Have you looked at the pattern of having just a bit too much of something, in your own life or a person you know, with a sense of mild trepidation and apprehension: “Hmmm, is this hoarding or a preference for collection of fine or useful items”? Hoarder is a term that has become very prevalent. It is not a new disorder but it has captured the attention of the news media in recent years, drawing our attention to a reality of how many people are suffering from this common but deeply private condition. Hoarding is related to anxiety disorders, commonly fitting in the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So, what is the definition of a hoarder?
A hoarding disorder is defined by an excessive accumulation of certain items coupled with a persistent difficulty parting with such possessions because of a perceived exaggerated need to save them. Excessive accumulation of items, regardless of actual value, occurs. A person with hoarding disorder experiences a wicked mix of distress at the thought of having too much and wanting but not being able to get rid of the items. Hoarding often creates such cramped living conditions that homes may be filled to capacity, with only narrow pathways winding through stacks of clutter. A hoarder accumulates a large number of items that may or may not have any monetary value, fails to discard any of these items and continues to acquire more, feeling increasingly overwhelmed and out of control.
So, how is a collector different? According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary a collector “is a person who collects certain things as a hobby”. It is something that they enjoy and take pride doing. They usually acquire similar objects that bring them joy. These items can be as varied as salt and pepper shakers, antique dolls, stamps, Lladros or precious moments figurines, etc., and typically revolve around some specific point of preference or interest of the collector. These collections can be valuable or have no significant value except to the collector, but generally represent some relationship to a specific interest or a hobby. Collectors generally proudly display their items in their homes and are willing to bring it up in conversations. Collectors’ items are generally organized and available for be shown or discussed with others, as they represent a point of interest and pride to a collector.
On the contrary, a hoarders’ emotions often revolve around feelings of guilt, shame, and avoidance. They feel it would be wasteful to discard their items. It feels that what is not needed today may suddenly be needed tomorrow, so holding on is “being prepared”. Discarding things feels as though they are losing a part of self, a piece of safety. Hoarders are disorganized, forget what they have, and can’t find things they want and need daily. Their clutter creates chaos in their emotional and physical space. Large areas of living space can no longer be used as intended and even moving through the house can be challenging. Because of this hoarders have a tendency not to invite others to their homes, which can increase feelings of isolation. They feel uncomfortable when others mention or challenge their accumulative tendencies in conversations, resorting to justification of reasons why they do it or avoiding such conversations altogether.
As is the case with all anxiety disorders, untreated hoarding issues escalate in severity and in the level of impairment they cause to the person. People with hoarding tendencies find it difficult to decide if their possessions should be kept or discarded. They need assistance in learning how to sort, organize and make decisions. The accumulated items often hold some anxiety ridden sentimental value to the hoarder, thus, sorting things out and discarding items becomes nearly impossible without outside help. A professional counselor can assist in restructuring the cognitive thinking patterns that led to this vicious cycle of anxiety, teach coping strategies to resolve this toxic pattern around the belongings, and help to make the first steps to begin opening up the much needed emotional and physical space.