MAKING IT BETTER: The Psychological Meaning Behind Hoarding

Hoarding has been a hidden and mostly misunderstood disorder for many years. It actually is a much bigger and complex condition than is actually known. People who hoard are on a continuum. The spectrum goes from the person who can’t stop or curb their retail binging which could include clothing, shoes, bags, household items; to the person who just accumulates random junk, a magpie, and is unable to let go of any of it.

There has been a recent increase in the awareness of this condition in the US and UK, albeit it is treated in typical media sensational style as it makes good viewing. The cases that are shown on the TV are the uber extreme cases which most ordinary people could never identify with so are able to disassociate themselves from such behaviour. The reality is that the majority of hoarders are more in the middle of the scale. It’s not the woman (mostly women are affected, though not exclusively by the condition) who has ceased to function in society or is unable to leave her house because her belongings have trapped her indoors, or the person who is living in the most squalid environment due to them not getting rid of waste products that have collected over a period of time. While those people definitely exist, the majority of hoarders are functioning men and women, who are holding down jobs and family and relationships. My focus in this write up will be about the female experience.

Raising awareness of the condition and increasing understanding among sufferers and their family members who will invariably be impacted directly or indirectly by the actions and effects of the sufferer’s behaviour on them is a positive thing.

Almost everyone has or can have clutter from time to time, but hoarders take it to the extreme. It’s the difference between a messy environment and living in actual filth to having so much ‘stuff’, covering every inch of space in your house that you can barely physically move around the house unimpeded. Sometimes the hoarder becomes oblivious to the clutter and has almost lost touch with reality and actually is unable to see how their life has become restricted. A client once described it as feeling the house was closing in on her.

A hoarders quality of life can be greatly compromised and practically destroyed from the effects of hoarding because it affects the quality of the hoarders relationships with significant others, family and friends. Children are affected because they may not want to bring friends home due to the clutter. The hoarder may not want to invite friends and family over because they feel ashamed and don’t want to be judged, and more intimate relationships are equally affected because the atmosphere is just not conducive to intimacy.

Hoarding on the face of it is the inability to desist from acquiring things, alongside the reluctance or at the very least a struggle to get rid of stuff that has ceased to be of any use at all; in the belief that there might still be some use for it. For some people even things that have decayed or haven’t been used for several years is hard to part with.

There are a couple of ways to understand hoarding. It could be a borderline situation of unusual and strange behaviour, such  as someone having a penchant for collecting, acquiring certain items as a hobby or even shopping excessively and having an inordinate amount of clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery, some with price tags still attached to; or it could be more serious and part of a deeper compulsive behavioural pattern. At this level it would come under the umbrella of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Most of the general public may just have hoarding tendencies.

ODC is classified as an anxiety disorder. This means that there are certain behaviours associated with the condition that are performed as a way to cope with distressing situations. The person suffering from this condition is held to ransom by their actions in response to stressful situations which may be real or perceived.

In an effort to manage anxieties brought about by obsessive thoughts, hoarders collect possessions to an extreme. It’s akin to the person with an eating disorder, who continues eating discriminately, trying to push down difficult emotions, trying to fill a bottomless pit that will never be satiated; or the drug and alcohol addict who wants to obliterate painful feelings with their drug of choice.

According to the National Institute of Health UK, hoarding has also been known to be as a result of Attention Deficit Disorder, Psychosis, Depression and Dementia; again this is on a more extreme position of the continuum. Many people suffering from mild to medium depression do not realise that they are depressed even though it may manifest itself in a variety of often unrecognised symptoms, hoarding being one of them. Hoarding is a symptom of a disorder of cognition and behaviour.

Hoarders tend to exhibit an obsessive need to get and save objects, they experience huge anxieties about getting rid of things in the fear that they may regret getting rid of the items and the things, they rationalise that the things may still have a possible need and value. They may also form emotional attachments to these objects and create in their mind a belief that they might need these objects in the future. They may feel panic and anxiety at the thought of being faced with the absence of these objects at a point when they are needed. The reality is they may not have seen some of these objects for several years, or they may not even know exactly where they are in the house.

We all probably can visualise or imagine the florid psychotic on the street who is laden down with bags and bags of clutter (the proverbial bag lady). Or we may have seen films that portray people with mental illness pushing around carts or trolleys filled to the brim with none descript junk. This scenario is easy to explain away as the traditional picture of the mentally ill. However there are many more people who suffer this same behaviour on a smaller and more covert way. They may have the clutter and junk in their minds where it is wreaking other forms of havoc. If this is unmanaged it can lead to more profound problems.

It is useful to know that anything can be hoarded. I had a client who used to come to our sessions with what for all intents and purposes can only be describe as a medium sized suitcase with the biggest padlock attached to it. In his mind he was of the belief that he was holding a briefcase or attaché. Every week he came with this monster piece of luggage and placed it ceremoniously in the centre of the room as we conducted a perfectly ‘normal’ therapy session. As the clinician I found myself obsessing about this object every week as I fantasised I could see the bag swelling more and more every week. I eventually allowed my imagination to get the best of me and was convinced there were the cut up remains of a dead body in the case.

I conjured up different ploys in my mind to get my client out of the room while I got pliers to break the lock and tip out the contents of the case out on the floor of my office. I soon realised I was going on a less than healthy road with my client by engaging in these thoughts. When I was eventually able to compose myself and get my professional head more in focus, after several weeks of his coming, I finally decided to broach the subject and make a ‘psychological interpretation’ of the situation as we say in Psychotherapy. I told him we needed to talk about the ‘elephant in the room’ as by not talking about it I was colluding with his delusions.

To my amazement my client said some of the contents of his suitcase had been in there for over 30 years. Once he disclosed this, we immediately set out new goals to work towards unlocking the case. It took a further 6 months to get to that stage, but we did. The unlocking of the case coincided with the ‘unlocking’ of other things that were trapped in my client’s mind as is the case with a lot of hoarders.

According to the Institute of Psychiatry UK, hoarding is a brain disorder. It is a ‘dysfunction in the limbic system’ which is instinctual. Other places that are also affected are the ‘frontal lobe’ (which accounts for our planning, judgement and problem solving). It is also believed that hoarding may be genetic, is chronic, unremitting and may become more severe with age.

For hoarders, the motivation is fear of losing important items, an excessive attachment and belief about the importance of objects. There is also a fear of making the wrong decision, and excessive sense of responsibility and a grief-like loss of getting rid of things. Extreme hoarders are likely to be depressed, anxious and may have unresolved attachment issues stemming from the loss of a loved one.

Identifying and recognising there is a problem is the first step. Ideally, seeking psychological support through counselling could be beneficial. In the absence of that, taking baby steps to decluttering your personal space can also be a symbolic first step. Enlisting the support of a trusted friend or your immediate family who are probably much more aware of the situation than you realise, can probably be very helpful. Having a loved one support you in helping you with the evacuation of things you have been unnecessarily holding on to for years could be just what you need to start the process.

The upshot of this exercise might leave you feeling like you are shedding old skin and clearing your mind of metaphorical debris as you create actual room in your environment and your mind.

As women we are natural hoarders and over the years it is very easy for it to become something compulsive if we are not paying attention. You will know if this is an issue for you, and where you are on the continuum.

Happy clearing, cleansing!



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One Response to MAKING IT BETTER: The Psychological Meaning Behind Hoarding

  1. Iwalenia Adelaja April 22, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Dear Gloria,
    Good to read and i can tell youit is good information. NASS please check.


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