The Psychological Reason You Can't Declutter

Written by H.G. McKinnis

Photo by Stocksy

The world of 2017 seems to be all about paring down. From the tiny home phenomenon to the meteoric rise of the KonMari Method, our culture is all about the disciplined pursuit of less (a tagline I borrowed, incidentally, from another less-is-more philosophy, Essentialism). But for many of us, the idea of ridding ourselves of clutter is more anxiety-inducing than exhilarating. And it turns out that's a pretty common feeling.

So, what's the difference between people who can't wait to get their spring clean on and people whose idea of "spring cleaning" is finding excuses to keep all of their belongings? Well, like most of our other idiosyncrasies, it's rooted in childhood trauma. And it might make you feel better to know it's something Princess Diana dealt with her whole life.

Andrew Morton's seminal biography of the Princess of Wales suggests that Diana's attachment style and many of her insecurities could be traced back to her childhood. Diana: Her True Story sheds light on one particular quirk of the People's Princess that makes her even more sympathetic and relatable. She had a really hard time getting rid of stuff.

Crowded with comforting groups of pottery animals, enamel boxes, and porcelain figurines, the room gave the impression of belonging to a woman trying to protect herself from the incursion of the outside world. 'It is like an old lady's room,' a girlfriend observed, 'packed to the gunwales with knickknacks... You can hardly move.' Another close friend explained something of the sentimentality behind this profusion: 'It's very common for people coming from a broken home to want material possessions around them. They are building their own nests.'

But just because you have a tendency to nest doesn't mean you're flat-out a hoarder. Calling on my own experience of living with someone who dealt with hoarding tendencies, here are four signs to watch for if you think your habit of surrounding yourself with clutter might be getting out of control.

In my early 20s, I lived with a girl I’ll call Mae. From the first time I visited, I knew she was a poor housekeeper and saw that she had quite a bit of stuff. It wasn’t until I moved out, however, that I realized Mae wasn’t just a person who had a neatness deficit and a high tolerance for roaches. She was a classic example of a genuine hoarder.

We all like our stuff. We chose it, love it, and become attached. Any empty nester can tell you how difficult it is to move from a big house to a smaller one. It’s a challenge to throw out mementos and get rid of things that represent milestones, success, or investment. Not every person attached to their possessions is a hoarder—not even prodigious collectors.

Hoarding, like other addictions and mental disorders, can’t always be recognized by outward appearances. Huge piles of clutter may be a symptom, but they aren’t enough for a diagnosis without supporting evidence. Here are a few ways to recognize a hoarding problem and begin to find help:

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1. Inability to part with worthless, useless items:

A serious problem often starts out small. As I look back on my experiences with Mae, the warning signs were all present. Her tables and chairs were stacked with worn-out books, paper bags, and old mail. She bought food in bulk "to save money." The food often spoiled in the refrigerator, but Mae refused to throw it out. Instead, she created a "compost pile." While she claimed she was improving the soil in her backyard, she was really only creating a burgeoning problem with bugs. When I noticed she had three copies of the same book, I suggested she get rid of the copy with loose, brittle, and missing pages. She said she was afraid the tattered version might be hurt or destroyed if she didn’t protect it. I now know that rationalizations for holding on to useless items—and even garbage—are classic signs of a disorder.

2. Insatiable desire for more stuff:

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Mae made monthly donations to a neighborhood thrift store, usually consisting of clothing her children had outgrown and items she had recently acquired and with which she had not formed a bond. Whenever she made a donation, Mae also shopped at the thrift store for stuff she felt was "too good to stay in the store." She usually came home with slightly less than she had left with and elated that she had "pared down." Then she would order things from catalogs as a reward for good behavior. The result? More stuff. I now know that hoarders often have some awareness of their problematic relationship with possessions, but they can rarely make substantive changes without intervention.

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3. No problem getting rid of other people's stuff:

Mae couldn’t part with her own junk, but she had no trouble at all giving away my belongings. "Oh, my friend needed it," she said when my clock radio went missing. At the time, I couldn’t understand this behavior. Now I know that it’s quite typical of most. Studies on the brains of have shown that ownership is a key factor when they make decisions. The disorder stems from their unhealthy relationship with their own possessions but not those of others. Mae was unable to get rid of her old books and trash but had no trouble parting with her children’s belongings—and my stuff.

4. Issues that threaten health and safety:

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Hoarding problems tend to get worse over time. While stacks of newspapers or boxes of possessions may at first seem innocuous, tall stacks are a hazard. Hoarders have died in fires caused by their accumulations and suffocated under toppled piles. In Mae’s case, her papers and books housed a cockroach infestation. She could see that the bug problem was out of hand but threw a fit if I mentioned getting rid of any of the clutter. She had a story about the value and use she might get out of each and every item. It is always difficult to intervene, but if health and safety are at risk, remember that hoarders are incapable of making necessary changes on their own.

Because hoarding is a behavior but not a disorder in itself, it is wise to look into possible issues that contributed to it and seek appropriate therapy. Depression leads the list of underlying causes of hoarding, but trauma, family background, dementia, and many other factors may also be responsible. For help with hoarding itself, consider programs like Clutterers Anonymous or Buried in Treasures, twelve-step programs that are run and maintained by its members and uses the mentor approach.

If the hoarder herself realizes that change is necessary and she makes the effort to work with the program, she can develop a tolerance for bypassing unnecessary purchases. As a friend or family member, remember that understanding and compassion can go a long way toward helping a hoarder improve.

Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your June Horoscope, then try these three steps to getting out of your own way and finally getting what you want.

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