When people find out that I’ve been a practicing Professional Organizer for more than fifteen years, they often ask me, “So, do you work with hoarders?” I believe it’s very important for all of us to understand the true definition of hoarding so we can recognize when it is a serious issue. It seems easier to explain hoarding behaviour by drawing a comparison that we can all relate to. I’m sure most of you know someone who is a collector. And some of you know people who are compulsive shoppers.
I had a friend in elementary school whom I lost touch with but was fortunate enough to visit a few years ago. When she found out I was an organizer, she had to show me her salt and pepper shaker collection. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection quite as well organized as that one. She has an entire room in the basement of their house with floor to ceiling shelving displaying every possible salt and pepper shaker you could ever imagine. And there is one glass case in the living room with the really special ones in it. I believe she rotates them from the basement into the living room every once and a while.
Collectors buy and sell things based on a very clear mission, and they hang out with other collectors. They usually have a specific spot where they plan to put the new purchase and love to show other people. They budget carefully for collecting and love and take care of their new pieces.
I don’t have any sort of scale as to what defines someone as a compulsive shopper. It’s more about thoughts and behaviours than it is about the stuff. Most compulsive shoppers don’t have control over their shopping habits and buy more than they need. They do have control over the choices they make and may purchase multiples of favourite items.
For the most part, they are able to keep their purchases fairly organized and will purchase storage containers to keep their stuff in. Some compulsive shoppers hide their behaviour from others but not always, and they sometimes can’t afford what they buy. I’ve had a few clients over the years who really wanted to stop over-shopping but just couldn’t resist the high they got from hunting for the perfect thing or getting something for a great deal.
Now we know that neither of these behaviours is considered hoarding, I think we can better understand this illness. In the last few years, hoarding has become recognized as a psychological illness, so it is very important for anyone to understand this before trying to “help” a hoarder.
One of the biggest things that defines hoarding is the inability to let go of worthless objects, even what some of us might consider trash. Saving everything that comes into their possession is very important to a hoarder. You will hear a hoarder say, “I might need that someday” even though they may have dozens of the same item. Because it is so difficult to make decisions as to what to keep and where to put it, a hoarders’ response is to keep everything.
The connection between all three of these acquiring behaviours is that collecting can become compulsive shopping, and compulsive shopping can become hoarding. For anyone who enjoys acquiring stuff, if something traumatic happens in their life this can trigger an escalation to the next level. If you know anyone who shows signs of being in trouble, please support them by suggesting that they seek out the help of a qualified therapist. Unless the psychological illness is addressed first and the individual works towards behaviour change, no amount of decluttering and organizing will have any long term affect.