M. D. Jackson has studied psychology since 1989. While her specialty is family relations, she also loves neuroscience and behaviorism.
What is Hoarding?
Reality television has brought hoarding out into the public eye. Most television viewers have seen at least a few minutes of shows that highlight people who have stockpiled everything from unopened boxes of QVC purchases to trash, and dead animals. These shows tend to edit out the important counseling moments that happen behind the scenes while keeping the more dramatic scenes for the public to view. This article is written with the intent of helping people overcome their need to hoard.
Hoarding is when a person keeps an excessive amount of material goods in an enclosed area. The extent of hoarding can be anything from one particular area to an entire home that is packed to the ceiling. Most people have a stash of unusable items, however the hoarder keeps items until their living space is unusable for it's intended purpose. Hoarders may have narrow paths through their homes that allow entrance and exit. Piles of items are stacked around haphazardly diminishing the ability to find or use any of the items.
Why Do They Hoard?
Human beings are known for trying to control their environment. People like animals use their immediate environment as a buffer from the rest of the world. Hoarding is a psychological attempt to control something. When we view the person who hoards they are in a state of crisis where they are attempting to control their environment to relieve another situation that they are unable to control.
Hoarders become defensive of their objects as one might be about a child, in an effort to maintain the status quo. Objects in a hoarder’s life are given value that is not realistic. The hoarding environment creates a false sense of belonging to something greater than ones self. As that false sense of security is removed people who hoard go into a panic mode. There fears, insecurities, and tragedies are brought to the front and put on display. With this process comes a range of emotion that hoarders go through.
Most hoarders can recall a life changing event that preceded their hoarding such as a death, divorce, or even environmental events such as a fire or flooding. Traumatic events in a person life are handled in various ways. While many people may be able to pick themselves up and press on through a negative life experience, hoarders are not able to move on. Through hoarding a person sends up a cry for help. More often than not the hoarder lives alone and does not have close personal ties that would lend moral support.
Hoarding develops from unproductive internal dialogue. The person who hoards is trying to validate themselves through hoarding. The internal dialogue goes something like this “If I can buy/keep this item, I will be ok”. In the beginning shopping may even be an escape from there situation, as time progresses that internal dialogue becomes a habit. Another internal dialogue that may be present is “I don’t ever want to need anything again”. This idea of stockpiling to avoid need usually stems from the destruction of personal property such as fire or flood.
Animal hoarding usually starts out very innocently. People begin to take in animals to help the animal, because by helping the animal they feel needed. My uncle raised hunting dogs, he had a kennel license and a facility that had to be maintained. It was a lot of work even though he had the cement kennels and the right type of facility. People who begin hoarding animals do not have the proper facilities to care for more than three animals. While these people mean well, they ultimately hurt the animals. These are people who want to feel needed. They may start hoarding with one animal that they saved as a stray and begin to take in more animals without regard for the animals care. There are also people who breed animals and it gets out of hand when the animals breed on their own. Most animal hoarders have to be reported to the authorities before they get help.
Helping The Hoarder
We would all like a magic wand to fix these issues, it takes a lot of time and effort. Almost every person who is a hoarder once led a relatively normal life. It is for that reason that it is difficult for me to consider hoarding pathological. People who hoard need to learn how to cope with life's unexpected downside. Through counseling and learning new coping skills hoarders can shed the need to hoard and lead productive healthy lives.
To stop hoarding a person must change their internal dialogue and seek outside personal contact. Internal dialogue can be changed by repetitive positive statements that reinforce self-worth. Hoarders need close personal contact with other people to reestablish a healthy life style. This can mean something simple such as going back to school, volunteering at church or other organizations. Hoarding takes the time and place of people in a person’s life, when they do not have close friends or family, that person has their things. Once positive habits and relayionships have been established, a hoarder can start living a productive life.
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on April 01, 2013:
It is unfortunate that the woman did not get help. I am sorry for your loss.
Cass on March 23, 2013:
Someone I know was recently found dead because all of her 'stuff' fell on her while she was asleep. They thought she was missing but she had been under the pile of stuff for three months. It was an avalanche according to the police dept. She was a hoarder and we just recently found this out. She is also an attorney...an intellectual property attorney. This is just so sad to me. She was a beautiful, UC Berkeley grad, and a lawyer....but totally insecure from childhood. Wow!
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on July 06, 2012:
Has this person left the house to go anywhere? The reason I ask is that sometimes it helps for hoarders to see a clean luxury hotel (void of stuff) to sort of bring the contrast between spaces. If a person only ever sees their house, they never feel like there is anything wrong. Another thing you might try is getting this person involved with a charity where they could eventually donate stuff. When we try to fill the void inside of us with stuff we always loose but, if a hoarder can focus on helping others it may start to fill that void for them and hopefully the person will start to let go of things. Consider the people who were just burned out of homes in Colorado. Maybe your relative would be willing to part with items to help other people. We used this tactic with someone and it worked out very well for everyone.
Sympathy and love,
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on July 06, 2012:
This is a very honest and insightful article on hoarding. We have a hoarder in our family and it is all about control and insecurity. We have tried to help the person and believe me we give positive uplifting comments and have tried to ease the person's problem, but to no avail. Many times we have tried to get the person into therapy and again, to no avail. The piles of "things" are certainly sad. Hoarding is defintely a psychological illness, but no one can be helped if they don't want to be. Thanks for writing such a helpful and interesting piece.
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on February 17, 2012:
I hear what you are saying and I feel honored that you would leave such a heart felt message on my hub. Hubs are very small and do not solve problems such as yours overnight. We all have a dialogue that goes on in our heads. For a lot of people, not just hoarders the dialogue leads to crippling disorders. For a person who has a fear of leaving their home the dialogue is “if I just stay in I will be ok” for a hoarder it may be “As long As I have these things I am ok”. The hope is that the internal dialogue can be changed to allow for a healthier way of living.
What we tell ourselves about things and people makes a difference in how we behave. In other words if you tell yourself that the things you have held onto are bad. It will eventually fuel the idea of letting these things go. You have the power inside of you to change your inner dialogue. Think about what your ideal home would look like. Is it romantic and pretty or rustic, or even modern with clean lines? Focus on that vision, see the life that goes with it, are you a banker, do you ride a bike or run? See yourself with the highest possible potential for living the best life, now go make it happen. Be the success story. Strengthen those like you. Teach them to see the vision of what life can be. Believe me when I say you can change your thinking. You can look at life a whole new way. Look at you a whole new way.
It starts with changing your thoughts. Reprogram your subconscious to get rid of things. Donate, Donate, donate. See people benefiting from the things you gave away.
Years ago there was a young girl on a morning talk show. She was born in a third world country where the parents had to pay for education. Her parents were poor. The Peace Corps brought her family a goat that had been donated by someone in the US. As it turned out the Goat milk was enough to pay for the girl and her siblings to go to school. The goat was pregnant and had two kids. The girl’s family sold one goat and gave the other goat to another impoverished family. The Girl in this story is a doctor now. I like to think of that goat as having been a burden to some person, the goat probably chewed someone’s tires, it probably got out and ate the garden… yet in the hands of the right person… it sent a girl to college.
You have the power to change and be a blessing.
I am always here.
S. Lindsay on February 09, 2012:
As a hoarder, I dread letting anyone know my crippling secret. My hoarding exploded during a family crisis some years ago and I went to psychologists/psychiatrists who just gave me drugs which numbed me out to my bad habits even more.
I am only now eliminating the hoard in my home (or trying to), but it meant leaving a job I hated and now being stone broke and without health insurance, estranging myself from a beloved but abusive family member, and joining a support group specifically for hoarders. I'm very lucky to have one available to me every two weeks.
Nonhoarders can't understand that when you come into our spaces and try to "straighten up", it feels like you are invading our heads. We are ashamed enough, day in and day out. Maybe we are unconsciously punishing ourselves for not being able to control life's tragedies). We feel shame and isolate ourselves and our only comfort is our "stuff". We are not doing this consciously or even willingly; we need to do it for some reason. The reason is anxiety, and drugs don't help eliminate the anxiety.
Some of the concepts in the above article really rang true with me, but other comments like: "People who hoard need to learn how to cope with life's unexpected downside." Easy to say and very simplistic, but not easily done--especially by people who suffer tragedy, not "downsides" and at their most vulnerable. Sounds like "Just pull up your socks and carry on." We are not regular people. We have isolated ourselves, nested ourselves and are now stuck.
Also the comment: "Through counseling and learning new coping skills hoarders can shed the need to hoard and lead productive lives." If you don't have health insurance, if there are no support groups in your area that you can afford, what then?
MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on June 20, 2011:
Most cities have city ordinances that prevent the attraction of pests such as mice or bugs. She can be turned in to the health department if her home is a health hazard. When you watch the television shows most of the people who are on the show have been given ultimatums by a state agency. Few people seek help on their own. However, turning her in is not going to fix what is wrong with her. She is physically responding to emotional distress.
You are asking how to help her? Get her into grief counseling. When a person loses someone close to them it can shock their reasoning. When she handles the grief, she will handle the hoarding. I would approach her and speak to her calmly about her parents. I would bet money she has stalled in the grieving process. Help her seek counseling for the grief, not the hoarding. Once her heart is right, her head will follow. Then you can start helping her clear the house.
Keep in mind that she has pushed people away to avoid confrontation. It is best to take a calm tone and get her to those counseling sessions.
Carolyn on June 20, 2011:
carolyn 15 minutes ago
I have a friend in a distant city who has had some sort of breakdown during the years she cared for her parents until they died. Evidentially she fired the household help and progressively no one came to her house. On the outside she appears perfectly fine, is a Realtor, and ASID interior designer and no one has a clue about her house. There are stacks of things to the ceiling in some areas and only about a one foot path through the entire house. Thick dust hangs from the curtains, the refrigerator interior, the stove and counters are crusted with spilled food. The floors have dried urine from the 3 dogs accidents and the cat box is full. I say all that to say if the person is not willing to admit there is a problem, WHAT do you do?? I talked to mutual friends, a Pastor, showed them pictures of the house...everyone treated me like I was betraying her in some way. I wanted to enlist some help from people close to the situation. She had shut them out as friends for years so no one wanted to get involved. What can you do? When I cleaned the refrigerator, not throwing things out, but creating a questionable area of stuff to ask her about keeping...she basically threw me out of the house. Are there agencies that can go in?
Michelle Jackson on June 15, 2011:
It can be difficult to pinpoint the event that was a catalyst for that persons hoarding. Something that person went through is not being dealt with productively. Smell can be desensitized over time. In other words your friend probably does not even smell the odor anymore. Hoarding is a touchy subject for hoarders who are in denial. Keep in mind that these things have become a comfort to that person. I would say that if you are considering helping that person, you contact a professional counselor. If you can get this friend to start seeing a counselor and handle the problem, the friend may decide on her own to clear out the mess. Interventions can be useful but they do not always work long term.
CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on June 15, 2011:
I know several people who are hoarders and it is sad- their spouses and family manage but their houses have a stale smell that saddens me everytime I see them- the ones I know do have active interests outside the home so I am at a loss to understand