While it may seem the use of the word ‘delusion’ is a bit strong to people diagnosed with hoarding, the rational they use to justify their behavior does appear to others as delusional. The classic definition of delusional thinking is an unrealistic unshakable belief or strong conviction in something that is not true or based in reality. There is usually overwhelming evidence contradicting the belief or conviction yet the person holds it to be accurate.
The DSM–V lists hoarding as a separate disorder from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While there is some overlap in the behaviors, the underlying rational for the dysfunction is different. This will be more clearly demonstrated through the following ten statements. A person with this disorder:
- Has persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value.
- This difficulty is due to the perceived need to save the items and to distress associated with associated with discarding them.
- The difficulty discarding possessions results in the accumulation of possessions that congest and clutter active living areas and substantially compromise their intended use. If living areas are uncluttered, it is only because of the interventions of third parties (e.g. family members, cleaners, authorities).
- The hoarding causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).
The accumulation of stuff creates deficit in the ability to make decisions. It is as if the things become a barrier for action. The more possessions a person has the harder it is to discard any item. This frequently leads to indecisiveness, procrastination, apathy, and churning (moving stuff around without getting rid of it). For those living with someone like this, life is frustrating. These are common statements may by people who are hoarding:
- “This is the last cup my father drank from.” They project an emotional attachment to a thing instead of a person. This might be due to unresolved grief, guilt or shame. While keeping a few items that clearly represent the nature of a person as memorabilia is normal, keeping excessive items is not.
- “I’m going to read this someday.” They refuse to throw away old magazines, newspapers, newsletters or books that have no intrinsic value. Sadly, these items frequently can be viewed on the internet quicker than finding in a stack. This is done to justify the initial purchase of an item as being valuable when it wasn’t.
- “I might need this someday.” Sometimes this is passed down generationally from depression era beliefs. In reality, the item could be better served being donated to a person in need than saved just in case. This is fear based thinking.
- “These things make me feel better.” Often, a person who hoards obtains a sense of safety or security from the possession of things. Every major religion in the world (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhism) warns against this philosophy because more stuff does not lead to more happiness.
- “I’m saving it for a gift.” This is a common justification for the accumulation of stuff. Except that there are so many “gifts” floating around that a person doesn’t even remember what gift was intended for whom. This is a façade. True gifts are given away not held onto.
- “I have to protect this item from destruction.” They believe that they must keep a record of past things (wall phones and cords) so others can remember it. It is a type of live museum to the items. This is not about valuable rare antiques for which can be later sold, it is worthless items which were produced by the millions.
- “I have to save this item from a dump.” They hold onto items to save or rescue them from being thrown away. The desire to rescue things or others is a co-dependency issue and usually is done to avoid dealing with own issues.
- “This item is my only memory of an event.” This is not true. Memories are stored in the brain. Yes, items can be used spark memory but so can pictures (digital ones). This takes up far less space and serves the same purpose.
- “I’ll go through it someday.” If a box has lasted for years unopened, then it can be discarded in its entirety. Clearly whatever was in the box is not important enough to remove. These random boxes are a type of security blanket. The person feels better just knowing it is there without even knowing what is in the box.
- “I’m saving those clothes for when they come back in style again.” Even when styles recycle, they are never quite the same nor are the sizes accurate. Literally 30-50 years have to pass before a style returns. That is a long time to hold onto clothing when there are homeless people in need of clothing. This is another justification for hoarding.
Counteracting these beliefs can be difficult and usually requires some professional intervention. The underlying root of why a person is hoarding must be addressed in order to modify the behavior. This is not about behavior modification, rather it is about a person who is hurting, acting out inappropriately, and needs some help.