That Hoarder shares her thoughts on why shaming people who hoard doesn’t help.
I’m a hoarder, and that’s something I feel a lot of shame about. Many mental health conditions are stigmatised, and hoarding is at the top of many people’s lists of things that are shrouded in shame.
All you have to do is look at the conversations on Twitter when one of those shows about hoarding is on to see how many people see us: lazy, disgusting, gross…
Hoarders are often stigmatised because our behaviour is perceived as abnormal or deviant. And sure, it must be difficult for others to understand. Hoarding disorder is characterised by persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their actual value, due to a perceived need to save them or a fear of losing them. We also often acquire things, whether through inheritance, shopping, or “rescuing” items from the trash or the street.
This results in the accumulation of clutter that interferes with daily activities, causes safety hazards, and leads to difficult living conditions.
Hoarding can also cause problems for others, especially family members and neighbours. We can be frustrating people to try to help, especially if we’re not ready to face the problem!
But ultimately, hoarding is a mental illness, it is a way of coping with difficult feelings and situations that, while clearly dysfunctional, is also effective – or we wouldn’t do it.
Media portrayals of hoarders contribute to negative stereotypes and stigma. Many depictions of hoarding in popular culture are sensationalised, which can create a skewed perception of the disorder and exploit people who are suffering for the entertainment of others.
And the thing is, shaming people who hoard relies on massive over-simplification and generalisations. It is usually based on cruelty, not trying to help, and – and this is the kicker – it doesn’t even work.
If anything, it makes things worse.
Let’s look at why:
We already think those things about ourselves
The idea that we feel like we must be lazy and disgusting to live like this is not new to us! It’s something we accuse ourselves of all the time.
After all, it’s just logical, right? Anybody who lives in trash must be lazy to not address the issue immediately.
But is that really true?
For people to live in a degree of clutter that can be really extreme, something is clearly wrong. Most hoarders have experienced trauma and loss, and hoarding can be a response to situations that feel impossible to cope with.
Few people would choose to live in a hoarded home purely because they can’t be bothered to clean up. There’s more to it than that.
Shame doesn't lead to positive action
When I interviewed KC Davis from Struggle Care, we talked about her philosophy that “shame is the enemy of functioning”. It was interesting because my own experience is that if I’m feeling full of shame and disgust at myself, I am far more likely to freeze and shut down than become super-productive, and KC’s approach backed up why that is a common reaction. She said:
“If you think about the point of the feeling of disgust, it’s both an emotion and a sense. It is to get yourself away from things that might harm you or hurt you or impact you negatively.
“But if you’re the thing you feel disgusted at, you cannot get away from yourself. And it creates this space where I am so disgusted at who I am and what I am and I just want to get away from it. I want to put so much separation between me and this thing that is sort of a threat to my existence and my worthiness.”
Of course we shut down when someone points out how gross we are! Of course we don’t turn that into motivation to take positive action in our lives. If we agree with that characterisation of ourself, we feel guilty and embarrassed. If we don’t, we get defensive and dig our heels in.
None of this actually gets bags out of your house.
It stops us from seeking help
This is the crux of the issue. The more shame we feel, and the more stigma that is put on hoarding disorder and people who hoard, the less able we feel to admit we have a problem. If all we see is people laughing at the people on the reality shows with this problem, we think “I must never tell anyone I have that problem too”.
Listeners of my podcast sometimes message me and tell me things they’ve never told anyone before, because they know that I have the same problem so won’t judge them for their hoarding.
They tell me things and say “I can’t even tell my therapist!” or “nobody else knows this”. I am honoured that they trust me with this, but it makes me profoundly sad that we have to keep this a secret.
I get it, though. It's why I podcast anonymously. Because the shame and stigma are so great.
And the more stigma there is in society, the more isolated we become. This can lead to worsening depression, which can lead to worsening situations in our homes.
What can people do?
If you are a professional organiser, letting potential clients know that you will not judge them, even if their clutter is extreme, will not only help them to feel better, it will help them to approach you and be honest about what they need. As a business owner, this is clearly in your interest.
But if you are outside of this field, you might assume that you don’t know anybody who hoards. But it is believed that 2-6% of the population have hoarding disorders, so there’s a reasonable chance, if you know 20 people, that one of them has this problem.
They just haven’t told you.
And it might not be about you! They may not tell anybody, because when so many people judge us, we don’t know who is ‘safe’.
If you want to be a supportive presence, somebody who people with problems can approach and accept support from, a good place to start is by demonstrating, in your daily life, that you are not judgemental and critical of people with difficulties.
If you say, “My cousin came out as gay and I’m so happy for him! I’m going to take him to the Pride march next month”, the other LGBTQ+ people in the room – whether they are out or not – know that you are supportive and that you would be a safe person to come out to.
If you challenge sexual harassment in the workplace, colleagues will know that you are a safe person to approach if they experience it themselves.
And similarly, if you make a point to challenge lazy stereotypes and prejudice against people with mental illnesses, including hoarding disorder, you create an environment where those around you know that you would offer support, not judgement, if they needed somebody to talk to.
If you know somebody with hoarding problems, signpost them to appropriate organisations (and my podcast!) and learn more about the condition yourself so that you are informed. Your good intentions will be welcomed.
Offer encouragement when someone achieves something, even if it would seem minor to most people. Because sometimes throwing out one bag of rubbish is a revolutionary act for somebody who hasn’t got rid of an orange peel, a cardboard box or a broken pencil for three years.
And understand that whatever your role – professional organiser, therapist, friend, housing officer or neighbour – your attitude to somebody can be just as transformative as any practical help you offer them.
Approach people who struggle with hoarding behaviour with compassion and understanding, and you may just enable them to start to take action.
That Hoarder is a British woman with far too much stuff. She is the host of the Overcome Compulsive Hoarding with That Hoarder podcast, where she talks about her own experiences of hoarding and interviews experts, therapists and researchers to find out more and help listeners to understand their lives and take positive action.
To listen to That Hoarder and Lesley in conversation check out these two podcasts: