Hoarding – where does the behaviour come from?

Hoarding – where does the troublesome behaviour come from

A good friend once said to me, “There are two reasons why people hoard. The first is they’re poor, and the second is they have imagination!” It’s certainly true many people often delay giving excess or duplicate items away to the op-shop because they think it will save them buying the same item at another time. And it’s definitely true creatives – from sewers to knitters, and home-engineers to artists – often have plans in mind for ‘objects no-one else sees a use for.’ But this sort of behaviour is not generally regarded as hoarding.

Hoarding is a mental state often associated with anxiety disorders such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive-disorder) or ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). It may also exist alongside depression. It is characterised by repeated difficulty in parting with possessions. Sometimes, those possessions are of a particular nature (such as animals, bargain purchases, or meaningless materials such as unsolicited mail). Sometimes the hoarded items have a perceived ‘uniqueness’ about them, or a sufferer may imbue them with emotional significance.

As for where hoarding has its origins, psychologists have a number of theories. One thing we do know, is those who hoard are likely to have family members who suffer from the same tendencies. However, this is where things get complicated, because familial relationships can also contribute to this correlation. If a person has grown up living with a hoarder, they may not have learned how to sort and discard. Even if they have, they may feel such opposition to changing the situation they are in, they give up, and become as isolated as their hoarding family member. Hoarding can then become a way of physically shielding themselves from the outside world, as well as of protecting their hoarding relative.

Some sufferers have grown up in homes where poverty was either real, or perceived. If it was real, the worry about money and possessions may have felt much more significant than it was in actuality, because as a child, the sufferer could not view it with an adult’s perspective. If the poverty was perceived, the sufferer may have internalised the ‘feeling’ of poverty in the same way their parents internalised it from their parents – it is not uncommon for mental health issues to permeate several generations.

Hoarding can also be associated with perfectionism. Perfectionists fear ‘getting it wrong,’ which can, in turn, lead to doubt about what to keep and what to discard. The anxiety this kind of decision-making can then cause, can be so severe the sufferer feels it is less of a burden to keep everything than to part with an item and then wonder if they have made the wrong decision.

Hoarding can also be a distraction from other mental disorders. The excitement of purchasing, the endless search for a bargain, the dopamine rush of finding a longed-for item for a collection, the need to unpack, stack and store, can all take one away, even momentarily, from the pain of, for example, depression or anxiety, and the effort of confronting the real source of the problem.

Whatever the reason behind hoarding, it is widely accepted it often begins in childhood or adolescence, becoming more severe as the years advance. Although some professionals postulate it can be caused by traumatic events in childhood, others feel traumatic events exacerbate existing hoarding tendencies. While hoarding is often linked to genetics and family experiences, it can also be associated with brain injury.

Hoarding is a predictor of complications in adult life that can lead to social isolation, and also to physical dangers such as falling, poor nutrition, and poor hygiene. In cases of emergencies, it can make it difficult for a sufferer to escape their home or to be reached by first responders. Hoarding is a serious condition going far beyond our every day indecisions of what to take to the charity store or what to keep in our craft-closet.