How Not To Be a Hoarder

(Written Spring of 2020)

Nothing like watching an episode of Hoarders to get me cracking on cleaning my house and finishing up those projects started back in January 2019 when Marie Kondo came out with her series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. “Tidying up” is such a sweet and innocuous phrase for tearing into a mountain of stuff.

No doubt I was drawn to both shows because I have issues in my relationship with my possessions. While I am not a hoarder (in diagnosable mental illness terms), I did recognize glimmers of my own thinking and behavior as I watched both series. Based on the popularity of books and reality shows devoted to the topic of too much stuff, plenty of us have a dysfunctional relationship with our possessions. There’s a full spectrum, ranging from clutter to compulsive hoarding – people a bit off the path, to deep in the weeds, to off the hoarding cliff.

To not become a hoarder: have a good childhood, never live in poverty or deprivation, don’t experience trauma and addiction, process all your feelings in a healthy way as you have them (rather than bury your feelings), and of course, have a lot of loving and supportive people who respectfully and compassionately help you if your possessions start to overrun your life. Also, don’t be downstream from people who don’t deal with their own stuff (kids who move out, parents forced to downsize).

If it’s too late for that, I’ve summarized a list of takeaways from Hoarders. Pretty much everything on the “don’t do” list I have done – picked up free stuff and brought it home, set a piece of garbage down instead of put it straight into the trash, purchased things I had no use for when thrift shopping, kept things I thought I could sell to make money, moved things to the garage or attic instead of moving them out of the house, failed to get rid of something I didn’t like or use because of how much it cost when I bought it, kept something given to me because the giver had outgrown their use for it (other people’s clutter!). When I feel bad about my past missteps, I try to remember…

“The butterfly does not look back at the caterpillar in shame, just as you should not look back at your past in shame. Your past was part of your own transformation.”– Anthony Gucciardi

With compassion for the pain represented by trying to fill a void with stuff, and with no shaming or judgment, here is the summary of dos and don’ts I learned from Hoarders

Do not drive around with a pickup truck grabbing other people’s free items from the sidewalk.

Do not go to garage sales, thrift stores, rummage sales, flea markets, or estate sales. If you must go, don’t buy things because they are a “great buy” or “someone could use it” or “I could fix that up and sell it”. If you are not the person that can use it, or it is not usable in the state it’s in, leave it.

Do not rent storage space or warehouse space. Do not build barns and outbuildings purely to store the overflow from your house. Do not buy a second house because your current home has too much stuff to live in comfortably. A second house is not the answer to too much stuff.

Do not allow stuff from your house to overflow into the yard. The yard shouldn’t be home to abandoned items you no longer use, especially big stuff like furniture, appliances, cars, boats, tractors and trailers. Those things can have value as a donation, as scrap metal, etc. but only if you donate in a timely manner. Once it is ruined from exposure to the elements it has no value. Likewise, things in outbuildings, unfinished basements, garages, and attics are often ruined from moisture, temperature extremes, or pests.

Do not call it a business if there is more stuff coming in than going out. If you are accumulating new things, or hanging onto old things, because they are “valuable” and you plan to sell them on Craig’s List or eBay, what’s your time frame on that? People do make businesses out of reselling and up cycling, but for those people stuff moves in and out. If stuff is accumulating, it is not a business (at least not a successful one).

Do not refer to a bunch of random, dust-covered stuff as a “collection” – a collection is a group of items that have something in common, have a place of honor in your life, are valued and well cared for, and are either stored well or displayed with pride. Be aware that any collecting is a slippery slope.

Do not equate the volume of stuff you own with security – keeping an old car in case you might need a spare part won’t make your life more secure in a meaningful way. If you want security, keep an emergency fund of money in the bank.

Do not ruin a relationship by putting things above people. If someone you love is threatening to move out or divorce you, if friends are not visiting because they’re so uncomfortable in your home, then it is time to reverse priorities. It’s a classic sign of addiction when your most important relationship is with your drug of choice (be it alcohol & drugs, sex, gambling, or compulsive buying/accumulating). Don’t make partners and children feel less important than your stuff by giving them less time, space, interest, and attention.

Do panic at the first sign of cockroaches, mice, rats, flies, mold, dry rot, or water on walls or ceilings. This is not normal. Any of these require immediate attention. If you are not dealing with pest or mold issues because stuff in the way, and there is no place to temporarily move the stuff, then you’ve got too much stuff.

Do keep your car cleaned out; if it looks like someone lives in it you know things have gone too far. The bigger the vehicle, the more imperative this is.

Do immediately put trash items into the garbage. Have garbage picked up and removed on a regular basis.

Do clean out the refrigerator on a regular basis. Use items out of the pantry by their “best by” date and toss when past that date. If you’re not going to use a non-perishable food item, donate it to the food bank prior to the expiration date. Put a date on food packages that go into the freezer and use within 6-12 months.

Do keep the volume of stuff accumulating for hobbies and crafts manageable. If you spend more time shopping for the stuff to do something than you spend actually doing it – that’s a red flag. If you spend so much time searching your house for all the various supplies you need for a project that you never actually have time to do the project, that’s also a red flag.

Do have a limit on the amount of stuff in storage bins. Buying more bins to corral more and more stuff isn’t helpful if the stuff goes in and never comes out to be used or enjoyed. Storing sentimental items makes sense, within limits of your available space. You can always take photos of sentimental items before parting with them.

Do keep your beloved possessions pared down enough that you’re able to clean house. If you can’t find the floor to vacuum, or find the counter top to clean it, then you’re hanging onto too much stuff.

Do keep things off the floor so that your possessions are not underfoot causing you to trip or fall. A fall is a game-changer for health and independence.

Clearly all these points are obvious to someone who is a neatnik, and to people who don’t have an overabundance of hobbies, craft interests, and collections. And obvious to people who don’t manifest their life’s trauma by accumulating and holding onto possessions, who haven’t lost things so valuable that life becomes about holding onto everything else. Be grateful if you have never been touched by deprivation or trauma. Be grateful if you’ve never been touched by a loss that broke something inside you and triggered compulsive and addictive behavior. Also be compassionate and forgiving toward people who have the hard work to do in healing their relationship to their possessions, and healing the underlying trauma. It’s a process and a spiritual journey.

“Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”– Ian MacLaren, pseudonym for Reverend John Watson

That includes being kind to yourself. I want to reiterate, I did not watch Hoarders to ridicule or feel superior to others; it was to cast light on my own shadow.

“To be aware of a single shortcoming within oneself is more useful than to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.”– Dalai Lama

After watching the show, I’m taking another look at what a healthy relationship with my stuff looks like. I ask: do I need it, do I love it, do I take care of it, do I value the story it tells, does it have positive associations, do I use it or is it just one more thing I have to keep moving out of the way, is it helping or hindering me in living my best life, does it anchor me to the past or does it contribute to the life I want to create now, is it usable in the current state it’s in, is it adding value to my life, would I buy it again today, would it be better off in someone else’s hands, do I have room for it, is it valuable enough to take up my time and energy, am I keeping it because I’m an indecisive, lazy procrastinator or because I genuinely want it in my life?

I feel concerned we may soon be facing a generation of kids who will have troubled relationships with possessions and money (issues which are often interrelated). The trauma associated with Covid-19 and the economic downturn it triggered could be setting up the same dynamic many baby boomers see with their depression-era parents – chronic fear of not having enough; a poverty mentality rather than an abundance mentality. It’s something to be mindful of.

The best thing we can do right now is set a positive example for our kids. Any time I can pare down to my most beautiful and meaningful possessions, I feel lighter and happier. A clean and uncluttered space instantly makes me feel both calm and energized. For me, it’s definitely worth the effort to ask those questions and make the hard decisions to part with possessions that are in the way of living the life I want. I’ll always be more of a bohemian than a minimalist, and that’s fine as long as I feel happy and inspired by the space I inhabit.

We will all (hopefully) be busy with our normal lives soon enough, so this time at home is a gift, an opportunity if we shift the extra hours away from watching reality TV and spend it lightening the load of burdensome possessions.

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