I recently watched a clip of the television show Hoarders, and I must admit that it shocked me. At one man’s apartment, there were boxes, papers, and random items piled up to the ceiling, turning the small living areas into mazelike structures. The family had so much clutter in their kitchen that there was no counter space anywhere. Dirty pots, pans, and utensils were piled high in the sink. When it came time to do the dishes, they had to be placed all over the floor, since there was no space elsewhere. The child of the hoarder acknowledged that he felt like a dog living in a cage. The members of the families featured on the show were constantly fighting with each other because of the hoarding.
Seeing how extreme other people’s behaviors can get truly normalized the slightly annoying habits of the “hoarders” I know. Watching the show actually brought a sense of relief: At least we aren’t that bad.
If hoarding can destroy a home, and clutter creates chaos, then why do people do it?
According to Dr. David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, research has found three basic reasons for hoarding tendencies: the need to retain objects for potential future utility, perfectionism (yes, you read that right), and oversentimentality.
The simplest reason that people do not want to toss or give away their clutter is a fear that they will someday need those items. People fear missing out on the opportunity to have something potentially useful at hand. I compare this to what I like to call “Fleishephobia:” the fear of spontaneously desiring dairy immediately after eating meat. Similarly, if I give away tennis racquets that I have not used in three years, I’ll of course want to play tennis just after they are gone.
Perfectionism, although counterintuitive, is a basic reason people hoard. When faced with the dilemma to keep or not to keep, a perfectionist may delay making a decision until he or she can choose correctly at a later time. However, sometimes that “later” becomes “never.”
The most obvious reason is the person’s emotional attachment to the items, no matter how silly it may seem to others. We all, to some degree, hold onto seemingly useless items for the memories that they represent. A friend of mine kept all of her children’s Chanukah projects, displaying them when they lit the Chanukah candles each year. It showed the passage of time, and was a beautiful tradition that her family looked forward to enjoying together each year.
Yet, there are times when holding onto items becomes no longer about the sentiments they represent, but more about the object itself. Rose spent years collecting silver objects, picking them out on her various travels across the world. She purchased random items: sombreros, mini Bonsai trees, even large sewing needles, all made of pure silver. The assortment of objects took up prime real estate in her home: her breakfront in the entryway. Years passed, and she eventually moved into a nursing home. She regretted that she could not display the silver items in her room there.
Gathering her children together, she made the following offer: “I will hand the silver over to any one of you on one condition – you must display it in your living room, front and center.”
The silver, although somewhat eccentric, was worth a tremendous amount of money, and could have been sold for a huge profit. Everyone stood silently looking around at each other, because they could not honestly agree to keep the collection.
Rose was devastated, yet rather than donating or selling the silver, she had every last piece thrown into the garbage. She could have given her heirs a substantial gift, but she was too hurt; the rejection of her silver felt like a rejection of herself.
We sometimes connect so strongly with our possessions because we mistakenly believe that they define us. However, it is only our soul that makes us who we are.
Some may look at this story and scoff. How could someone who is so attached to her objects prefer a landfill to hold her belongings than a loved one? The truth is, we also define ourselves by externals. It may not be silver objects, but we define ourselves through our own status, intellect, age, and even by our children and their accomplishments.
No matter how much we love a piece of art or clothing, it can never become us. Eventually, it will wither away with time, just as our bodies do at the end of our days. Possessions can only do so much for us, but our souls are the eternal part of who we are.
I must admit, I’ve kept the sweater my husband wore on our first date – even though he has not worn it in years. If I gave that away to an organization and a stranger used it, they would find no meaning or nostalgia attached to it. To that person, it would just be a sweater – no more, no less.
When we try to satiate an inner need with objects, we usually end up disappointed. My friend loves Minnie Mouse designs, even as an adult. She mentioned to me once that whenever she sees something with Minnie Mouse on it, she has an urge to buy it, despite the fact that she only has boys at home. As a child, her family immigrated to the United States with just the shirts on their backs. They struggled for every penny, and could never afford the Minnie Mouse items that all her friends had. To this day, every time she sees the Minnie Mouse logo, it creates a pang of desire in her.
Although she longs to buy these items, doing so never truly satiates the longings of her inner child. She still desires the Minnie Mouse designs, but she feels the longing as a child would. Acquiring Minnie Mouse years later as an adult can never really fill the void. In purchasing such things for herself, she is mourning the pain of the past, and hoping to heal it in the present.
Giving away our possessions to those in need helps to lessen the pain of such longing as my neighbor experienced. Although counterintuitive, it refocuses us on all that we do have. When we see how much we have to spare, we rekindle an inner feeling of satiation.
As adults, we intuitively feel that holding onto clothing and other items will satiate that inner desire for nostalgia and comfort, but the converse is true. Giving away these things feeds our soul, because rather than collecting dust in a closet or box, we know that our possessions will be happily used by someone who needs them.
Lucky for Los Angeles residents, there are a plethora of organizations which make dropping off our belongings easy. The following have great reputations for serving the community:
- Beit Teshuva: 10409 Washington Blvd, CA 90232 (310) 204-4058
- Goodwill: 2502 S. Robertson Blvd (310) 559-5806
- Global Kindness: 8568 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035 (310) 286-0800
- NCJW: 8520 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90035 or 360 N. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036 (323) 651-2930
Donating our gently used belongings is a great activity for kids, and helps to develop their own empathy and organizational skills. Plus, it clears up the house, giving a fresh and light feeling to your surroundings.
People hoard because of emotional, utilitarian, and perfectionism reasons. Although hoarders hope to assuage these feelings by keeping belongings, giving them away is actually far more helpful. Letting go of our possessions can heal us on an emotional level, and it is incredibly useful for others. Since it is a form of tzedakah, giving away things we no longer need helps to perfect the world – tikun olam.
If you have trouble getting started, I recommend watching an episode of Hoarders.
 “Why Do People Hoard?” www.oprah.com, May 5, 2005, http://www.oprah.com/home/Why-People-Become-Compulsive-Hoarders