friends out of their home. That reflex to hide doesn’t necessarily go away when the “danger” is over and they’ve left the hoard. 

  • For some, the reaction is concrete: Children who grow up in hoarding often don’t learn the practical skills to keep up a home, so clutter and mess follow them into their adult lives, effectively repeating the cycle to some degree. 
  • For others, a kind of house dysphoria takes over: adult children of hoarding may perceive their homes as dirty even when the home is clean and presentable. The anxiety of being found lacking will not allow them to relax in their homes. 

Whatever camp you fall into, the anxiety of visitors can rob you of the joys of socializing and enjoying visits. The “intrusion” of digital visitors can cause the same feelings, especially when it happens unexpectedly (for instance, one of the kids jumping on with friends and running around the house with the iPad.) 

Ding, Dong, Ditch the Dread: A Few Tips for Coping

With the world still neck-deep in a pandemic, Zoom isn’t going anywhere for a while. Between school, work, and regular social calls, the digital doorbell is here to stay. But you CAN employ some skills to quiet your anxiety and reduce your house dysphoria. 

1. Designated Zoom Areas

My mudroom/classroom? It’s not just a cute idea. It’s a coping mechanism for me. The “classroom” is a place where all their school items can be stored, they can work freely, converse on calls, and generally have the run of the place. 

The classroom takes 10 minutes to tidy up before a “call day” and it’s completely separate from the main living areas of the house. That creates a nice divide between “school time” and “home time” for the kids… while keeping all their noise and construction paper corralled in one area. 

Now, I know not everyone has a room they can free up for Zoom. If space is limited, creating a designated corner or area for class calls is a great idea. It allows you to create a controlled environment, making management of the space much easier. It also lets your kids know where everything is when it’s time to get to work, and creates the right frame of mind for studying.

2. Do a “Zoom Zip”

If your house isn’t feeling up to snuff, take a minute in the quiet parts of the day to tackle the areas concerning you. I do this in the classroom downstairs before every “online” school day, and it helps me to feel confident in the space, but it can work for any space in your home where you’ll be hosting digital “company.”

  • This could be as simple as getting countertops clean and items put away where they belong. 
  • Set yourself a timer if that helps, or make yourself a VERY short priority to-do list (Ideally less than 5 items) so you can focus a quick and cozy effort on alleviating your anxiety. 
  • Also, DON’T BE A HERO. Employ help! Get your kids to pick up the toys or items that don’t belong in the common areas. Deputize your spouse to do one of your line items. This can be hard when we may have shouldered these burdens alone as kids. It makes it harder to ask for help, but EVEN more important to do so! 

At the end of the timer or task list, move on to tip #3 below. 

3. Use a Dispassionate Eye

Sometimes we need a fresh perspective on our space, especially when our anxiety isn’t based on our reality. If your home or main living space is neat and you STILL feel anxiety around digital visits? Get an objective picture of things—literally! 

Snap a photo of the room. Does it look neat, is everything in place? Are there any areas bothering you? You may find it’s just one or two items causing you to dwell on imperfection. 

Do what you need to bring the space up to a comfortable standard for you (This does NOT mean obsessing with a mop and bucket, carpet cleaner, etc.) 

Remember, what we see is usually far more detailed than what others see when viewing a home. Use this test: When was the last time you remember judging someone for things in their home or in the background of an image. I’m guessing nothing leaps to mind. Take a moment to remind yourself that the inner critic we harbor about our homes lives in just one place—in our perception. Those around you aren’t scrutinizing you NEARLY as much as you’re scrutinizing yourself, so give yourself some grace. 

4. Set Good Zoom Boundaries

Establishing good boundaries can be difficult for those of us who grew up in hoarding. Both physical and emotional boundaries may not have been recognized in our childhood, making it harder to set them for ourselves as adults. But there is nothing wrong with laying down how and when video can be used in your home. 

For social calls, for instance, you may require that conversations stay limited to the living or the dining room, and that calls are a seated activity (no running around). For teens, you can also insist that calls with friends can only take place in bedrooms that have been tidied up (a good incentive for tweens and teens who value privacy if not tidying). Obviously, these rules are a complement to any other guidelines your set for digital devices in your home. 

Setting good boundaries lets others know what’s expected of them while giving you the assurance that you won’t be subject to unexpected pop-ins to your bathroom, office, or bedrooms! 

And while the inclination to hide is quite familiar to those who grew up hoarded, it’s important to acknowledge that this has nothing to do with the condition of your home. Whether the room is neat as a pin or needs a little attention, you should be able to expect and enjoy privacy in certain parts of your home. 

Making peace with the Zoom era takes some work and some kindness toward ourselves. But with a little effort and some positive self-talk, we can feel more confident with inviting people into our homes whether in person or virtually! 

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