The Dynamics of Hoarding Behavior

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Hoarding: Poor habits, character flaws, or impairment?

What does a house filled to the ceiling with boxes or random stuff say about a person?  Unless they just moved, your first reaction may be “how can anyone live like this?” or “storage,” or even “mental illness.”

It leaves such a bad impression and regardless of how functional your friend may appear, there are machinations going on behind the scenes even they themselves may not be aware of.  It also boils down to control issues. In childhood, if the child lived in chaos and when expressing themselves fell on deaf ears and their input wasn’t valued, they may have defaulted to comforting themselves by keeping their belongings where they could always see them; a neural pathway they built for themselves to create comfort.

While living surrounded by our possessions may give the illusion of security, it in fact can be the opposite. An out-of-control and unsafe living space can get you a one-way ticket to being homeless. Hoarders are far more likely to be evicted from their rental spaces because their clutter is a fire hazard and won’t pass inspection. Let’s dig deeper and delve into the motivations for chronic hoarding behavior.

  • Compulsive behavior.
  • FEAR OF LOSS: emotional attachment to a possession:  that closet full of sweaters won’t bring your Father back, but it does give you comfort and leaves you with a connection to the past. Or when the kids leave home, and their possessions contain memories. Now that you are deprived of their company, your only connection to them is their stuff.
  • I might need it later:  Any of us with grandparents who survived the great depression will know what I’m talking about.  While helping them downsize, or worse, after they are no longer with us, you may have gone through 225 coffee cans from the 1960s, threadbare towels, old National Geographic’s, their first bicycle, old window frames, books no one has read in decades, you get the idea.
  • Indecision or Analysis paralysis.
  • Relief for catastrophic life events – stuff can fill a void in your life.
  • Compulsive shopping (an addiction to online shopping, the shopping channel, or overspending at the mall – another comfort or distraction.
  • Compensation for personal or financial shortcomings or unfulfilled life benchmarks.
  • Depression or related condition.  It stands to reason that housekeeping and tidying isn’t on the top of their to-do list. A depressed person is unable to climb out of the pit they find themselves in and may feel too lethargic to bother cleaning or tidying. 
  • Other mental illness.  Some people prefer their unmedicated selves. Getting help for this even if help is wanted can be expensive, even with insurance coverage.        
  • ADD or ADHD.  According to the Nation Institute of Health, sometimes the focus or ability to acquire good daily habits just isn’t there because they are focused on something more engaging.  Why bother tidying up or doing dishes when I can spend my time building a robotic limb?
  • Health issues.

How to support a friend or family member who is a hoarder.

  1. Understand and accept that the hoarder may have not seen it as a problem and may have no desire whatsoever to change their behavior.  If they like it that way, leave them as they are.  Sooner or later there will be an unexpected intervention (adult protective services, child protective services, law enforcement, social worker visit, building maintenance or management, a housekeeper, neighbor, housekeeper, busybody, or even a nemesis.
  2. There may be evidence of depression. There’s an Instagram channel in which a woman visits and deep-cleans the homes of hoarders. She mentions depression.

I have a friend who is otherwise high functioning but who is always at risk for not passing inspection in her apartment.  She had been evicted from several other places as well. So, to help her out, I spent 2 Saturdays helping her straighten up and clear the boxes and clutter.  However, when I visited her 3 weeks later, she had reverted to her previous go-to configuration.  I then decided that I would no longer involve myself in her housekeeping dilemma.

Several weeks went by, and I casually asked her why she didn’t keep her living room a certain way (free of obstructions and safer), and she replied that she actually liked to have her things all around her so she would know where they are.  (Consequences be damned).

As author Margarethe Magnusson states in her book The Gentle Swedish Art of Death Cleaning, “There is no help for hoarders; just bring a big box.”

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