Eight Tips On Compulsive Hoarding

By Saturday, March 1, 2014 10 0

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:

I will never share or sell your email address.

  • Mike
    March 1, 2014

    This was absolutely amazing, Alison! I’ve been so curious about hoarding (the tv show which I only watched once for 10 minutes because it made me uncomfortable) and folks who discuss it. I kid AT myself and with others about me having OCD. I always want to get rid of stuff because I can’t stand clutter. Yet, I’m always afraid to throw away something I will “need”. All in my head. Great post, our friend! :)

    • Alison
      March 2, 2014

      Mike, I love your honesty. I truly think our whole nation has a clutter problem (including my ding-dang garage), and that it brings down our quality of life. I also think our clutter distracts us from living out our deepest values of compassion and service. I want to become better at dealing with it, myself.

      Just to let you and my other readers know, my smart, kind assistant Ursala will be moderating comments during the next week or two as I am on a volunteer vacation in Costa Rica. Among other things, Ursala is a professional organizer here in Portland, Oregon. She does great work, whether she’s doing diamond-cut marketing outreach, moderating comments, or helping people organize their clutter. :)

  • Ursala @ Diamond-Cut Life
    March 2, 2014

    I also want to put out there another symptom related to accumulating more stuff than we need or actually use. The symptom is procrastination: we will get to that pile later, do that project later, let go of the objects we are emotionally attached to later… The dominant culture not only encourages us to shop more, but also to stay busy with a 101 things. This leaves little time to deal with objects in our space unless we continually make time in our schedules to manage them.

    Hoarding is the extreme version, and most of us are on the other end of the spectrum. It can still suffocate our lives when we have to deal with stuff to complete simple tasks or buy the same thing over and over again because we can’t find the last one we bought. It still affects us, even if it isn’t as serious as identifying as a “hoarder.”

  • Jeri
    March 3, 2014

    I tend to be the opposite of a hoarder probably because my grandma used to collect lots of stuff as she plotted the riches she would earn at her yearly yard sale by selling the booty she collected from all corners of town.

    • Ursala Garbrecht
      March 5, 2014

      You bring up an interesting point Jeri. I often work with people who want to save their precious things to give/sell to the right person who will see it’s value and worth. I’m happy there are so many great places in Portland donate things for great causes like: The Rebuilding Center (house construction supplies), Free Geek (electronics), Scrap (art supplies) and The William Temple House (home goods and clothing raising money for low income counseling services).

  • My Inner Chick
    March 8, 2014

    I can’t even watch that show “HOARDERS.”
    I get nervous and over stimulated.
    I get mad because I think, “What a Waste.”
    And I also get sad…
    because this is only a symptom of a deeper issue.

  • Alison
    March 10, 2014

    Compulsive hoarding makes me nervous and anxious too, also deeply sad. I’ve never watched the TV show. I see compulsive hoarding as a societal sickness, beyond being just a problem some individuals have. It didn’t exist earlier in human history, for example, not in this way.
    I’m eager to post next week on the coping skills for dealing with it.

  • Jeff N
    March 18, 2014

    DSM-V now classifies hoarding as a singular disorder, distinct from OCD, although not infrequently co-occurring with OCD. Mataix-Cols D, Frost RO, Pertusa A, et al. Hoarding disorder: a new diagnosis for DSM-V? Depress Anxiety. 2010;27:556-572 FYI.

    Search Pub Med, hoarding of non-relevant matter has been observed in animals in published studies in the 50s. There’s a mention of rubbish hoarding as early as 1992. Further, at least with regard to the elderly, hoarding may have had another name: “Diogenes Syndrome”, which is referenced as early as 1975. Reading the descriptions of Diogenes Syndrome makes it sound awfully similar to what we might call hoarding today.

    I can’t really say I agree with you that hoarding is a “societal” illness, although I can say anecdotally that there may be a familial or genetic component (both my ex-wife and her father are hoarders). While impulses to hoard may be accentuated by societal messages of materialism, I seriously doubt if those messages are the real driver of the hoarder’s afflictions.

  • Allison
    April 28, 2014

    It’s one thing to not want to throw things away, but to have dead animals in your house and crap all around you is just unacceptable. Your a disquesting lazy human and should be jailed.

    • Alison
      April 29, 2014

      I can agree that what you’re describing is upsetting, and brings up feelings of disgust. In cases like this, the compulsive hoarder is suffering, and so is anyone else whose life intersects with theirs. I disagree, though, about jailing people on account of their mental illness. That just increases the amount of suffering in the world. They need treatment, not imprisonment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *