An insight into hoarding behaviour


An aspect of hoarding behaviour that is not often discussed is the loneliness it can bring.

Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome

Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome (known as CHAOS for short) is what happens when a person’s home fills with so much stuff that they feel too ashamed to let anyone else see it. The longer this goes on, the more lonely and isolated they are likely to feel. It can even get to the stage where there is so much clutter they are too embarrassed to let workmen in to repair broken appliances.

One woman I worked with lived like this for over twelve years. Every room in her 3-bedroom house was piled high to the ceiling with clutter, and the only place she could sleep was in the hallway near the front door, on a small mattress that she kept propped up against the wall during the day. Her two dogs slept next to her, which meant she didn’t get much rest because they moved around and fidgeted all night long. Her heating, hot water system and toilet had packed up long ago, so the only functioning plumbing she had was a cold water tap in the kitchen. She used this to wash her dishes and bathe herself. To flush the toilet, she used a bucket of water that she carried up the stairs to the bathroom.

Like many people I’ve met who have hoarding behaviour, she was an intelligent, well-educated, warm-hearted person. She was appalled at the situation she had got herself into but felt powerless to do anything about it.

The first time she invited me to visit, she repeated over and over as she showed me around, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ meaning she couldn’t believe she was actually letting someone see the truth about how she lives. She had so much shame about it that she never revealed her problem to anyone. She only let me in because she had become so desperate for help.

Material possessions as a substitute for relationships?

Some people theorize that hoarders have an inability to form relationships with people so they gather objects around themselves instead. In some cases this is true, but for many it isn’t. A significant part of the depression they feel is likely to be because so many of their friendships have slipped away. When helped to sort through their things, this type of hoarder will create huge piles of items they want to give to people they know, in an attempt to foster whatever tenuous relationships they have left. But unless their friends are hoarders too, the gifts are usually in such poor condition that they are likely to be thrown straight into the bin by the recipient.

So there they are, trapped in their home with all their possessions around them, realizing how lonely life has become. Abandoned by family and friends, shunned by neighbours, and largely ignored by local authorities, many are utterly alone in their predicament. An estimated three to five percent of people living in the West have hoarding problems, which means there is someone with hoarding behaviour in just about every street now.

What can be done?

It’s a sad state of affairs and one there is no easy answer to. I don’t profess to have a sweeping solution. Each person is unique and requires an individually tailored approach. But if my writings in some small way can help to change the toxic stigma attached to hoarding and replace it with some measure of insight and compassion, perhaps more people stuck in this situation will feel able to seek help, and perhaps more help will be forthcoming.

One thing I do know. Trying to change a hoarder doesn’t work. They have to want to change, and some would rather die with their clutter than go through the distressing process of dealing with it. Ultimately, the best help of all is spotting hoarding behaviour before it becomes too entrenched. Support given at that early stage can usually be very effective. But for that to happen there has to be more public awareness and more reaching out from the local community rather than ignoring the issue and hoping it will go away.

Copyright © Karen Kingston 2013

Help For Hoarders (UK)
Hoarding Cleanup (USA)

About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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13 Responses to An insight into hoarding behaviour

  1. “One thing I do know. Trying to change a hoarder doesn’t work. They have to want to change, and some would rather die with their clutter than go through the distressing process of dealing with it”.

    This is the most frustrating and distressing thing to have to watch in a loved one. My aunt has a serious hoarding problem but she refuses to admit that it is even an issue. When I broach the subject she replies with “this is all I have”, but as an observer looking in I can see that it is quite literally killing her.

    I have tried in the past to help her to “clear out” but she refuses to let anything other than actual litter, eg. sweet wrappers, go and has actually gone into the bin after I’ve left and retrieved things that we have agreed to throw out.

    Because of the amount of clutter everywhere the air cannot circulate in her house which has led to black mould in places. She has suffered from Pneumonia, 5 times in one year, and lung cancer but she can’t seem to see the connection between her poor health and how she is choosing to live.

    As someone who loves her very much I feel so helpless and unless you have money to pay privately for help, there is absolutely no help out there for hoarding, none.

  2. My Suggestion is: Reduce your shopping all in all and you will have more space!!!
    I was on a Shop til you Drop Sale escapade and then I had too much stuff !!! So I basically “stopped shopping during January” and my Condo is neater already !!AR

  3. I like what JoAnne wrote: This resonates with me even though it is not ‘piles of stuff’ but one or two things that I’d purchased…usually on a whim…and was too embarrassed to refund because I was shopping with someone… lol

    I like Karen’s article in general. I have suffered from intermittent “hoarding”. I read all I can on the topic and follow general suggestions so the condo is better!

    One problem with “hoarding or having too much stuff” is the countless hours spent moving items around and dusting items. So I try to give away every item I do not use or want and I seem to have more time to do other activities I like!

  4. “…this type of hoarder will create huge piles of items they want to give to people they know, in an attempt to foster whatever tenuous relationships they have left…”

    This resonates with me even though it is not ‘piles of stuff’ but one or two things that I’d purchased…usually on a whim…and was too embarrassed to refund because I was shopping with someone…read that as I had a witness…or the time to refund had elapsed…or when I got it home ‘it’ couldn’t find where ‘it’ wanted to be so it floats around the house looking for a home. So what do I do? I put it in the ‘what do I do with this’ corner of the spare bedroom waiting for that ‘special’ person to ‘foster that tenuous relationship’ however it usually goes to the op shop because I can’t make the decision and ‘it’ won’t tell me who I should gift it to.

    I have that push~me~pull~me tussle going on between Minimalist Me and Honorary Hoarder.

  5. Hi Karen,

    I’ve just found your website earlier today and appreciate the few articles I’ve read. You seem to be compassionate and educated on the problems faced by those who hoard, so I’m confident you are also aware of the probable genetic links and ongoing research into hoarding. (Even if the behavior is only unwittingly nurtured; taught to younger generations — perhaps by a grandmother, who survived the depression and learned to (*neatly*) hold onto things for a “rainy day,” for instance.) In either example, I fear I am at risk, and likely in the early stages, of becoming a hoarder. At best, I am a clutter magnet: a busy mom to young children/constantly hurrying and often not completing things (such as effectively packing away Christmas decor or finishing a craft). Our home is quite small yet burgeoning with more items each season/each year, generated by all four of us…and I tend to be impossibly sentiment. All great elements combining to keep me drowning in clutter!

    My question is about your comment about effective treatment for early stages of the disease/disorder — I’ve been looking for help, on and off since my last baby was born 2 years ago, but I never seem to find what I need. As you may guess, I often fight “the funk” (aka mild depression), probably stress- and clutter-related. I lost my job over 18 months ago but can’t find a new, more meaningful one and am near the point where I will take anything — so money is a huge factor in our family’s life, we can’t buy certain necessities, so paying for an organizer is out of the question. We live in a smaller, conservative area and I’ve been unsuccessful in finding support groups… but I’m unsure I’ve looked int he right places and I refuse to give up. My 6 year old is at the point she will soon remember how messy our unfinished basement is/was (forward thinking to the time when I *do* prevail, get the junk sorted out, have more than paths through it — giving them larger spaces to PLAY, especially in Michigan’s long, cold winter months!), and I feel increasingly panicky to get my act together, demonstrating how to rise above one’s tendencies and teach her a more productive, healthier way to interact with one’s world.

    Last but not least, my long-suffering husband clearly prefers a tidy home (but, then, who doesn’t. i certainly do, as well!) and he often is driven to clear space, particularly in our kitchen / dining area, where our kids’s things tend to collect but don’t belong. His manic sweeping process has been known to leave me nauseous, and freaked out or angry… so I know I likely have true problems. ANYTHING –any group/ideas/strategies/persons to whom I might reach out — ANY suggestions you may have to offer would leave me exceptionally grateful.

    1. Hi Jill, I live in the UK and have never visited Michigan, so am not able to point you in the direction of any support groups in your area. I certainly encourage you to keep looking yourself, though, and if finances permit next year, then I teach an online course that I feel sure will help you start to tackle your clutter. It’s called Fast Track Clutter Clearing, and I have deliberately priced it very reasonably in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible. This month’s course is completely full but you can find information about future courses here.

  6. I haven’t reached hoarder status yet but I’m definitely a clutterer, most of it paper clutter. And then there are the sentimental clutter items such as stuff that belonged to my grandmother but I personally do not care for myself but I cannot throw them out (such as her teacup collection). I also still have Christmas gifts from last year sitting in the corner of my living room because I don’t have room to put them anywhere (I live in an apartment). The clutter can be so overwhelming that you don’t know where to start. Getting started is the hardest part. I agree that you can’t help a hoarder until they’ve reached a breaking point where they can’t stand it any longer and need help. In my case my sister came for a visit and helped me organize and get rid of stuff. We did it over a long weekend. I am happy to report that my living room is now livable again and the Christmas gifts are opened and in their rightful place. I still don’t know what to do with grandmother’s teacup collection but at least I got rid of much of the other clutter that was stagnating my life.

    1. Hi there, Here is an idea for the teacup collection. Pick 1 teacup and saucer that you particularly like or especially reminds you of your grandmother. Allow that 1 set to represent the entire collection. Either give away the rest of the sets or sell them on ebay or at a flea market and use the money for something that makes you feel good. This way, the one set remains to honor your grandmother’s memory and the space is created to bring more newness and pleasure into your life.

  7. I like to go through my things at least once a month and get rid of stuff that I no longer need. Energy wise I feel much better when things are clean and organized. The funny thing is I’ve always been like that. I remember growing up, I use to organize my closet a lot as well as any old school work I had. There were times I might not have wanted to part with a certain piece of paper, document or even an item. So I would give myself a month or so to decide and then by the next time I went through my things, if I felt a certain item whatever it was no longer served me, I would get rid of it. Which, in a way, when you do this, creates more space to invite new things into your life. However, whenever I buy something I always ask myself, is this something I am going to use on a regular basis? If it’s not, then I don’t buy it, which helps cut down the clutter.

  8. Thanks to this article I realized my hoarding is done on my computer. There are many duplicate files on my external hard drive. I have hundreds of files and videos I haven’t watched in over a year yet there are hundreds of incomplete downloads just waiting for me to resume. More of the same stuff I haven’t watched or listened to in months.

    Over the past several years I have found the most effective cure to be cultivating compassion. Reminding myself it is OK to treat the feeling of loneliness by going online or downloading stuff while I work on a more permanent, more uplifting solution has helped me stop the downloads.

    I am still working on completing this healing and it may be years before I can delete the incomplete downloads. Right now it is enough to have them inactive. The important thing I believe is to realize life is experiential. I am choosing to experience this clutter on my computer. That’s all it is. Yes, there is a lot of it. That’s OK.

    People may say this is not affecting my physical surroundings yet it does impact my life. I shudder at the thought of all the hours I have spent searching online for stuff to download. Hours I could have invested in going for a walk or treating myself to a relaxing bath or learning a new skill. There were times when I ended up grabbing a snack for dinner because it had become too late to cook dinner. Most mornings I ended up rushing to get to work despite giving myself almost two hours to get ready.

    My life is not at the point where I can afford the luxury of spending hours online. This may not be such an issue if I had my own home and a steady stream of income. A lot of the pain I feel is knowing there are healthier ways to spend my time instead of staring at the progress of a video download.

    Until I read this article I never thought of myself as a hoarder. Now that I realize I am one I can address it. Thank you, Karen, for the gift of this awareness. I think I will go wash my dishes, take a shower and meditate.

    1. Shaun

      Thank you for sharing…I too am a digital hoarder and have multiple copies of files and folders. And now I have many many websites bookmarked even though I have only referenced them a few times. Yes! Digital clutter has the same impact as physical, mental, emotional or spiritual clutter.

      Courage…one delete at a time.

  9. I have definitely seen this with the hoarders I have worked with. Trying to change a hoarder can actually make things worse. I always ask these clients if they remember a time when things got worse for them with their hoarding, and one that stuck out in my mind was a gal whose husband (now ex) got rid of a bunch of her stuff when they were preparing to move. He didn’t tell her until after they were halfway across the country. She later discovered that he had gotten rid of several items that belonged to her mom that were of great sentimental value to her. Since then her hoarding had gotten exponentially worse.

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