Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people label themselves as hoarders, or label someone else as a hoarder. Sometimes they’re right. Usually, they’re wrong. So let’s set the record straight:
Hoarding Disorder is NOT:
- Being messy
- Having lots of stuff
- Saving things
- Having a car (or three) on the front lawn
- The same as OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder although someone can be diagnosed with both hoarding and OCD
Hoarding Disorder IS:
- A mental health disorder diagnosed by a licensed mental health expert
- Characterized by both acquiring many things
- and not disposing of things that others see as having minimal value
- Evidenced by the loss of critical living spaces in the home (like a sink, stove, bathtub, or bed)
- Evidenced by an extreme difficulty in sorting/organizing one’s own belongings, but hoarders can often organize someone else’s belongings comfortably
- Something that causes distress to professional or social life
- A diagnosis that is often compounded by other mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and OCD
- Something that occurs in 4-6% of the population
- Often triggered during childhood, but generally not fully evident until adulthood
- Genetically related for some hoarders (usually when they have a first degree relative who is a hoarder)
Why Do Hoarders Keep Things?
Hoarders often keep things because they believe they might need them, they think an object could be useful, they see things as having value (worth money), or the item is connected to a memory that they fear losing if they don’t keep the item. TV’s most famous professional organizer Peter Walsh says people keep things because they’re stuck in the past or worried about the future. This is true for many hoarders.
Related to their beliefs in an object’s value is the extreme distress that hoarders feel about getting rid of their things. For many, even thinking about letting something go can cause feelings of panic. Hoarders feel personally connected to their things in ways that other people do not. Some feel like they are losing a piece of themselves whenever they let something go, or something is taken away from them.
Decluttering can feel terribly painful for hoarders. The process is challenging, and at the end they don’t always feel better. All those Pinterest posts about ‘250 things you can let go of right now’ might work for clutterers, but not hoarders. There’s no magical list that will make hoarding go away. It takes hard work both mentally and physically.
Collecting is Not Hoarding
This is an important distinction. Many people love collecting and keep adding to their collections throughout life. Even if your Dad has been collecting Coke memorabilia since he was a teen and has Coke things everywhere, this does not make him a hoarder. Hoarders may collect things as well, but it is their severe difficulty in letting things go that others view as worthless as well as their loss of critical living spaces that meets the criteria for hoarding.
I wish that everyone could understand that hoarding is a mental health condition, not a cruel term to be thrown about, or a way to describe people that have lots of stuff. For those who truly do fit the criteria of being a hoarder it can be a disorder that severely impacts every area of their lives. They need understanding and compassion.