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Decluttering the Stigma

By February 12, 2019April 6th, 2021Blogs, Tanya Abughazaleh, Psy.D.

Many may have already come across the reality show “Hoarders” that illustrates some of the most extreme cases of hoarding. The show does an adequate job in illustrating to the viewer the extent to which hoarding can take over one’s life, marriage, relationship and so forth. Though, it is important not to define this anxiety disorder based solely on what is highlighted on television as there is much more than what meets the eye. Hoarding does not necessarily need to reach such extreme levels to be considered a problem. Hoarding does not always lead to individuals being evicted out of their homes, acquiring illnesses, relationship conflicts, etc., but can simply manifest as a milder form of what could later become an unsafe living environment. The following are some common myths about hoarding:

  1. Hoarders are lazy, dirty, and unmotivated individuals.
  2. Hoarders cannot organize.
  3. Hoarders cannot stop hoarding.
  4. Hoarders are just collectors.
  5. Cleaning, organizing, and discarding items will solve the problem.

To be clinically diagnosed with this disorder, one must understand the symptomology of how it presents. Hoarders often have complaints of experiencing a range of symptoms such as loneliness, feeling withdrawn, isolated, and depressed. Other symptoms address feelings of embarrassment or shame due to what they have accumulated and the clutter that surrounds them. However, the underlying issue that sustains and exacerbates the disorder is the hoarder’s inability to throw or discard items because they believe they may need these items at some point in the future or are unique and hold sentimental value. These individuals also may feel safer being surrounded by the things they save and simply do not want to be wasteful by discarding the items.  To get a better sense of what defines hoarding, it is helpful to know some common symptoms:

  1. Hoarders endure constant difficulty and distress discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.
  2. Hoarders accumulate because they feel they may need the item in the future or because they do not want to waste anything.
  3. Hoarders’ living areas are cluttered and results in the accumulation of possessions that congest and substantially compromise their intended use. Though be mindful that if living areas are uncluttered, this might be due to the interventions of third parties (e.g. family members, cleaners, authorities).
  4. Hoarders excessively acquire items that are not needed and for which there’s no space to store these items.
  5. Hoarders will admit they feel safer when surrounded by the things they save.

Unfortunately, the act and even the thought of parting with possessions, regardless of actual value, causes the individual ample distress because of the perceived need to save these items. Often, such behaviors impede the living space where the individual lives and decreases their overall quality of life. This problem eventually bleeds into other parts of their lives, interpersonally and socially. More importantly, it is critical to be able to notice the signs and then seek help if needed as the repercussions of hoarding can lead to additional problems that can be detrimental to one’s well-being, health and safety. Lastly, always strive to understand underlying factors that maintain a hoarder’s irrational beliefs in an effort to debunk the myths that maintain stigma behind the disorder.