So, unresolved trauma and loss are a big part of why people hoard. But there are a couple other psychological causes to look at – behavioral reinforcement and attachment. The behavioral reinforcement goes along with the occipital lobes in the brain – remember the pleasure centers lighting up when a person gets to collect something? That’s positive reinforcement – it feels good to get something, so I’ll want to do that over and over again. It feels bad to let things go (negative reinforcement), so I won’t do that. I would rather feel good than bad. It makes sense, doesn’t it?!

Attachment is about the connection that people who hoard make to their stuff. There are a number of reasons for the attachment:

  1. Feelings toward the object, e.g., My sister gave me this chair, if I get rid of it (and anything else she – or any other family member – gave me) she’ll think I don’t appreciate her or her gifts and she’ll hate me. If that’s true, and you can’t say it’s not, that’s a terrible thing to believe – no wonder that person can’t get rid of those gifts.
  2. Memory-related concerns, e.g., I have a bad memory, if I get rid of these programs, I won’t remember that I went to concerts and I’ll lose those events and the people I was with. The thing is, many of us save keepsakes of trips we’ve taken or special shows we’ve seen, etc., of course, the difference is that people who hoard tend to want to keep everything which doesn’t allow them to fully access their space.
  3. Desire for control, e.g., I may not be able to control what people in my life do or say, especially when they leave me, so I’m going to control the stuff I have. And none of it is leaving. We all struggle at some level with being out of control and so much of life is just that. But the attempt to control life will never succeed, better to address this need.
  4. Responsibility and waste, e.g., Americans are too wasteful – we have too many landfills and dumps – and people throw away things that they could recycle, if only the recycling companies actually did what they say they will do. This is a common theme from a lot of people who hoard. They are truly concerned about the environment and want to do something about it – they don’t want to add to the problem. However, the answer cannot be in having their home become a landfill because they don’t want to get rid of broken-down things or garbage, because they don’t want to take empty water and soda bottles to be recycled.
  5. Aesthetics, e.g., I can find beauty in every thing – how can I let it go? What might I use it for? Look at the symmetry and the colors. People who hoard tend to be very creative and artistic people. They can see beauty in the basic and simple. And this makes it hard for them to let go of things that others would simply throw away or recycle: they see the potential art projects, or how they could re-purpose an item for good use. Their ideas are often brilliant and wonderful – but they have too much to be able to carry out these ideas and, instead, the stuff sits in their home unused and taking up space.

These are just some of the reasons why people who hoard develop attachment to their stuff. I’m sure as you’ve been reading, you’ve been able to come up with other ideas based on your own experience.

An important thing to remember in all of these psychological issues is that getting into an argument with your person who hoards about the legitimacy of their thinking is not going to be helpful. The client who told me that she didn’t throw her empty water bottles in recycling because she didn’t believe the companies kept their word was not going to be changed in her thinking because I said, “Oh, I’m sure they recycle properly.” The thing is, I don’t know for sure that they do. Maybe she is right – I’ve never really thought about it. When I have recycling items, I throw them in my container and the recycling truck comes and empties my container. I assume and trust that they’re doing what they say. So, I can’t be sure that I’m right and she’s wrong. That’s not a worthwhile argument to engage in – because the more important point was that if she didn’t get her apartment to an appropriate level of safety (we’ll talk about this in an upcoming post), the property manager for her apartment would be posting an eviction notice. Rather than argue the pro’s and con’s of recycling companies, we needed to have a conversation about how keeping all the empties was creating space and safety problems for her. We were 2 months from a Minnesota winter – wasn’t it more important to keep her housing? Could we re-consider the recycling question once she was secure in being able to stay in her apartment?

Wasting time on pointless arguments solves nothing and – quite frequently – severs relationships. So, know these reasons – and do what you can to speak to the real issue rather than getting bogged down in just how many bottle caps it is appropriate to keep.

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.