You may have a hard time wrapping your brain around why hoarders struggle to throw things away. But once you understand, you can help.
After you discover that someone you know is suffering from a hoarding disorder, the logical next question is why are they having such a hard time discarding their personal items?
If you want to understand why it’s so hard for hoarders to get rid of stuff, try putting yourself in their shoes. A little patience and empathy can go a long way.
What’s the hardest part of getting rid of your belongings?
For many people, it’s not the actual process itself—it’s the emotional stuff that comes along with it. We’ve all experienced feelings like regret and loss when we have to get rid of something we love. But for hoarders, those feelings are a lot more intense.
In fact, there are many reasons why it can be so difficult for hoarders to get rid of things—and none of them are because they’re lazy or bad people.
As hoarding cleaning professionals, we’ve seen it all.
Here’s what you need to know.
The brain physiologically responds to losing treasured possessions.
Your brain is an incredibly complex organ.
It has many parts that play a role in how you feel about the things around you.
Your hippocampus is responsible for your memory, connecting it with other parts of your brain to create emotions and reactions. One of these connections is to your amygdala, which helps regulate your fight or flight response when faced with danger.
This response can cause anxiety when triggered by events like losing something important to you or being unable to find something that’s been lost.
Many hoarders suffer from mental health issues related to trauma, depression, or anxiety.
The trauma that hoarders experience impacts the way their brains process information.
Many survivors of trauma tend to have an underdeveloped amygdala. This means they’re physiologically incapable of regulating their emotional responses the same way as an emotional healthy person. They can recover, but it takes time, consistency, and professional help.
Stuff can be a reminder of a more stable time, even if it’s just on the surface.
When we think about hoarding, we tend to picture a person living in squalor. But it’s important to remember that hoarders aren’t crazy: they simply have an emotional attachment to their stuff.
The reason that hoarders keep things is often because they are able to see past the surface of what something is (a broken chair, for example) and get a glimpse of the memory attached to it.
You may not be able to see beyond the fact that their stuff is unusable. But it still means something because it reminds them of something less stressful—a time when their life was more stable or when everything seemed okay.
Hoarders aren't lazy—they're afraid of losing something essential to their identity.
You may have heard that hoarders don’t think rationally. But if you look at the reasons why they can’t let go of their belongings, you may find that it’s much deeper than being lazy or irrational.
For hoarders, objects are a part of who they are and what makes them special—they don’t want to lose anything that has sentimental value or represents something significant in their lives.
- Memories associated with certain items (a beloved stuffed animal from childhood)
- Social connections with specific people (a gift from an old friend)
- Emotional connection with certain items
Your stuff can become part of your identity.
When you look around your home, what do you see? Are the walls covered in photos of loved ones? Is there a collection of figurines from your favorite movie or cartoon series? Is there a shelf full of books that represent your interests and knowledge?
You might be surprised to learn that many people identify with their things just as much as they identify themselves. In fact, some hoarders use their belongings to define themselves and their place in society. In other words, our belongings can tell others who we are.
Hoarding is a natural consequence of a protective human instinct.
The brain finds it difficult to forget information, especially when that information is related to survival. Hoarders are just trying to protect themselves from the loss of something essential.
Even if you’re not a hoarder yourself, your brain probably has some memory clutter in it as well.
It’s easy to forget what happened on the day you graduated high school or what color shirt you wore today, but our brains also like to hang on to useless stuff like names and dates that we don’t even use anymore.
This tendency for humans to keep too much information may be linked to how our brains evolved over time. Hoarding might be an adaptive behavior that helped us survive in prehistoric times when resources were scarce or unreliable
There are ways to help hoarders mitigate the anxiety of getting rid of stuff.
To start, it’s important to get rid of things in small steps. Don’t try to clean out your whole house at once. Instead, focus on one area of the house at a time and spend a few days getting everything organized in that area before you move on to the next one.
A good way to do this is by using containers—for example, boxes or plastic bins—and labeling them so you can easily tell what goes inside each one.
If there are items that seem particularly hard for you to part with, consider donating them first if possible. Otherwise, set aside a bag or box for things that don’t belong in this room but aren’t worth selling or donating yet either.
These can be saved until later when they’ve been properly vetted and organized into piles by category (e.g., clothes) instead of being thrown into an unorganized pile on top of another pile somewhere else in your home
Helping Hoarders Let Go
We all have a tendency to become attached to our possessions and the memories they trigger, but this is especially true for hoarders. Their fear of losing something essential—such as their identity or sense of security—can make them extremely resistant to decluttering.
In many cases, professional help is needed in order for them to overcome this attachment and move forward with their lives.
Working with a trained, experienced professional can help you determine your next steps safely.
Our team comes ready with a solution for anything—including the unexpected.
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