A person who hoards has the ability to find life in objects that many other people might simply throw away. While seeing hidden value can lead to great rewards in one’s life, the resulting level of clutter can make living spaces in the home unusable. It is very common for those who hoard to have difficulty finding all sorts of things – such as house-keys, bills that need to be paid, and valued personal items – due to the level of clutter.

Clutter may seem to come naturally to individuals who hoard, but it is still distressing. Does this mean that life is destined to remain cluttered? Absolutely not! Through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), those who are overwhelmed by their stuff learns the tools and strategies to gain control over the clutter. There is also the recognition that the act of decluttering can be just as overwhelming as the clutter itself.

Despite wanting to effect change in the cluttered space, it can be difficult to know where and how to start.  Chronic clutters often feel defeated by the daunting task of letting go and organizing, particularly when past attempts to organize have back-fired. The first question to ask is “What is important to my life?” While the question may seem simplistic, answering the question could not be more challenging for an individual who hoards.

When asked to decide whether an item is kept or discarded, it can feel like a life-or-death decision. Decluttering uncovers countless items that can still serve a purpose – books or papers, household items, and furniture. Often, those overwhelmed by clutter prefer to err on the side of caution of keeping things, rather than risk the possibility of discarding something that will be needed in the future. The fear of not having something important can overwhelm efforts to declutter.

Decluttering can lead to additional distress when there is a sentimental attachment – beyond clothes, toys, and stuffed animals to include receipts, magazines, and practically anything that can be associated with a memory. It can feel as though the unique experiences are being thrown away with the items. Individuals who hoard are not willing to risk the possibility of losing these valued memories, opting to associate the clutter with the security of holding onto memories.

CBT helps those overwhelmed by their possessions to manage the feelings of fear and doubt. Each step rebuilds trust in one’s own judgment rather than deferring to the hoarding-related thoughts and fears. Decluttering one’s life is the on-going practice of assessment and action. It is possible to challenge the hoarding urges and make the decision to maintain a less-cluttered life. With persistence and a positive mentality, an individual who hoards can implement the therapeutic tools of CBT to create a home that no longer is a source of anxiety and distress, but that offers sanctuary.

– Elspeth Bell, Ph.D.