Hoarding disorder: when we hold onto things we no longer need, making everyday life and relationships tough

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  • A counsellor breaks down what happens in a hoarder’s mind and gives advice for what can help people with this mental health condition
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Doris Wai |
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Hoarding becomes a problem when you struggle to complete everyday tasks because of your piles of stuff. Illustration: Shutterstock

Whether you save trading cards or hang onto old cinema tickets, everyone collects stuff. But some people gather to the point that their collection starts to overwhelm their life.

Dr Rick Smith, a counsellor and education consultant based in Hong Kong, breaks down what happens inside a hoarder’s mind. He explains why they often have a hard time letting go of their things.

Rick Smith is a counsellor and education consultant based in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

What is hoarding?

Simply put, hoarding disorder is when someone constantly struggles to get rid of unnecessary things and becomes upset when trying to let go of them.

The difference between collecting and hoarding is based on how people hold onto these items. It is also about whether the objects add value to their life, or make it more difficult.

“I might place all my receipts in a pile of papers labelled ‘expenses’,” Smith explained. “Someone struggling with hoarding disorder has a tendency to stack all the papers together without any form of organisation and valid reason, except for the [fact] that they might need them one day.”

There are several reasons people hoard. They might have grown up in an environment where they did not have enough to get by. But oftentimes, hoarders are no longer in those desperate situations, and holding onto old items is no longer necessary.

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According to Smith, it boils down to how people perceive their belongings. The brain categorises things and decides to keep them based on their purpose.

Common items that hoarders collect include objects that bring back happy memories, ornaments that look pretty and things that could prove to be useful in a certain situation.

“These individuals tend to see very different, unusual details about things that other people may not see,” the counsellor explained, adding that this could cause them to focus on unique functions for everyday items.

Someone with a hoarding disorder might think a toilet paper roll could become a telescope, an instrument or a wire holder. That makes it difficult for them to throw things away even though they often do not end up repurposing these objects.

How can we help hoarders?

Smith said when parents threatened young hoarders, it could cause them to hoard even more.

“Forcing them to throw away stuff can end up backfiring because it then further reinforces the idea that they need to hang onto these items. And [they] might start being really private about hiding things under beds and rugs,” the counsellor said.

“It ends up creating a pervasive state of fear ... if they throw away an item, they are going to live with feelings of regret.”

This ends up filling rooms with so much mess that it harms the hoarder’s daily life and relationships.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the items you’ve collected, you should consider reaching out to a professional for help. Illustration: Shutterstock

Hoarding disorder can cause people to feel isolated. It can even lead to conflict at home as the person’s behaviour leads to anger and resentment among family members.

According to Smith, the key to overcoming hoarding tendencies is to understand its consequences. Oftentimes, a hoarder’s collection stops them from doing basic tasks such as cooking. It could also cause their living space to be dangerous and dirty.

It is important to recognise hoarding disorder as a mental health condition. It is not that these people are too lazy to clean up. Sometimes, hoarding coincides with other mental health issues, which require professional support.

“Most of the therapy work we do involves opening their eyes to how much better their quality of life can be without these physical items, and that it is completely OK to get rid of things we do not necessarily need,” Smith said.

Click here for a printable worksheet and interactive exercises about this story.

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