The Pressure of the Big Other and The Housewife's disease

Does this happen to you? You start a task. While doing this, another related to-do pops up in your mind. You make a mental note to do it later. Then a second related to-do task pops up. And then a third. Your mental notes are growing. Soon these to-dos popping up are not directly related (or even remotely related).

Each of these tasks that pop up have two qualities. - It is ‘other’ than what you are doing - It is always Bigger, More Important, More Urgent than what you are doing.

All these Big Others stack up and put Pressure on you - so much that you stop doing, enjoying, focusing and completing on that one task you started, and get derailed to another. You have just experienced The pressure of the Big Other

As this continues, at some point one of two things happen.

  • You abandon what you are doing to take on something which popped up. And the cycle continues.

  • Or you get overwhelmed - your body tenses up: your mind gets agitated: you feel righteous about being so busy, you complain to yourself about how little time you have, you start a self-pity-party or a resentment-show about how you are alone with no-one to help. Your particular play may vary.

Well, this phenomenon has a name. The houswife’s disease, coined by Doris Lessing.

“The feverish need to get this or that done — what I call the housewife’s disease: “I must buy this, ring So-and-so, don’t forget this, make a note of that” — had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in. Sometimes I achieved it by sleeping for a few minutes, praying that the telephone would be silent. Sleep has always been my friend, my restorer, my quick fix, but it was in those days that I learned the value of a few minutes’ submersion in … where? And you emerge untangled, quiet, dark, ready for work.”
— Doris Lessing

I first came across this framing of “The pressure of the Big Other” around 8 years ago in some podcast or blog post, the source I don’t remember. I would love to attribute it to the correct source if anyone knows about it, let me know.

April 18, 2021