Hoarding: Not Just a Bad Habit

clutter hoarding

(image: christian lopez)

Hoarders don’t realize the jeopardy of their surroundings. They need love and support, but they also need change. Here are some places to start.


When do you cross from “clutter-keeper” to a “hoarder”? Is it really that common?

When it’s getting in the way of a happy, healthy life, you might be a hoarder. As for common, here’s what the author of Stuffocation! writes:

“Experts now believe that hoarding is twice as common as OCD, and that somewhere between 2 and 6 per cent of people in developed countries suffer from it: there could be as many 18 million hoarders in the U.S., and 3.5 million in the UK. No wonder so many watch hoarding shows on TV.”

Where does this come from? For some, it’s a form of mental illness. For others, it’s a coping strategy. Others can’t prioritize or decide. After all, a ’70s author claimed the term “decidophobia,” and it’s a thing, too.

Decidophobia, basically, is when the challenge of making a choice is too daunting. Kind of how I feel when I’m in the toothpaste aisle and I just want mint.

Hoarding makes decidophobia look like a day in the park, though. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America breaks the definition of hoarding down on this page here. 

It’s okay to feel stressed about clutter

I’ve been writing about de-cluttering so long now that I’ve heard just about everything from people. They don’t have the time, they don’t have the money, they can’t make the choices — you name it, everyone has a reason for their clutter.

Of course they have a good reason — because it had to start somewhere. And every one of them is frustrated at the situation they’re in and daunted by the obstacle ahead of them.

Every time these conversations happen, I say the same thing: You’re not alone. It’s a situation that affects far more people than you think, and it’s crippling for many of them. It takes a lot of courage and dedication to un-clutter a home, and it practically takes an intervention from others to end hoarding.

Hoarding is clutter-extreme

Clutter is one thing, but hoarding is a cry for help, whether they want to admit it or not. It’s when clutter becomes something they feel powerless over, but is taking power over their lives. It’s when clutter prevents them from engaging with family, and having experiences that you and I take for granted, like friends popping by or a board-game night.

Hoarding hides rodents, bug infestations, dust, mold, mildew, and all kinds of health concerns you have to see in order to battle. It’s also a danger for anyone whose home is connected to the hoarder’s, whether it’s a condo or apartment or duplex, because if an outlet should throw a spark or a candle burn too close to hoarding piles, that home is a fireball waiting to happen, as James Wallman explains to harrowing extent in his Stuffocation! excerpt here.

Resources for helping hoarders you know

Those helpful tips I always share for de-cluttering? Not gonna be enough for your compulsive hoarder. This is a more serious situation and it requires more flexibility and resourcefulness.

There are useful organizations online that provide great tips, resources, and even tools for assessing the severity of hoarding. I liked this site from “Help for Hoarders,” a UK organization, for its simple sections geared to help family, friends, and hoarders understand.

Reaching out is the most important thing to do for hoarders. Let them know you’re not judging them, and that you understand how hard it is to choose what to let go of, but that you’re ready to help them do it when they’re keen to take that step.

I think Psychology Today has the most constructive steps for those who are on the edge of a hoarder’s life, who want to help, but don’t know where to start.

Their step 3, I think, has their most important advice: Check your expectations. They write–

“It would be great if your loved one would be happy and receptive to your ideas about how to solve their hoarding issues, but the reality is, this will likely be a long, difficult process. To loved ones, it may seem as “simple” as renting a Dumpster for the weekend and cleaning out the house. The reality is this is the beginning of a long road for you and your hoarding loved one. Remind yourself that patience is an integral part of the process, and there will be many steps forward and backward along the way. Be grateful for any small step your loved one takes forward – what seems like a baby step to you may be extraordinarily difficult and take tremendous courage for them. This problem didn’t develop overnight, and it will not be resolved quickly, either.”

Remember, it’s a mental illness

Clutter can be indicative of a busy life, poor choice-making, or any number of things, but hoarding is a sign that deeper issues, or obsessive-compulsiveness, need confronting. It requires support, patience, possibly even the clinical help of the therapist or medical doctor.

Anxiety medication, relaxation techniques, activities like yoga, all kinds of things can be helpful for a hoarder confronting their mass of belongings and changing their lives. They need to attain peace of mind somewhere, anywhere, so they can recognize how little peace they have at home.

Hoarding is a symptom of the times we live in. We live in a material age, an age of excess where we judge status by the things we own, and it’s not going away any time soon.

The good news

The good news is, we’ve come a long way in the last 20 years in that we now recognize there’s more going on beneath the surface for those trapped in a life of hoarding. We have resources now, shows that are shining a light on the problem, and all kinds of folks who are making it their mission to help hoarders know there are places they can turn for help.

If you are starting to worry that you’ve crossed a line with clutter, try to find the courage to tell others that you want to change but don’t know how. Refer to some of the resources I’ve shared, and reach out for help. Some of your friends would be thrilled to help you change your life, if you would give them a chance to do so. You can do this.

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