Discovering the true meaning of "hoarding", which I term "over-collecting, saving" behaviors has been a treasure hunt for me the last seven years as a professional organizer. My biggest revelation, recently, though has been the understanding that people who have extreme over-collecting, saving and churning behaviors (over-piling, disorganized mess that is moved frequently) may be due to an overactive primitive part of the limbic brain system. According to Stephen J. Gislason MD in his neuroscience notes, he states "Old programs nested in the limbic system include the most essential routines of animals: establishment and fighting in defense of territory, foraging, hunting, homing, hoarding, formation of social groups, greeting, grooming, courtship, mating, flocking, and establishment of social hierarchy by ritualistic display. Nested in these old modules are programs inherited from reptiles that continue to dominate the human experience". Stephen J Gislason MD also recognizes that " insightful people will describe a split in their personalities as though automatic behaviors take over and consciousness simply monitors the events which follow. The idea of "will-power" is difficult to substantiate since there does not seem to be a brain procedure with which we reach from higher-level cognition down to machine level programming where automatic behaviors are produced." Therefore people who collect due to the strong drive of an ancient limbic brain system are not always able to have the will to become organized and neat. The lack of "insight" coupled with a hard wired primitive trait, that is stronger than the will, prohibits an organized lifestyle. The only success with people who are actively messy and disorganized comes when they start to have insight that they are unhappy with the behaviors and mess. They have an opening in their mind and heart to let someone come in to help them.
There are great educational programs, techniques and long-term assistance provided by professional organizers, but the one that is working the best is the I-Deal-Lifestyle method. This method has a "No get rid" of policy. Any person with years of clutter can become mess free. Understanding the beauty of categorizing, the aesthetic value of the home and or business, and creative storage of the items help keep more clutter from coming in, and an appreciation of what treasures have been collected. The I-Deal-Lifestyle method involves categorizing and identifying what is sentimental, what is loved, what is useful, and what serves a purpose. Also understanding what is used the most and what is used the least helps set up the system for a long-term organized lifestyle. For people with Hoarding Disorder going through their stuff to decide what to keep or throw, or purging can cause harm. Eliminating that process has proven greatly successful in categorizing clearing, containing people's belongings. Seeing all items that are treasured and owned has greatly diminished more collecting. One gentleman that had collected so much that he could not sleep on his bed or walk through his home, without stumbling claims "success with this method, since I can keep all my stuff and I know where it all is".
The person that goes through the I-Deal-Lifestyle method also starts to recognize their primitive limbic system sometimes is just that, a primitive response for survival. Realizing that objects they own will NOT help them survive in any way is key. The over-collector, and saver starts to grasp that the objects they own are are not needs for survival but simply objects that they want to keep..
At first, when I started to work with people who clutter I could not figure out why the over-collecting, saving and churning behaviors were so strong and guarded. It was confusing why people who do this self defeating and isolating behavior are so tied to their stuff, until I realized it is because their brain system may activate so differently than people who do not do the behaviors. The people I have worked with who have these obsessive, time consuming behaviors generally are most annoying to family, friends and neighbors. But I want to remind you about having unconditional regard and respect for every human. I also realized that the over-collectors, that lack insight, generally seem unaffected and proud of their large lots of stuff but are sensitive to the wrath and push they take from others.
I have talked to hundreds of people in the last seven years that are very protective of their collected property. They love, revel over, and fiercely protect what they have collected. They talk about what they own with pride and accomplishment. They actively move it around and around into large piles of mess and muster, leading the rest of the organized folks to think they obviously have a greater and darker force against ceasing and calming the fervent activity. But for the collector, it is an achievement to have so much, no matter how it is stored. Much like people collecting things, animal hoarding of food, and shelter materials result in the animal feeling happy about their collection in relationship to an accomplishment for survival. Yet what they collect is about true survival. People collect items that will never really help them survive, but they believe there is a connection between objects and survival. People who over-collect, save and churn have such an intense relationship to their belongings because they truly believe it is connected to survivorship. One woman recently stated "if I don't keep all of my things here I may end up in the streets or dead". She equated the brood of belongings with survival.
To understand if you, a loved one or friend actually meets criteria for a "Hoarding Disorder" the information below may help.
There now is an actual diagnosis of "Hoarding Disorder" and the criteria is listed in the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, in press) as:
A. Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.
B. This difficulty is because of strong urges to save items and/or distress associated with discarding.
C. The symptoms result in the accumulation of a large number of possessions that fill up and clutter active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible. If all living areas are uncluttered, it is only because of the interventions of third parties (e.g., family members, cleaners, authorities).
D. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).
E. The hoarding symptoms are not due to a general medical condition (e.g., brain injury, cerebrovascular disease).
F. The hoarding symptoms are not restricted to the symptoms of another mental disorder (e.g., hoarding due to obsessions in obsessive–compulsive disorder, decreased energy in major depressive disorder, delusions in schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, cognitive deficits in dementia, restricted interests in autism spectrum disorder, food storing in Prader–Willis Syndrome).
Specify if with excessive acquisition: If symptoms are accompanied by excessive collecting or buying or stealing of items that are not needed or for which there is no available space.
Specify whether hoarding beliefs and behaviors are currently characterized by
good or fair insight
Recognizes that hoarding-related beliefs and behaviors (pertaining to difficulty discarding items, clutter, or excessive acquisition) are problematic.
Poor insight: Mostly convinced that hoarding-related beliefs and behaviors (pertaining to difficulty discarding items, clutter, or excessive acquisition) are not problematic despite evidence to the contrary.
Absent insight: Completely convinced that hoarding-related beliefs and behaviors (pertaining to difficulty discarding items, clutter, or excess.
The above list of symptoms for most of us sound exhausting and fruitless. The fact is it takes a lot of energy, sweat and worry to create huge messes, stacking, piling, and stuffing of items, dragged in from all over, with some paranoid ideation that someone wants the stuff, and an inability to stop the behaviors until threatened, dragged out and or fined by local government. It must be somewhat disturbing for a person who has a love of stuff to have others reminding them that it is a "disorder". It must create deep unhappiness to know that many other's despise their clutter. It is a constant war against the clutterers and non-clutterers. But who is correct? There is no correct in mental illness, so let's turn it around to create mental wellness. Mental wellness, doesn't take away the disorder, but it can remove the symptoms.
Professional Organizers are the hands on people that want to help if someone does start to care about their environment. If someone is unsafe or intensely uncomfortable most of us want to help in some way. Organizers have an insight into human nature, coupled with an intense desire to help people, and an ability to stay focused and organized better than most. They can see that any room no matter what mess there is can be wonderful and functional, just as there is always sun above the clouds. Professional organizing services are a great fit for the immensely disorganized crowd of folks out there, as long as they let them in. Also the best organizers have the ability to see the big picture and the small details to bring a real mess into long-term clarity.
But again why is it important to invade a clutter bugs world and insist they become organized? The number one reason is safety. There are safety codes developed by cities, the fire department and neighborhoods that realize that hoards of stuff can be deadly. We all have heard the stories of people burning up in their own demise. The homes I have been in where crazy amounts of random stuff, piled as high as the ceiling and wide as the house, without even a path to walk through is not only sad, but an intense fire hazard. Homes known to the fire departments across the world, that have immense clutter, are avoided during fire emergencies. The fire department keeps track of such homes and they know that it is a death trap. Fire personnel will not go in when there is a fire, if it is that dangerous. Adult protective services will remove elderly people who create mausoleums in their houses due to hazardous falls and dangers. Some of the safety hazards of clutter are: infectious disease, fire, rodents, falls, cuts, bruises, breathing in unhealthy dust, not being able to access life sustaining medications and or food or water. The criteria for a well kept home are according to the L.A. County DMH Hoarding Task Force L.A. Fire Code Safety & Evacuation Standards
I would add no random piles of items in corners, under the bed, in the oven or stove, in rafters or shelves of the garage, no boxes of random items, and papers where unknown items are. No stacking of unknown material in paper boxes. no stored glass objects and unknown fluids in glass or plastic, no dusty areas combined with hair and materials on or in lighting fixtures, no old hair. and or makeup products, or old paint or cleaners products, old medications and anything else that can be a potential for danger.
So to conclude getting organized is not for everyone, but anyone can be organized when they are ready, or when boundaries are set for those that are unsafe.
Marla Stone, MSW, Professional Organizer, Lifestyle Coach, Decor and Feng Shui Specialist, Author and Public Speaker owns and operates www.I-Deal-Lifestyle.com
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Marla is known as the Declutter Your Strategy™ expert. Marla earned her BA in Psychology and a Master's in Social Work and is the founder of