Most of us have heard of hoarders if we aren’t one ourselves or don’t know one personally in our life. It is such a fascinating behavior that there have been reality TV shows done about extreme hoarders. But most people don’t know or understand the emotional and mental component behind this behavior. And most people don’t know that nearly all people walking the globe today are hoarders in their own way, they simply do it in a socially acceptable way.
To hoard something is to accumulate something in a way where it is hidden or guarded for preservation such as for future use. When people hoard, they are concerned with acquiring and gathering whatever it is that they wish to hoard. They are also concerned with not parting with; letting go of or discarding whatever it is they gain. This means that people who hoard are concerned with the coming and the going of things they feel a need to accumulate and save. All of us do this with something. This means that the behavior of hoarding can be seen as a spectrum and everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum. Take a look at your life. What are you preoccupied with acquiring and gathering in a way where you guard it for preservation sake, that you are also very anxious about letting go of?
Unless you understand that compulsively saving money is not making your money work for you, instead it is making your money work for the bank, most of us call a person who hoards money in the bank, financially smart; not a hoarder. But what they are doing is hoarding. Hoarding implies a trauma that we have experienced that has given rise to a fear that is being relieved through the behavior of hoarding. The trauma of the great depression for example, gave rise to an entire generation of people who hoarded valuables including money. At the most extreme side of this spectrum are people who we call compulsive hoarders. These are people who psychologists or doctors would diagnose as having compulsive hoarding disorder. It is my hope that by unveiling the reality behind the most extreme hoarding behavior that you will not only understand it, and everyone who falls short of it on the spectrum, but that you will relate to it in such a way that the way you relate to and/or interact with hoarders will change.
To understand hoarding, you need to start at human nature and then fast forward to the beginning of a person’s life. It is the nature of a biological organism to have needs. There are all kinds of needs. A need is something that is required in order to live, succeed or be happy. This means that we could need physical things like food or water. We could also need emotional things like a sense of safety. And we could need mental things like information. We could perceive ourselves to need anything that we think ensures our wellbeing, success or happiness. It is human nature to need a way to be able to meet those needs. And it is a need to be able to meet those needs in a way that does not lead to more pain or the loss of other needs. And this is where the trauma occurred with someone who is a compulsive hoarder.
It is a potential that a loss or series of losses that are significant enough could cause a person to hoard as a compensation behavior. Possessions, especially those that cannot be lost or go away, become a safety signal and if any single one of them is taken away or is let go of, the person hoarding feels more vulnerable. However, this is not the predominant cause of the behavior of people with extreme compulsive hoarding behavior. Often the experience of a loss simply triggers the onset of the behavior itself, rather than being the original cause of the behavior. It is a trigger of the original wounding that is much, much deeper.
Hoarders did not have their needs reliably met, most especially their emotional needs. Regardless of whether they experienced circumstances like constant relocation or the loss of a loved one in childhood that led to their needs not being reliably met, or were the byproduct of a dysfunctional home, which is why their needs were not reliably met, the bottom line is, they experienced their needs not being reliably met. They are the byproduct of extreme emotional neglect if not physical neglect. To understand more about emotional neglect, watch my video titled: Today’s Great Epidemic and How to Solve It.
The lack of love/resource they felt from the people they needed, made it so they believe that people are only capable of caring about themselves and of using them and taking from them. Because of this, they see people as inconsistent, unreliable, impermanent and dangerous to attach to. They can’t be kept. They feel there is no way to hold onto a person and to make it so a person doesn’t take from them. Therefore there is no way to control the person or predict the person in a way to be able to stay feeling good. They experienced themselves as being only a tool or object in someone else’s reality. Therefore, they suppress the part of themself that wants a relationship with people in favor of relationships with objects.
Hoarders often had relationships in their early life with people who did not respect boundaries around their possessions/ownership as well. They may have operated with an attitude of “what’s yours is mine”. Or getting rid of what was not theirs to get rid of. This led to times where the things they valued were taken without being replaced. This may also have led to times where they needed something for their sense of wellbeing and did not have it. This trauma around needing something in order to feel good and not having it was so bad, it is what they are trying to avoid at all costs. It has given rise to a permanent and very strong ownership boundary. A hoarder can look at literally anything and think of a potential time when they may need something in the future and the idea of not having it when they need that thing feels terrifying. They did not experience people as giving. When we grow up in environments where people are not giving, we do not feel the flow of abundance. We feel we are not able to simply get things when we need them.
May people who hoard experienced deprivation in their childhood. Gifts and therefore things were a very special and big deal albeit often a corrupted thing. They experienced most of the giving in their lives to be a covert way that people got from them. So things were special but gifts were a take instead of a give. Needing anything from anyone therefore became dangerous. It became a recipe for indebtedness. To understand this dynamic fully, watch my video titled: Cut The Invisible Strings (How To Detach From Manipulation in Relationships).
The lack of love they felt and danger they felt with regards to needs being met by people, made it so the closest that they could get to love was found through objects. In the mind of a hoarder, if they are able to use something, and by using that something add to their perceived wellbeing, they perceive that as the object loving them. To understand this, imagine that when you fix your car, you feel as if the car being fixed provides a sense of satisfaction or safety. If you used a screwdriver to do that job of fixing the car, imagine you perceive the screwdriver to be the thing that lent its energy to you in a way that added to your wellbeing and it did so without expecting anything in return. You see that as the screwdriver loving you. You feel love from that object. Because you can keep the object, you can keep that love. Any time an object improves the perceived wellbeing of a hoarder, they perceive themselves to be loved by that object as well as experiencing increased wellbeing.
The thing is, everything could potentially improve your wellbeing in a given scenario. If you went through your house right now and with each item in your house, thought of a potential use or need for something that could enhance your life in a potential scenario, you would be able to come up with something. Therefore, if what you are after is the feeling of security that you will never face a day where your wellbeing could be dependent on something you do not have, everything is valuable and everything could be needed. This means that a hoarder experiences extreme distress at the thought of throwing something away.
The acquisition of an object or something that the person could hoard is part of the pattern of hoarding. This is why compulsive hoarding often goes hand in hand with compulsive shopping or compulsive acquisition in some other form. Every object seems to serve as further insurance of one’s wellbeing, security, happiness and insurance against the potential of ever experiencing the feeling of not having what they need when and if they need it. Seeing the potential use in every object is actually a way of preventing future pain and guaranteeing future pleasure, which is why it gives the hoarder such an emotional kick.
When the closest that we can get to love is through objects, we begin to identify with objects and have a relationship with them. This gives objects a much more ‘alive’ quality. We ascribe people like qualities to these objects. You might remember doing this with your favorite stuffed toy as a child. And this is where life for a hoarder becomes even more painful. If you grow up in a situation where you feel your needs are not met and everyone is just out for themselves and you are a thing for them to use, you do not feel valuable in and of yourself. You feel like something to be used and discarded. This means that you recognize yourself in and therefore identify with trash. This means, if you throw anything away, not only are you setting yourself up for a future time where you have a need for something that you don’t have and can’t get, you are also reinforcing your own wound that you are worth nothing.
Because their core self-concept is extreme shame, hoarders projected themselves onto trash. In seeing anything as valuable and even valuing things that they did use, they are externally trying to solve the wound of being treated and seen as if they have no value and of being used and discarded. This adds a secondary layer of extreme distress to the idea of throwing something away. For a hoarder to let go of the behavior of keeping trash, they need to alter their self-concept so they do not identify with trash. They also need to resolve the trauma of feeling like no one saw their potential or value, the tragedy of which they are projecting onto things when they are concerned with not wasting something.
Most hoarders have also experienced a trauma relative to feeling exposed. Space equates to exposure, where attack could come from anywhere at any moment. Having clutter around actually is experienced as enclosure or padding from potential threat. This is especially true if the hoarder experienced people constantly taking from them in childhood. When this is the case, though the hoarder does not want any of their things to be taken, having piles and piles of things provides security in that if someone takes from them, they have more. If they have nothing, the only thing for someone to take is their own body or being. You can imagine this feeling if you think of being in a shark tank but surrounded with ten foot deep walls of meat. When the sharks take a bite out of the meat, you don’t like it, but if the meat is gone, the only thing left to take a bite out of is you.
Most hoarders love piles. There are multiple reasons for this. A pile feels like a tangible savings account full of things that could ensure their wellbeing, should they ever need that thing and therefore an insurance policy for their physical and emotional wellbeing. When they make a pile, they often forget about things that are in that pile. To rediscover that thing when sorting through a pile makes them feel a renewed sense of wellbeing. The same way that forgetting about something and then rediscovering it in your fridge, makes you feel amazing. But perhaps the most fascinating thing that makes piles feel good to a hoarder is that creating piles are the closest feeling they have to being able to control closeness. This is why the idea that a hoarder doesn’t organize because they don’t have the skill to do so is a misconception. Hoarders identify with objects. The physical distance between objects, which is created when people organize things into compartments, feels cold and isolated to them. They don’t want that separation. The separation between objects that is created through organization makes them feel an emotion similar to how you would feel if today, every member of your family were moved into separate apartments in the same building and started living separate lives. It re-opens their wound of experiencing the emptiness and isolation of a parallel perceptual reality. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: The Most Dangerous Parallel Reality.
To a hoarder, a pile feels warm and cozy, like community. The space that is created through organization brings back the underlying feeling of emptiness that was created through emotional neglect. And there is another layer to this. Remember they identify with trash? If they can put trash in a pile next to something valuable then it is a way of externally creating a link between the person or people they perceived as having value in their childhood next to and in permanent connection and communion with themselves. It is a way of externally re-uniting the family and establishing the closeness they could not experience with them and others in their life.
Most hoarders do not like movement. They dislike hoarding things that could choose to or may eventually benefit by going away from them. This is because when something can come and go, it reinforces their wound in relationships. Therefore, if they do hoard anything, like animals, the fact that the animal is captive, and according to them has no desire to leave, is a sense of control in the same way that one can control a stationary object. They have managed to replace people with things. Object hoarders feel a re-traumatization at the thought of keeping something that does not want to be with them. This is a sensation that is bulldozed by serial killers who hoard dead bodies. The serial killer who hoards in this way is often doing so specifically to prevent the coming and going of a person and to be able to be in control over the keeping of them. This behavioral strategy usually includes severe and repetitive perceived abandonment trauma.
So you can see, what creates a hoarder is a specific storm of circumstances, all of which are the result of pain in human relationships, that lead to this highly subconscious coping method of hoarding. Because of all of this wounding around needs, they cannot perceive themselves as not needing something now or in the future. It is a scarcity issue yes, but not in the way most people think. It is not that having piles of things around makes them feel abundant. It is that having piles of things around makes them feel the safety of the insurance that there will not ever be a time where they experience the pain of needing and not having or being left alone in emptiness or being forced to need something from a person, who will take something from them in return or reinforcing the wound that they, themselves are worthy of discarding.
What most people don’t recognize is that hoarding is an addiction. An addiction is a behavior or a substance that covers over a wound or that satiates the pain of that wound. It is a coping strategy. It is an avoidance strategy. Therefore, hoarding is also an addiction. It is as useless to clean up a hoarder’s environment without first resolving the underlying wound creating the behavior as it is to try to quit smoking when you haven’t resolved the pain that is giving a person a motive to smoke. The addiction will either return or will be replaced with yet another addiction.
It is an extreme re-traumatization to take things away from a hoarder or to try to clean their house when they have not initiated help to do so. When we do this, we are doing nothing but re-opening their wounding. Think about it. When we clean their house, we are putting them in a position to need something and not have it and not be able to get it in a way where they can stay safe. We are putting them in a position to feel that emptiness of the emotional neglect they suffered. We are getting rid of the relationships they do have and we are re-enforcing the belief that they are worthy of being discarded. Obviously no one wants to be living in trash, especially when the sanitation level is a health hazard. But the problem with interacting with hoarders in the way we usually do is that it is a cycle of trauma that re-enforces itself. When we say, “I can’t deal with your trash anymore” and that is why we go away from them or reject them, because they identify with trash, we are essentially saying “yep… you are why I am going away from you”. This not only reinforces their self concept, it makes you something that goes away and thus reinforces their belief that objects are better to form relationships with than people. The objects are one thing they can control. All beings need a sense of control. All beings need to feel as if they can avoid pain and gain pleasure. Otherwise, they feel totally powerless to harm.
What we need to be doing with hoarders and everyone really is not to stand outside of their reality and invalidate it. We need to work from inside their reality and psychology. We need to realize that the way we treat objects in their environment is a direct message about how we see them and will treat them. We need to resolve the deep wounding that is beneath this addictive strategy so that there is no longer a need for that strategy to be employed. We need to remember that hoarding is a symptom. We need to treat the cause, not the symptom. If a hoarder is able to develop safe and nourishing relationships, they day will come where they feel the improvement is to clean their space and organize their living space according to joy instead of fear and prevention of potential pain. They will ask for help on this day.
What is painful for a hoarder to realize is that an object can’t love them back. This awareness usually does force them into the original wound they are avoiding through hoarding. But a breakthrough in overcoming the addiction is on the other side of realizing this.
You cannot clean a hoarder’s space with an attitude of disapproval and rejection. This is re-traumatizing. If you feel disgusted, you should not be cleaning their space. The cleaning of a hoarder’s space must be done with an attitude of appreciation for things, not disapproval or disgust. The letting go of anything makes them feel extremely vulnerable because it feels like with every thing they discard, they are getting closer and closer to the potential of future pain. The meaning of what you are doing must be carefully considered. When a hoarder is ready to organize things, they will need the help of people to do it. But it must be done with the idea that organizing clutter is honoring the objects themselves and isn’t done so as to make the objects lonely. When a hoarder is ready to let go of things, it also has to be done with positive meaning, such as the object itself has a purpose elsewhere. Not that you are ‘getting rid of something’ or ‘it is being wasted’.
The process of a hoarder learning to behave differently during the process of acquisition, is a process. The process of organizing and cleaning a hoarder’s space is a process. Both are processes that can be traumatizing and that will inevitably bring up unresolved wounds that need resolution before continuing with the process and the altering of the behavior.
Hoarders have understandably turned away from people. This means if a hoarder is aware of these early wounds that created their behavior (which some are not) he or she is unlikely to share that pain with you, leaving you baffled as to why they are doing what they are doing. We have the tendency to look at hoarders with an attitude of disgust. We tend to look at them as if we could never be like them and we don’t know how they could let it get so bad or live like that. We project that they are lazy. This behavior has nothing to do with laziness. We project that they are the disorder, when they are much more than that; they have simply developed a coping mechanism.
But hopefully after reading this, you can relate to people who hoard to the degree that you can feel the compassion that is a necessary component of the re-establishment of secure relationships with people in their life. The gift that the hoarder may just be bringing to your life is the awareness that there is value in anything and everything; most of us simply don’t look close enough to see it.
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