Hoarding tends to trigger stress, depression and anger in the families and friends of the one who hoards.
I suggest that hoarding — being out of control with accumulated stuff — is the reverse image of being rich in what matters.
Hoarding creates suffering, even though it is triggered by abundance. Rotting garbage, rodent and insect infestations, shame, and social isolation accompany compulsive hoarding. This problem needs our compassion, and some skills and tips for addressing it.
This is part one of a two-part series on hoarding. I’ve used my M.S. in counseling psychology to compile a post on understanding hoarding – that’s today’s post — and dealing with it in compassionate, constructive ways – that will be Part II.
About a million people in the U.S. are compulsive hoarders. But it’s safe to assume that tens of millions have some hoarding behavior that creates problems for themselves, their families and those around them. And, arguably, almost the entire First World has clutter that cuts into our quality of life.
Speaking of clutter! I don’t mind admitting that I have occasionally paid a pleasant, competent person about $25/hour to help me declutter and organize my home’s papers, cupboards and closets. The decluttering brought me instant emotional relief. When I was younger and poorer, I bartered, i.e. helped a friend tame her stuff, and received her help in return. (The other person’s stuff is always much less confusing than our own. Toss. Keep. Goodwill. Repeat.) For the record, I’ve been told by my helpers I am not a hoarder. My point is that I can still empathize: stuff is hard to deal with.
Hoarding can be surprisingly hard to identify, in both ourselves and others. A prime reason is that our culture is materialistic, and encourages us to buy lots of stuff, and/or to get stuff for free, whether or not we truly need the items. Even our political and business leaders indicate to us that a healthy economy depends on high consumption, overlooking the fact that possessions are needy things that use up our time, money, energy and living space (and also the earth’s limited resources).
For that very reason, be alert for the symptoms of hoarding. For example, are possessions crowding out usable living space? Is a storage unit costing, over time, far more than the value of its contents? Is clutter blocking essential activities like cooking or bathing by filling up spaces like sinks and tubs? Yes answers indicate hoarding.
Compulsive hoarding is considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The term OCD has become carelessly used as slang nowadays for everything from a strong detail orientation to bosses that everyone dislikes. But OCD is actually a specific type of mental illness or disability. A truly compulsive hoarder can’t exercise free choice in the same way that other people exercise choice over what items to keep, recycle, give away or discard.
Like other genuine OCD disorders, compulsive hoarding is irrational, and doesn’t respond to logic or reason. Understanding that last fact can save the families and friends compulsive hoarders some frustration. (Only some.)
However, hoarding involves behaviors that all of us do once in awhile. Hoarding is a spectrum behavior, like overeating and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In the same way that we all sometimes binge on ice cream or lose our keys, we all let some unneeded papers, memorabilia and other items accumulate and clutter our living space. (See my confession, above, of periodically getting help with decluttering).
The fact that clutter is a common problem makes compulsive hoarding easier for a hoarder to deny than, say, pyromania or shoplifting, since the hoarder may state with a bit of truth, “Everyone does this”.
But there are differences. Compulsive hoarders:
- Are unable to use (at least by themselves) the organizing and decluttering methods that work for the rest of us
- Often feel embarrassed to let others see how they are living
- Deny or minimize their hoarding even though it is obvious to others
- Experience harmful consequences like rodent nests, utility shut-offs, inability to find crucial items, etc.
Some hoarding is collection-based. The collections may be useless, like old newspapers, wine corks, or boxes of cancelled checks from the 70’s. But even if the hoarded collections are valuable, like antique jewelry, furniture, stamp or coin collections, the storage problems are out of control. The hoarder is unable to distinguish that some items are more valuable than others — they all feel valuable.
Some hoarding is fear-based. Hoarding may center on the fear of throwing anything away, more than any active desire to collect things. The hoarder may be perfectionistic, and feel afraid of making a wrong decision on what to keep or throw away. The thought of discarding a thing triggers anxiety, and not discarding it relieves the anxiety. Hence, no discarding. Result: hoarding.
Final facts on compulsive hoarding:
- Hoarders may be tidy and organized in their personal appearance.
- Hoarding can afflict people of any income level.
- Hoarding can trigger stress, depression and anger in family and friends of the hoarder.
- Hoarding tends to advance with age.
- Hoarding and social isolation tend to feed into each other.
- Criticizing the hoarder does not help, and instead leads to greater shame and suffering.
- Counseling from therapists experienced with hoarding can help.
On March 16th, I’ll post Ten Tips For Helping Hoarders. Receive that post and future posts on how to be rich in what matters:
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