Hoarding is a behavior that mystifies some people, including hoarders themselves. It can be a problem all its own, or part of a larger psychological picture. In either case, it’s a malfunction of coping efforts. The range of hoarding efforts goes from mild to severe. You might learn of the severity of hoarding whenever you come across news accounts of people who had hundreds of animals (dead and living) in their homes, mounds of trash (e.g., strings, bags, toys, Christmas decorations, furniture, clothing, hobby tools, computer parts, car parts, even molding garbage) in a too-small space that might or might not reek of rotting things.
In order to help a hoarder, you need to understand what’s behind the problem. Most people are shocked and dismayed by the excess, but hoarders don’t always perceive that they’ve collected too much. In some cases, though, they’re uncomfortable with, perhaps embarrassed by, their collection. Unlike collectors who keep their hobby-oriented inventories organized and proudly display them, hoarders can be surreptitious about maintaining their haphazard overstock. Collectors store things according to categories, items that will prove useful in their chosen endeavors. Hoarders are trying to prevent some imagined disaster with unsorted piles of whatnot.
The motives for hoarding vary. Nursing home patients are known for accumulating too many things in their rooms. Drawers are overstuffed, closets difficult to close as items bulge through openings. Bags of collected things fill the space under beds and other sections of the limited floor space. The motive here is the patient’s fear that they lack the financial means to replace things that wear out, or anticipate needing something “in the [ill-defined] future.” Younger people, though, might find it emotionally difficult to part with clothes that “might come back in style,” mementos, medicines, and mail. They feel pained to part with stockpiled symbols of happy occasions and ego boosts. People of all ages might hoard things as a safety measure, as in “You never know when you might need one of these. Who knows if it’ll be available then?”
Hoarding is a compulsion, an irresistible urge to collect the desired item(s) despite personal misgivings and social pressure to stop doing so. The hoarder’s decision-making process has been disrupted. Even if the hoarder is distressed by the chaos they’ve caused, they’re powerless to stop adding to the mess or to reduce it. Compulsive people have unrealistic goals: Eliminating real or imagined threats posed by an obsession with some idea or problem. The cycle of misdirected thoughts entraps the hoarder. They require assistance to stop hoarding. It’s not merely a matter of throwing out things that do or don’t evoke a sense of joy or relaxation, as some popular books and cultural methods of decluttering/simplifying suggest.
No matter the motivation, though, when the saving of too much stuff threatens health and safety, interventions from loved ones, medical and/or mental health professionals are called for.
When you want to persuade a hoarder to rid themselves of the mess they collected on purpose, even if it’s a friend, relative, colleague, or mere acquaintance, it’s important to understand that severe depression, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or perfectionism, might be part of the problem. Scolding is not going to change the person, and neither is shaming. Compassion and assertive action – such as consulting with medical and mental health professionals for advice on how to proceed – are necessary.