Psychological Causes of Hoarding – Part 1

The last cause we’ll look at are psychological reasons why people hoard. There’s a lot here so I’m going to divide this cause into two parts. This is the cause closest to my heart because it allows us to look at the impact of trauma and loss on hoarding behaviors. Over the past 10 years, I have talked with a lot of people who hoard, family members and friends, as well as professional colleagues who work with hoarding . . . and I’ve come to the conclusion that the majority of people who hoard have experienced trauma and loss(es) in their lives that have lead them to this behavior. When I say that to people impacted by hoarding disorder, they nod their heads and then start telling me stories . . . “yeah, when Mom died, I noticed Dad’s collecting got out of control and within a relatively short period of time the house was full and non-functional,” “That makes sense! My husband didn’t start his hoarding behaviors until my miscarriage,” “When we left home and went to college and got married, Mom began filling our rooms to the point that we can’t stay at home when we visit, there’s no room for us.” And there are so many more stories just like this. You notice in each of the examples I gave, the trauma or loss is relational. Someone has been lost, a relationship has been changed, death has taken away a loved one. What is it about these losses that lead to behaviors that create such devastation and more loss

I’m going to try to give you a word picture here – I’ve tried it out on others as a way to better understand people who hoard and I think it works. What I’ve discovered in my conversations is that the relational trauma and loss feel just so big and so impossible to manage that the person pushes down the overwhelming feelings and tried to move on. There is a hole inside them that is created by the person leaving and they need to fill that hole so they don’t feel the loss so much. How do they fill the hole? With stuff – the process of searching for and gathering stuff, of bringing it home, of imagining what they will do with the stuff, and repeating the process. Over and over again. Pretty soon they are so focused on this process that they don’t need to hurt so much. Besides, stuff never leaves. People do. (This might explain why people who hoard can tend to isolate – it’s safer than the potential of being left again.) So because the stuff never leaves, the hole inside them never empties. Until the hole (home) outside of them gets too full and someone comes along and says, “you can’t live like this.” Or, until someone (usually a well-meaning but really wrong family member) comes into the house and cleans it out, gets their loved one “back on track with a fresh start.”

What happens then is that as the home is cleaned out, the hole inside is emptied and the person who has been traumatized is faced with the grief and pain again. It will still feel overwhelming and painful and too much to deal with, so the person immediately re-fills the hole and the home. Much to the chagrin, anger, and frustration of those who were hoping the house would stay cleaned out.

But why would it? If nothing has changed inside, why would the outside change? Remember the first post, “it’s not about the stuff, it’s about why the stuff exists.” Without treatment, without working through the grief and processing the trauma, nothing has changed to the person who has experienced a loss. So, they will go back to what they know. It’s what we all do without that necessary internal change – although hoarding is not an addiction, the behaviors and result can look like addiction. Think of it this way, if your friend comes to you and says, “Hey, I have an alcohol problem and I need help.” And you say, “I’ve taken all the alcohol out of your house . . . so you don’t have a problem anymore!” You’ve solved nothing. Because the issue is so much more than the alcohol in the house – the issue is about why your friend drinks to excess and can’t control his drinking. He has to get to the underneath reasons why he drinks so he can face them and make lasting change.

It is no different in hoarding disorder. If you only clean out the stuff in the house, your loved one hasn’t been able to address the reasons why she has so much stuff in the house to begin with. I understand that therapy seems pointless or too hard or for “crazy” people. But I’m telling you, processing your pain and loss can be so helpful in letting go and having your life dictated by hurt. And, for the record, it’s not crazy to take care of yourself, to live better and healthy, to be present to your life.

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.

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