We are inundated with hoarding images these days… The popular tv programs have exposed a very tragic population of people who’s lives have been all but ended due to their hoarding behaviors and lifestyles. But these programs generally only expose the extreme cases of hoarding, or what is typed by the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Level 4 and Level 5 Hoarding. While there is a percentage of the population that fall into this category, most people who struggle with clutter and disorganization are NOT extreme hoarders.
People acquire and keep things for a number of reasons. But left unchecked, acquiring and keeping items can be deadly. It is up to you to discover the triggers that are satisfied when acquiring or keeping items. Those triggers are often deeply rooted and are usually greater than they look at first glance.
Some people establish acquisition habits to make up for past traumas such as famine or war. These habits begin during the traumatic time, and then are rewarded, because the person experiences some BIG personal payoff, such as survival, avoiding starvation, or escaping some peril. It may begin there, however, acquiring, shopping, and consuming does catch up when these behaviors produce items that overpower the space there is to contain them.
Why People Keep Things
- Important or Vital For Life/Lifestyle – Some items are presumed to be vital for their lives of lifestyles. For instance, you SHOULD keep vital records such as: birth, death and marriage certificates, social security cards, tax documents, and financial certificates. (For a more complete list, see http://www.irs.gov/businesses/) Vital means that a document is VITAL to either prove your identity or to recreate the records of your life in case of an emergency.
- Perceived Value – Many people have an over-inflated, exaggerated opinion of the value of their personal items. This is often true of collectors who begin collections at a certain moment in time and then neglect to keep up with the current market trends. Your ‘perception’ of an items’ value can be colored by an item’s history, whether you think you “have to keep it” for legal reasons, or because you feel sentimental toward an item. Your perception of an item is just that, your perception. It may or may not be true – an item’s value is something you can obtain by contacting professionals that deal with your particular item.
- Fear – Fear is a huge and cavernous reason that people keep items. They may be confronting the fear of letting go, having enough, being without, or of hurting someone. Fear can be paralyzing, and if fear is related to an item’s “meaning”, a person may need to unpack the fear response that is triggered before they’ll be able to let go of anything.
- Unresolved Emotions – Often times when people experience levels of personal trauma, they hold onto the emotions associated with that event. Sometimes, these emotions are repressed below the surface and become shut down or trapped. Or, one’s emotions might get ‘transferred’ to an item and might then be ‘coupled’. This example is seen when an item evokes the emotion, meaning or feeling you’ve attached to it. This is classically seen with unresolved grief: an important person dies and the items they used in life, then take on their memories. The item has no inherent value, it has just been “coupled” with a sentimental value by the person who is left grieving. Death is not the only time this type of coupling or transference happens. Emotions can range from anger, sadness, or desperation to happiness, love, excitement, and joy. The key behavior to explore is when those unresolved emotions get transferred to items causing items to have significance to you in a way they do not to others.
- Incomplete Past – Sometimes items carry significance because your past needs may not have been met. For instance when one grows up in a family that struggles with addiction, the family may never have experienced fun together – so an adult may come to acquire and hang on to every item that “reminds them” of the fun times the’ve experienced. Many people acquire (and keep) items because they’ve experienced feelings of lack in their past and the item evokes a feeling they desire. Incomplete past feelings may also show up as low self-worth, questions of feeling lovable or when they matter.
- Extenuating Circumstances – Fatigue, trauma, overwhelm, extreme situations and heroism are all considered extenuating circumstances that can get stuck in emotional “hold” for a person. If you’ve experienced extenuating situations such as those listed above, sometimes “thing” memories are triggered and stick. When coupled to an item from that moment in time, the item now has significance in a different way than it did prior.
- Perceived Risk – Sometimes people hold on to items because they feel there is some risk to getting rid of it. If there is fear of risk, they will hold onto it and postpone the decision to get rid of it until the perceived risk wanes. A person who perceives a risk of getting rid of an item may say things like:
- I might need this some day
- This may come in handy
- What if someone else needs it
- I paid a lot for it – it’s still good!
- Your perception can be shifted by clarifying values and visions, and by getting professional assistance and more information to help to normalize your feelings.
Whatever the reasons you are holding onto items, you’ll need to start somewhere to make a change. According to most feng shui and organizing experts, you should only surround yourself with items that you love, you need or you find beautiful. If you look around your space and are lost as to why items have accumulated over time – consider the following list of questions as a place to begin.
Questions To Help You Let Go
This list of powerful questions was originally developed and introduced by Gail Steketee, PhD. Dean & Professor Boston University School of Social Work Co-Author: “Buried In Treasures”.
It is a wonderful, comprehensive and structured inquiry into your thoughts about items. If you cannot answer YES to many of these questions, your reward for keeping the item is not really there – so you can let it go.
- Do I love this item?
- Do I love how it looks/makes me feel?
- Is it treasured or beautiful?
- Does the item make me feel happy, contented, joyful, alive?
- Do I need this to function?
- Do I have space for it?
- Do I have a plan to use this?
- Can I get it elsewhere?
- Will someone else benefit more from this at this time if I let it go?
- Does holding on to this item keep me in the past?
- Does keeping this help meet my personal goals?
- Will getting rid of this help my hoarding problem?
- Have I used the item in the past year? If no, when was the last time I used it?
If you have trouble answering the questions above, you may do well with assistance from a therapist to help unravel the emotional underpinnings, or a professional organizer who is trained in the areas of compulsive hoarding, acquiring, and chronic disorganization. There is help available through the Institute For Chronic Disorganization (see link below).
For more information on the emotional and psychological underpinnings and emotional ties to clutter, disorganization and hoarding, I recommend my colleague Debbie Stanley, who’s work is bridging the gap between emotional health and clutter. For her blog, resources and site links go here.