Hoarding vs. Cluttering

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Hoarding is not the same thing as having too much clutter. I just watched an interesting
video profiling four hoarders called Possessed by Martin Hampton. The cases
are presented in escalating order of severity and the last one is a little hard
to watch because of the extreme level of dust and dirt.

One of the
more confounding things about hoarding is that hoarders don’t know why they keep
stuff when they know it’s useless trash. Even if they are willing to get rid of
things, in most cases, the problem comes right back. The woman in the film described her own thinking as “warped” (the other three subjects are men).

Four qualities that
all the hoarders in the film shared are:

  • On some level, they like
  • They have strong emotional
    ties to inanimate objects
  • They have an overpowering need to
    own things
  • They are adamant that no one else can touch their things

People who just have too much clutter don’t have these same issues. A comfortable and cozy cluttered room means one with lots of knickknacks and pictures, furniture with throws on it, etc. It doesn’t mean a room with full shopping bags and used food containers on the floor. For most people, ties to inanimate objects refers to souvenirs, old teddy bears and heirlooms. It doesn’t refer to chipped coffee mugs or empty toilet paper tubes.

You may have a shopping problem, but a hoarder will buy 300 mobile phones in a year (that’s an example from the movie). You also may not want others pawing your stuff, but it doesn’t mean you’ll have an anxiety attack if they do, or rummage through the garbage to rescue anything someone else throws away that’s yours.

In case you’re worried that you or someone you know is a hoarder, ask these questions:*

  • Are any exits to the home blocked?
  • Is the bedroom or bathroom not fully usable due to clutter, i.e., items stored in shower stall?
  • Is there large-item clutter outdoors, such as sofas and TV sets?
  • Are there poorly maintained pet areas, i.e., pet waste not cleaned up?
  • Have hallways been narrowed due to boxes and clutter?

I don’t accept clients with this issue because I don’t have the skills to handle them. (Update 7/2014: I do work with people into Level 3 on the scale. Generally, when people reach out to me and are motivated to get help, I can help them.) To find professionals who do, contact the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (hoarding is an activity associated with chronic disorganization). This site also provides an eye-opening *Clutter Hoarding Scale with specific examples of what the home of a hoarder looks like.

2 thoughts on “Hoarding vs. Cluttering

  1. Thanks for sharing the video.
    As a recovering hoarder (probably never beyond 6 or 7 on the scale you mention), I have some comments — I’ll follow the Qualities bullet list you wrote:
    > Having your things “available” [and visible] feels safe. Knowing you might never see them again (after removal) feels extremely scary. Visualizing a clean, clutter-free space is actually motivating, but thereafter I still have an incentive to be able to see everything I might need. I don’t like dirt and disorder, but they come with the territory if one can’t motivate yourself to keep working on the piles. And if the piles merge, then their contents aren’t really visible any more. I like to remind myself I need “white space” between the piles or they can become debilitating. Same reason we use punctuation, paragraph breaks, and section headers.
    > Ties to inanimate objects are connected to the visual processing and memory problems in some way. Plus it is a way to re-experience the emotions that were connected with the objects at some point in the past. Putting the items away (out of the living space, not just under a pile) for a while can sometimes reduce the emotional tie enough to allow considering discard, donation, or recycling.
    > It may not be ownership, per se, that is the issue. I see something I like, I feel an emotion, I want to be able to experience that emotion again, so I purchase the item. Some things are more powerful in this way than others. During recovery, I have found pretty notebooks and pens (for recording progress or making schedules), and colored storage boxes, are particularly attractive.
    > I think not wanting others touch one’s things is an *extreme* version of the desire for control. When you don’t feel you have (much) control over your life or yourself, at least you can decide which of your stuff stays or goes. Of course, making a decision to let go of an emotionally-charged item usually takes quite a bit of ruminating about their sentimental or supposed value. A friend or family member may have great difficulty waiting this out. Especially if they’re having to live in the clutter/hoard.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sue! Glad to hear you are still in recovery. One of the points I wanted to make here was that there’s a continuum of keeping possessions and it takes some vigilance to know whether you’ve stepped over the line into hoarding, which can be dangerous to you and others. Being in recovery takes vigilance, as well as willingness to reach out for help if necessary.

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