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13 Surprising Facts About Hoarding

Think of your most valued possession.  Your jewelry? That box of precious family photos?  Baseball memorabilia? Now, imagine feeling that way about every single item in your house.  Welcome to the mindset of hoarding disorder.  This week, Savvy Psychologist has 13 surprising facts about hoarding.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #42

Fact #8: This may seem counterintuitive, but almost all hoarders are perfectionists.  Hear me out on this one.  Perfectionists see things as black or white - all or nothing.  If they can’t do something 110% right, they won’t do it at all.  So when they can’t meet their own standards, they give up.  Therefore, hoarders would rather live in squalor than risk a less-than-perfect hoard.  

But “perfect” might not be what you or I call perfect: those of you with OCD or OCD tendencies might be able to understand this.  Sometimes objects have to be arranged so they are “just right.”  You just know in your bones when it’s right, and you do it over and over until you feel that “just right” feeling.  Then you know it’s perfect.  Hoarders might feel, for example,  that clothing is only “just right” if it’s just been purchased and never worn, thereby explaining a room full of clothes with the tags still on.  Or they may purchase item after item, always looking for the “perfect” gift for friends, even with hundreds of gift bags lining the hallway already.

Fact #9: Hoarders think they have lousy memories.  On the contrary, their memory is often completely normal - what’s happening is they don’t trust their memory.  They may think they need to keep all their possessions visible in order to remember they have them.  Or they may keep papers as a stand-in for remembering the information.  It’s as if their brain’s memory is stored externally - inside their home rather than inside their skull.

Fact #10: Hoarders are often quite thoughtful and considerate, picking up items or information they think someone else could use.  They also often have tremendous empathy, sometimes anthropomorphizing objects and thinking quite tenderly about the object’s comfort.  

Fact #11: Hoarders often have an exquisite sense for color and shape.  They perceive the world differently than the rest of us.  They may find genuine joy with objects of their favorite color, or find beauty and appreciation in something non-hoarders can’t seem to muster enthusiasm for, like a bag full of colorful twist ties, or that perfect orange milk crate.

Fact #12: Hoarders develop “clutter blindness.”  When shown photographs of their homes, many hoarders don’t even recognize their rooms.  Something about living in the midst of it causes a kind of “clutter blindness,” perhaps in the same way that people living in big cities eventually don’t notice sirens or taxi horns.  But it gets more extreme.  When asked to draw a plan of their home, many hoarders don’t remember to account for the space filled with clutter.  Sometimes, the existence of a room that’s completely filled may be completely forgotten.

Fact #13: Unfortunately, hoarding is notoriously hard to treat.  This is one of those disorders where drugs don’t really work.  To my knowledge, there are no successful studies on medication for hoarding.  The only thing that has been found to work is cognitive-behavioral therapy with a therapist experienced in treating hoarding, but - and this is a big one - the individual has to want to do something about the problem, which inevitably means getting rid of items, which is often more distressing than just living with the mess.  Imagine someone asking you to throw out that one thing you’d take to a desert island. That’s how it feels for a hoarder to face a prospective clean-up.

A helpful fact sheet from the International OCD Foundation, the leading organization for hoarding awareness and research can be found here.

A great book on hoarding, which inspired parts of this episode, is Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, scientists on the cutting edge of hoarding research.  It reads like a thriller; in fact, dare I say, it was a compulsive read.  

And finally, a novel inspired by history’s most famous hoarders offers a compassionate look at the imagined lives of the Collyer brothers, who died under more than 120 tons of trash in their New York City mansion.  It’s entitled Homer & Langley, by none other than E.L. Doctorow.

References

Nordsletten, A.E., Reichenberg, A., Hatch, S.L., Fernandez de la Cruz, L. Pertusa, A., Hotopf, M. et al. (2013).  Epidemiology of hoarding disorder.  British Journal of Psychiatry, 203, 445-52.

Kim, H., Steketee, G., & Frost, R.O. (2001). Hoarding by elderly people. Health & Social Work, 26, 176-184.

Sheppard, B., Chavira, D., Azzam, A., Grados, M.A., Umana, P., Garrido, H., et al.  (2010). ADHD prevalence and association with hoarding behaviors in childhood-onset OCD.  Depression and Anxiety, 27, 667-674..

Closet clutter image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.