When does a Collection become a Hoard?

There’s a complicated relationship between people and their stuff, and this relationship can lead people to become compulsive hoarders. Compulsive hoarders collect and keep stuff to the point where there is no space (physical, emotional, or intellectual) in their lives for anything else; they become isolated because they stop socializing or working; and they can become really ill from hoarding unsanitary stuff or neglecting their health and hygiene.

There is arguably an evolutionary imperative to gather resources – the more stuff you have, the more likely you are to survive. But this simple survival motivation for collecting and keeping stuff can get distorted when there are other forces at play. If you don’t have friends and feel alone in the world, the stuff can become your friends – you can imagine how hard it is to part with the stuff under these circumstances. There is also a buzz involved in acquiring stuff – the thrill of the hunt for the perfect thing, and the thrill of capturing this perfect thing, and dragging it home to your lair! We know that compulsive shopping has something to do with this thrill, and it can become addictive.

You might wonder where the thrill is in collecting empty food packets from rubbish bins, but it’s there, nonetheless – compulsive hoarders report feeling pleasure when they are in the acquisition phase of their disorder. Now you can see there’s a feedback loop in play – feeling lonely or unwanted can be alleviated (at least for a short time) by acquiring something you didn’t have before, and so the pleasure of the new stuff makes you feel less lonely or sad. The pleasure of acquisition, which we all experience to some extent, becomes the only source of pleasure in life, and this drives the endless collecting of stuff and the inability to discard it. Anxiety and depression can also be alleviated by these little bursts of pleasure, so the collecting is used as an antidote to feeling bad, and there are high rates of anxiety and depression among compulsive hoarders.

Not only are there emotional reasons to hoard, there can also be thinking problems associated with hoarding. For example, people who tend to hoard also tend to have attention and concentration problems, and often struggle to make decisions. This may be why a hoarder’s collection can contain stuff with no sentimental or other value mixed with piles of cash or other objects of value – the hoarder struggles to make a distinction between what is valuable and what is not. This decision is just too difficult, so the hoarder keeps it all.

In addition, hoarders struggle to categorise things – each individual thing is seen as unique in its own right so cannot be lumped with anything else. Imagine how difficult it would be to choose among the myriad things available for gathering (like everything in every shop and at every garage sale and in every garbage skip) if you couldn’t categorise things into valuable/valueless; useful/useless; good/bad; or even ugly/pretty! Relatedly, how can you throw things away (except maybe one at a time) when you can’t put them in piles or categories? So, 500 newspapers cannot be discarded because each one is an individual thing – they’re not all just newspapers. Finally, hoarders are reported to have memory deficits – it’s almost as though collecting and keeping stuff helps you remember things.

So, when you’re trying to decide whether you really need another piece of clothing or recipe book or gardening tool or magazine or DVD, or you’re trying to decide what to get rid of – picture yourself surrounded by stuff to the extent that there is no space left in your life for friends, family, hobbies, work, or fun! Suddenly, the stuff loses it’s importance, and it’s easy to let go of it and get your pleasure in satisfying relationships or fun activities or rewarding creations.


Comments are closed.