A common question I often get is about the differences between hoarding, clutter and collecting. As a reminder, here’s our definition of hoarding: 1) acquiring too much, 2) not letting go of possessions, 3) an inability to use the rooms in the home for their intended purpose, and 4) emotional distress and physical impairment due to the amount of stuff in the home.

Often, people who hoard call their behaviors collecting or just having too much clutter – but it’s definitely not a hoarding problem. Please understand this isn’t just about denial, it may be bigger than that. People who hoard know that hoarding has a stigma attached to it in our culture. “Reality” TV shows present only a small portion of people who hoard, and many of those people have a mental illness that keeps them from seeing reality. Many people who hoard do not believe they need to keep their feces and urine, or dead animals in their refrigerators, but that’s what the TV shows give you. Knowing those shows, if you hoarded, would you want to admit to a behavior that people will make assumptions about your craziness? I hope that one of the changes in our culture that will come soon is a clear understanding of hoarding so that people who hoard can admit to their behaviors without fear of being branded or thought insane. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago in our culture that we thought depression was crazy, too. So we need some education around this topic . . . for now, understand that an argument about hoarding isn’t going to solve anything.

At the same time, we need to call a spade a spade. We need to get comfortable calling hoarding behaviors what they are – and understanding how to differentiate between them and other behaviors.

Clutter – this is more of a temporary situation than hoarding tends to be. Clutter can be in the living spaces of the home without making it impossible to use those living spaces for their intended purpose. Also, there is no major difficulty in getting rid of clutter. Often, I find a problem with clutter is time. “I ran out of time, but I’ll get to it tomorrow or next week.” The day back from a vacation is not usually the day you do laundry, sort the mail, get groceries, etc., and the luggage and souvenirs clutter the house for a day or two. Temporary. But usually we put the luggage away, fill the frig, pay the bills, and the house returns to “normal” within a few days. Think of clutter this way – young children in the home have toys and books and things that fill up spaces. And those things change as the kids change. Maybe a basket of toys lives in the living room for some months, but there’s a point at which that basket gets changed out as the kids age. Eventually, the basket doesn’t need to be there. Make sense? The focus here is time, temporary, and accessibility.

Can clutter turn into hoarding? You bet but not always. We go back to the hoarding definition to determine answers to specific situations about clutter.

Collecting – There’s nothing wrong with collecting things. A lot of people do – the sister of a friend of mine collected pigs (ceramic and cloth, not the real thing), I knew a guy who collected caps of all the MLB baseball team, people collect Dept. 56 villages, cars, coins, any number of things. Collecting is a hobby, often a way to be part of a community, and collections tell people something about the collector. If I walk into your basement and see all kinds of Coke memorabilia I don’t need to ask, “Hey, do you like Coke?” Your collection tells me.

The issue with collecting is either 1) having too much of the collection and it spreads over the house making the living spaces inaccessible, or 2) there are too many other things in the house that keep you from being able to show your collection. The purpose of collecting is to show what you have – when you lose that, what’s the point? I remember being in a new client’s living room and he pointed over stacks of boxes and said, “If you could see through those boxes, you’d be able to see my 500 vinyl record collection. It’s terrific! I love music and listening to my records!” I asked when the last time was that he listened to his records – he just shook his head. He lost the point of having a collection – there was too much other stuff in his house that he couldn’t let go of.

I want to emphasize that the size of the collection is not the issue here. I get asked often about Jay Leno and his collection of cars. Let’s go back to the definition of hoarding – can Jay use the rooms in his house even though he has a lot of cars? Yes! He is able to afford the garages and storage for his collection of cars. Is he hoarding? No.

Can clutter turn into hoarding? You bet but not always. We go back to the hoarding definition to determine answers to specific situations about collections.

Hopefully this post has given you clarification on the differences between clutter, collecting, and hoarding. Your comfort with the definitions and use of the correct language for how a client or family member acts will help in addressing the behaviors.

Janet Yeats is a marriage and family therapist and writer who specializes in issues of trauma, grief and loss. Janet consults, speaks and writes on hoarding disorder as well as other trauma and loss-related topics. Visit her youtube channel (Janet Yeats) to see videos and webinars on these topics.