What to Do If You Live With a Hoarder

How to help someone you love deal with the deeper issues behind their clutter
An excerpt from ‘The Hoarder in You’ by the therapist on A&E Network’s Hoarders™
If you live with someone who hoards or who has a problem with keeping clutter under control, it’s important to bear in mind that the mess is only the symptom of a deeper psychological issue. The individual might have attention problems that manifest themselves in an inability to finish a project, or he might struggle with procrastination and perfectionism. These are not things that are easily overcome, no matter how frustrating they are to the people you love.
Living with a clutterer can make you feel as though your time and space aren’t being considered or respected, especially if you are constantly cleaning up to make the environment more habitable. And, as the problem continues, resentment can build, further exacerbating the conflict already present in the relationship.
The 10 Least Helpful Things You Can Say to a Clutterer
  1. “You don’t care about yourself or your environment.”
  2. “You don’t care about how your clutter affects me.”
  3. “You must have a disorganized mind.”
  4. “It’s not important for you to have things organized.”
  5. “You’re a slob!”
  6. “Your stuff is more important than me!”
  7. “Just throw it away! It’s no big deal!”
  8. “You don’t need to keep that.”
  9. “You’re never going to use/wear that.”
  10. “Just get rid of it. You won’t miss it.” 
An outsider can be helpful when the problem is persistent cluttering, although the role of the outsider is somewhat different. You don’t want to insert a friend between you and your loved one in a conflict, but if you’re the person who clutters, it can be tremendously helpful to have the objectivity of a friend when you’re cleaning, purging or organizing. That person is not sentimentally attached to your possessions and can help you make better decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. There’s also an emotional benefit to just having a friend around while you’re doing an unpleasant task such as cleaning out your closet. Having someone else with you also helps to make you accountable — if you make a date to declutter your basement at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, and you know your friend is showing up, you’re less likely to put it off.
The place to start for any family member or friend of someone who hoards is to set aside judgment. That is not easy to do. Compulsive hoarding is such a visible problem and one that affects each family member personally. But we all have things we fear being judged upon. What’s more, remembering that compulsive hoarding is not a choice is critical, as is remembering that this problem is only part of the person you care about. The person who hoards or clutters is not just “a hoarder” or “a clutterer.” She may also be a good friend, a terrific baker, a loving grandmother and countless other things.
The second thing to do is to educate yourself about the condition of hoarding, as you are doing now, which will go a long way in helping you to better understand the complexities of this condition. Understanding those who hoard, and how the behaviors and resulting chaotic environment can create intense feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment, can help you approach the person with compassion and patience, and convey how you feel without anger.
The third thing is to anticipate that helping someone overcome her clutter problem, no matter where she is on the continuum, will likely be frustrating for both of you at times. You can’t fix the problem for another person, no matter how badly you want to, and in fact it is so important that the person with the hoarding or cluttering issues learns that she can work through it herself. Your role is one of supporter and cheerleader. She must be in charge of her own process, or any improvements in the home will not last.
The 10 Most Helpful Things to Say to a Clutterer
  1. “I know this is hard for you.”
  2. “Let me know how I can help.”
  3. “You don’t have to fix this problem overnight.”
  4. “Let’s find ways to simplify the process.”
  5. “Don’t look at the big picture. Take baby steps.”
  6. “When you get overwhelmed, take a break and remember your goal is to live a healthier life.”
  7. “We are a team!”
  8. “Help me understand where you have the most difficulty.”
  9. “What things are important to you in your home?”
  10. “Let me know how I can best support you; you are in charge of how this process of decluttering goes.” 

Finally, be prepared to compromise. Your goal, if you’re helping someone who hoards or anyone who clutters, is to find that middle ground where you can both be comfortable.

Think you may be the one with the hoarding or clutter problem? Take this quiz to find out. 

Reprinted from: The Hoarder in You © 2011 by Dr. Robin Zasio. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.


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