Mind & Spirit

Are you a hoarder?

By: Katherine Vankoughnet

©iStockphoto.com/trekandshoot Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©iStockphoto.com/trekandshoot

Mind & Spirit

Are you a hoarder?

By: Katherine Vankoughnet
Thanks to a recent spate of reality television shows and media coverage, the term "hoarder" is now deeply embedded in Western culture. We've all seen the claustrophobia-inducing living spaces and disturbing piles of seemingly worthless objects that the afflicted have accumulated, and often the first question we ask is: "How did they get this bad?"
 
Even the staunchest minimalist has probably grappled with throwing out a beloved teddy bear, bought the occasional bulk-size pack of Tupperware or let the mail pile up once in a while. But where is the line between clutter bug and hoarder – and how do we keep ourselves from crossing it?
 
According to Elaine Birchall, an Ottawa-based social worker and hoarding expert, there are three factors that must be taken into account when identifying hoarding: 
 
1. Excessive accumulation and a failure to discard proportionately
2. Some or all of the living spaces have started to be taken over
3. There is distress or impairment of function
 
Chances are, these factors don't apply to you; but if you're a self-professed pack rat, you might find cause for concern.
 
"If you're a collector or clutterer, there's no proof that you will go on to become a hoarder," says Birchall. "However, I've never worked with a hoarder who hasn't started out as a collector or clutterer."
 
Warning signs
Both genetics and what's known as a comorbid factor – an additional disorder or condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, addiction or traumatic loss – are known to put people at a higher risk of hoarding. Beyond that, determining whether or not your clutter is becoming an issue requires a bit of inner reflection.
 
"If you have a compelling need to hold onto something or acquire something, and you really can't have a rational discussion with yourself about why, that is the first warning sign," says Birchall. "And if you find you're in a situation where have to ask yourself – 'Do I have a problem?' – then it's probably a good indication that something is wrong."

Page 1 of 2 -- Discover three reasons why people hoard on page 2 
According to Birchall, people accumulate things in excess for one of three reasons.
 
1. Sentimental value
Generally when people have a sentimental attachment to many things – not just a few things – their default reaction is a sense of grief or loss when the time comes to consider letting go of them.
 
"Those things represent the loss of something greater, and if they don't get rid of them then they haven't really lost that person, that job, that part of their identity or connection to someone or something," explains Birchall.
 
2. Intrinsic value
People who keep things that are worth a fair amount of money, but that they don't actually need, do so for the intrinsic value of the items. Generally they do not have the time, the energy or the inclination to try and sell them.
 
"Or it might be that you don't really want it or need it – and in fact you might not even really like something – but it might be useful. You can see its transferrable use," says Birchall.
 
3. Esthetic value
Esthetic savers are those who are attracted to the physical characteristics or beauty of certain items. "They might have a frog collection, paintings or china," says Birchall. "It's a situation defined by high attraction and high personal reward and fulfillment. Often they see something in the items that no one else does."
 
The act of accumulation provides different results depending on the person: Either the things they hoard make them feel safe, secure and protected from their anxieties, or the clutter creates such a great physical and emotional weight that they have to ignore it because they can no longer process their environment.
 
Whatever the reason for acquiring it, excessive clutter can greatly impact your executive functions as it creates both physical and mental obstacles in one's day-to-day life. This type of chronic disorganization is often the sign of a greater underlying mental health issue that should be dealt with before the accumulation spirals out of control.
  
"Some people are moderately disorganized, and they'll have to shut doors or spend the weekend getting things organized so that visitors can come to the house," explains Birchall. "But then something knocks them off their pegs. Something much more serious destabilizes them and they're brought to a grinding halt – and that can happen to anyone."
 
If you're concerned about your (or someone else's) pack-rat tendencies, it's a good idea to monitor your accumulation carefully, even if it seems organized. You can buy all the label makers, storage bins and closet space in the world, but if there's just too much stuff, it will start to weigh down on you.
 
When working with hoarders, Birchall stresses the importance of tackling their mental issues in addition to the physical clutter: "Help that person change their relationship with their things. Get them help for the underlying reasons that are feeding that behaviour," she says. "It's not about discarding; it's about cleaning up. Help that person get out from under the oppression of being so overwhelmed."

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