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What is Hoarding and Why do People Hoard?

Updated on March 21, 2015

The Newspapers Have Swallowed the House

Look past the clutter and try to understand WHY the hoarder is saving newspapers, bags, old clothes, tools,etc.
Look past the clutter and try to understand WHY the hoarder is saving newspapers, bags, old clothes, tools,etc.

Hoarding Buried Alive

Hoarding runs from very mild cases to very extreme. Mild cases are merely inconvenience issues. Extreme cases can be as bad as not having working electricity or plumbing because the house got too bad and a plumber would not be able to get inside. Extreme cases are not only disgusting, they can also be extremely dangerous. Hoarders who live in extreme situations develop a "blindness" to the severity of their surroundings.

Extreme hoarding behaviors usually result from not dealing with emotions. Often there are major insecurities and a lack of self love underneath all the physical layers of stuff. Naturally, trying to fix an emotional problem with physical "things" never works. Most hoarders have very traumatic events which led up to their hoarding behaviors.

My mom is a hoarder. She wasn't always this way. Lately, her house has gotten so bad that my brothers and I refuse to let anyone except immediate family go inside the house. I never brought friends over while I was in high school. I immediately made up excuses as to why my friends couldn't come in.

My mother's hoarding was triggered by traumatic events which happened just after my parents bought a house in a nicer neighborhood in the Connecticut suburb where I grew up.. After they were approved for the larger loan, my dad lost his job and the company car that went with it. Mom's depression and anxiety soared and she did not even want to unpack the boxes at the new house. I would help her get things out and I still dream of making her problems disappear. My fantasy is to call up the Hoarders show and have them appear on her doorstep and swiftly get her to start throwing old piles of stray tube socks into giant dumpsters. The embarrassment would probably mortify my mom.

Here are some tips to help a hoarder in your life get organized:

Handle Items Only Once You must decide right away what to display, discard and save. Do not allow items to be moved from room to room while putting off decisions about where they will go. Touch each item only once then move on to the next piece.

Be patient. The accumulating didn't happen overnight and the process of cleaning out and clearing out the home will not get done in one day. This is a long, frustrating road. On a TV episode, a hoarder may be able to straighten up a home in a 60 minute episode. That's not realistic. Remind yourself to be patient.

Proceed gently. There is usually a traumatic situation that triggered the hoarding behavior. It might be the death of a loved one, loss of a job or an identity but there is definitely a reason for the person holding onto items. The person is comforted by the stuff. The items calm the hoarder's anxiety. I'm okay because I have all of these books/papers/etc. This may not make sense from the outside but try to look beyond the accumulation and into the reasoning behind the situation. What made mom start saving wrapping paper? While my mom was away at college, my grandparents decided to move to Florida. They had a garage sale and sold all her toys, clothing and furniture. To her, they "sold" her childhood. Fifty plus years later, she still perceives that garage sale as a betrayal because my grandparents didn't even tell her they were going to get rid of her stuff. Now, for her own kids, she refuses to part with the dolls, stuffed animals, games and other "stuff" from our childhood. Even if we have told her to donate something, she will come up with some reason why the bag or box is still sitting right where we left it. This saving behavior is an expression of love, in her mind. To show us how much she loves us, she has turned her home into a museum of our family's history.

Work With An Impartial Friend If the hoarder has trouble getting rid of items, it may be a ood idea to enlist the help of a friend who is neutral to the situation. Family members mean well but may the situation can easily escalate when they are trying to "help" the hoarder get rid of items. Having a friend to say "Do you really need those three blenders in your kitchen?" can help the hoarder to make more rational decisions.

How to Help a Hoarder Get Organized

Clothing is one of my personal weaknesses.  I love to shop at thrift stores and find gently used clothing to resell on Ebay.  The closets are overflowing with clothes.
Clothing is one of my personal weaknesses. I love to shop at thrift stores and find gently used clothing to resell on Ebay. The closets are overflowing with clothes.

Avoid Threatening the Hoarder

Do not threaten the hoarder or allow yourself to lose control. Yes, the clutter is overwhelming. It can be paralyzing. It would be easier NOT to deal with this uncomfortable situation but that won't help the hoarder. Threats will cause the behavior to worsen. You may be triggering more hoarding behavior. If you find yourself getting aggrevated when working with a loved one with a hoarding problem, take a break. Simply take a walk and clear your head.


HOARDING:It's Not About "Stuff"

It's not about the stuff at all. The "stuff" is just a manifestation of stopped-up feelings. Like feeling not worthy, not loveable, not good enough, inadequate, inferior. No one cares about me but my stuff is always there for me. It won't leave me. It won't reject me.

How to Deal With Clutter

Begin slowly.  If you have a room full of hoarded craft supplies, tackle one bit at a time.
Begin slowly. If you have a room full of hoarded craft supplies, tackle one bit at a time.

Hoarding Caused by Anxiety Bubbling Up

A lot of hoarding behavior has to do with anxiety. My mother was always suspicious that I had "cleaned out" her precious newspapers. She would return home from grocery shopping and ask if I had gotten rid of her papers. Often she would look through the recycling to make sure that only items she approved of were put in the orange bin. This was frustrating for both of us because my efforts to help her clean led to wasted hours of her "undoing" my work.

Commonly Hoarded Items



Paper and Plastic Bags

Household Supplies



Reasons Why People Hoard

Many hoarders suffer from anxiety and depression. Hoarding may be linked to a sequence of genes on chromosome 14 that is also found in families with obsessive compulsive disorder. So on top of clutter problems, if a hoarder is depressed, then the stuff is piling up but the person does not have the energy to deal with the stuff.

Hoarders have a strong bond with their existing possessions. The objects remind the hoarder of a significant event and can even contribute to the person's sense of identity. The hoarder may also have a high level of generalized anxiety about the world. This leads the hoarder to see objects in his home as symbols of safety and comfort.

Remember to Be Patient With The Hoarder

Start small and keep going. Even though the stacks of clutter are what you see in a hoarder's house, the "stuff"can only be cleared out once the underlying "stuff" is addressed. And remember, patience. Don't expect to make a lot of huge changes all at once.

Take 10 Minutes to Get Rid of Stuff You can set a timer and tell the or yourself that for those 10 minutes, you will focus on clearing out the clutter. This will force you to make quick decisions. The more you procrastinate and avoid, the worse it will be. Take action. You will get through those ten minutes and feel a huge sense of relief.

Hoarding is about so much more than clutter. Dealing with a hoarder involves looking beyond the hoarder's "stuff" and helping the hoarder work through emotional issues.


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    • Cathy Fidelibus profile image

      Ms. Immortal 

      6 years ago from NJ

      Great information, it's nice to get an inside look at something that appears to be so irrational.


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