How to stop being a hoarder

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Are you tying yourself to your own possessions?  Photo by Qusai Akoud on Unsplash

A frequent problem that presents in counselling and psychotherapy, is the tendency to accumulate possessions.  On dramatic TV documentaries it is often called hoarding.  People who hoard are often presented as difficult, stubborn.

Hoarding can happen over several decades, but can accelerate when a difficulty is experienced, such as a separation or bereavement.  It is as though the absence of one kind of motivation (to love) is replaced by an excess of another motivation (to keep).

To the outsider, it is all just clutter.  But to the person concerned, it is all essential stuff, to be processed thoroughly before disposal – so thoroughly, in fact, that disposal can fail to happen.  The house becomes difficult to move around, and space is sacrificed until the whole place is choked and impossible to clean.

WHAT CAUSES HOARDING?

Think of your life as a digestive system.  You have a mouth, which takes in food.  You have a middle bit, which sorts and filters the food.  And you have a lower bit, which disposes of the food, so that you don’t get too heavy or blocked.

Your mind behaves like this too.  It has three stages of experience:

  1. An appetite for new experiences.  You may visit the shops, buy things that take your fancy.  This part of you is driven by your tastes, but also by a kind of hunting instinct.
  2. An ability to organise your life and possessions.  You may file things in order, arrange them in cupboards or on shelves.  This part of you is driven by a desire for order and control.  Often you will start well, but eventually succumb to disorder and mess.
  3. An ability to let go.  You may throw things in the bin, or give them away.  This part of you is driven by the need to create new space in your life.
What goes wrong in the hoarding mind?  Mostly, the ability to let go is compromised.  This has two knock-on effects.  Firstly, possessions accumulate, until the accumulation starts to affect your ability to impose order in your home.  Secondly, you stop taking in new experiences or visitors, because you are aware that you have no room in your chaotic house.

LEARNING TO LET GO

Hoarders are a bit like addicts, in that they often insist they COULD tidy up any time.  It’s just never the right time.  This is part of the rationalisation that defends the status quo.

Usually, things only start to move when loss is dealt with.  This can be accepting a previously-unaccepted bereavement; or it might be accepting the loss of a family or a friendship.  Whatever the case, unless and until the original loss is processed, a person will hang on to all sorts of strange things.

Learning to let go is a great skill.  If you learn it, you will often find yourself more free of your possessions than you ever thought possible.  Think of the legendary monkey trap.  In this trap, a monkey puts his hand into a small hole, closes it around the bait it contains, and then cannot remove his hand while it holds the bait.  While he hangs on to the bait, he is trapped through his own attachment.

AN EXERCISE

Today, maybe thing of one or two things you can do without.

Allow yourself to reflect on why you are so attached to them.  Why might it be difficult for you to let go of the object(s)?

Once you have learned what you can learn from that contemplation, dispose of the object(s).

Again, allow yourself to reflect on how it felt to do that.  Was it easy or hard?  Do you feel a loss, or a liberation?

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SUMMARY

Hoarding, or the over-accumulation of possessions, is surprisingly common.  It can cause suffering, in that someone’s living space becomes less and less spacious and flexible.

The main ability that may be disabled in the hoarder, is the ability to let go.  In particular, there may be an original loss that has not been processed yet.

Mindfully letting go of possessions is a great way of learning about yourself.  It can help you to feel more free.

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