Understanding a Hoarders Pain – Sympathy to Empathy


I recently watched a documentary on some of ‘Britain’s Biggest Hoarders’

Being someone who is ENORMOUSLY affected by my environment, my heart immediately went out to these people, and the horrendous conditions they live in. Most of them have a space that is just wide enough to house them in an office chair, and their belongings are literally stacked wall to wall and floor to ceiling. Most had rat infestations and dead insects carpeting the floors

As the program unfolded, I was really trying to understand their problem, and the reasons why their possessions drove them to live in such a shocking environment. As the ‘helpers’ came to sort out the ‘gold from the shite’… I could see the anxiety leaking from every pore of each hoarder, their distress was palpable. My sympathy was growing but I was still struggling to pin point WHY they had such trouble ‘de-cluttering’ (on a grand scale)… until I heard this sentence

One lady said “I don’t have anyway of distinguishing between items of worth and items of no-use, they all hold exactly the same worth and value as each other”.

She then picked up a beautiful clock in one hand, and a cheap, cracked and chipped ceramic squirrel in the other. You could see the struggle in her face, as she tried desperately to choose which one to keep.

ALL of her ‘things’ were of equal value to her, sentimentally and practically

This description clarified the core problem for her and other hoarders, and allowed me to ‘put myself in her shoes’…

I began to imagine how I would feel if 2 or 3 people came marching into my home, and started throwing away my new twister chair; my treasured ‘shoe collection’; my groovy new salt and pepper shakers; my DVD collection; or the photograph I have of me and my brother and sister, which is now 33 years old. I imagined them taking away my box of memories, with the ticket stubs for the shows I’ve been to; or bagging up the cards from my 30th birthday; or binning my Amy Winehouse memorabilia!!!!

In her shoes – I would have to watch people throwing these things of value into black bags on my behalf, whilst trying to express gratitude for their assistance. I would be expected to stay calm and composed as I watched them chucking away everything I consider valuable. I’m sure in reality, I would want to scream a piece of my mind in their direction, and hoof them out of my home immediately!

You could see that ‘hoofing them out’ is exactly what she wanted to do. Instead she had a house full of ‘do-gooder’s’ making decisions of worth and value over her possessions; placing them into ‘keep and throw’ piles, at a speed where she had no time to even ponder which goods she could bear to part with, and which she couldn’t.

She had people lecturing her about the disgusting rats and the extent of the infestations (as if she didn’t know this already!!!!). It was hideous watching people rip her habits and possessions to pieces; with a holier than though attitude, and little understanding of her reasoning

Had she not uttered the insightful description about the equal worth of all her possessions, I would not have been able to really understand her, or put myself in her shoes. Which brings me to my point

If we are confronted with someone elses problem and we wish to really learn about their pain…We have to listen for explanations, or ask questions.

Digging deeper into people’s reasons for their behaviour, transforms our feelings of sympathy and/or incorrect judgements, into empathy.

Understanding WHY always leads to more effective ways to help those in need…

We are taught that it is verging on rude to pry into the taboo habits of others. BUT if the one rude sentence we ask, leads to a deeper understanding of a problem, we move into the territory of…

Actually helping those in need, rather than thinking we are helping, fully shrouded in ignorance!!!

If in doubt, instead of nodding in faux understanding and knowing – Ask why?

10 responses »

  1. I left a mini novel under this linked post and wordpress ate the lot :(. I was surprised that moral standards were used to measure a persons character, based on whether he sympathised with a particular condition or not, yet in the next section, it was suggested that the lady who couldn’t pay her rent because of overspending, was not morally entitled to sympathy. Personally, I feel that it’s difficult to empathise with someone if you feel they are not worthy of sympathy, because its hard to put yourself in their shoes. But I dont feel that morals should come into sympathy because it over complicates giving it to others. Taking the rent example, if 2 people couldn’t pay and one had overspent whilst the other couldn’t make ends meet, they both still have exactly the same problem, same stress, and one has more shame to cope with too. There are a million and one reasons why people get themselves into difficult situations. In a ideal world, sympathy would be far easier to give, if its definition was simplified down to ‘this person is in distress, I know how that feels, therefore I sympathise with them. If context wasn’t involved, and the sympathy was given based simply on the consequences of a situation, be it cancer or gambling away the mortgage for a year, it’d be a more tolerant world. Adding morals to context further limits who gets sympathy. Pain is pain, a universal experience… and pain deserves sympathy. Great post, but in my opinion, some worrying conclusions from experts in the field. Thanks for the link…Dawny 🙂

  2. Oh I understand the issue alright. Up close and personal like. lol!!! I decided to sell my house. First step to do that is to de-clutter! OMG why do I need all this junk? The trashman can’t come soon enough to empty the cans so I can fill them up again. ugh…I’m not a minimalist though. Balance that’s what we aim to achieve, right?

    I literally lol’d at..”blitz her house…” That sums it up nicely!

  3. Hey Rose Chimera, well what can I say except what a great comment. Your insight in my opinion is spot on and I have a family member with a huge hoarding problem, and I too wanna blitz her house Kim and Aggie style but I know that even moving stuff off of a bed to the floor fills her with dread. Its sad and your so right about people just understanding that it is not pleasant, though you’d think that is obvious, people’s reactions prove it’s not. Thanks for commenting, it gives me hope when I read that there are some people who understand the issue…Dawny 🙂

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  5. I find the topic of hoarding to be oddly fascinating. I believe my mother was a hoarder and would have gone to the extremes we see some of the people profiled in the Hoarders series but for my father insisting “if you haven’t used it in a year throw it out!” He would just start going through the house and throwing things out. Did they have value? Sure they did to someone else living in the house, just not my dad. It always caused a great deal of anxiety and stress and discord when he did his “house cleaning.”

    At the end of my mother’s life I walked into her home, not having been there in 14 years to discover the hoarding had gotten out of control. It often does when it goes unchecked.

    I know my mother hoarded as most, if not all, hoarders hoard…it fills voids. Emotional voids. Almost each person studied that is a hoarder if the layers are pulled off one by one in their emotional life there is a trigger. Death, divorce, loneliness something like that seems to be the trigger to the hoarding. I can certainly say that was the case with my mother.

    Consequently, I hate clutter! I watch an episode of Hoarders and get an almost overwhelming urge to purge the house of “stuff”! With 3200 sq ft to fill in the house it can be a lot of “stuff”.

    Assessing value to an item is a personal choice I suppose. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure after all, right?

    It does seem cruel for strangers to storm into a hoarder’s home and toss things willy nilly into the trash without giving consideration to the hoarder’s emotional attachment to the “things.” The attachment is real. It isn’t healthy but it is real nonetheless. I feel for the hoarders. What a chaotic, lonely existence they have inadvertently–due to not dealing with emotions in a healthy way–forced upon themselves. Good news there’s treatment. There is help for them. Those that don’t hoard just have to understand it is not a pleasant life to be a hoarder.

  6. Hey rgonaut, thanks for commenting, it’s interesting hearing other people’s view on it. I agree about the difficulty of making choices, however, I would say that the root cause of being unable to choose comes from an emotional attachment to things, rather than no emotion. Also, I can’t imagine anyone living in them conditions and not feeling ashamed, overwhelmed, helpless, ill, judged, clostraphobic and broken, the surroundings are just so hideous I think it causes them to be unable to cope. I don’t know much about the documented literature on the problem, so I may well be wrong. Interesting take rgonaut and thanks againh for taking the time to leave your thoughts..Dawny 🙂

  7. Hey Karron, more wisdom from you here. I wish more people were able to ask why, like you say, if you dont then how can you react accordingly. I see hoarding the same way, as just another mental illness/side effect that causes behaviour that is damaging to the person suffering. It’s a complex problem and one of the worst, as environment is key for solving any problem, feeling un-ease is not a great starting point for addressing any issue. Karron, I was shocked and unbelievably saddened when I read about your son. My heart truly goes out to you, I can’t begin to imagine how you coped with that loss, and I can see how you have a unique insight into hoarding as you have lived the emotions that lead to the inability to let go. Karron, from the little I know about you, I think your an exceptionally strong and inspiring person. To deal with all that trauma and to come out the other side full of wisdom and insight is testament to how much positivity lies in our humanity. Once again, I’m so sorry to hear about your son, Arron. If he is looking down on you, I’m sure he’s extremely proud. Bless you and thankyou for sharing your thoughts..Dawny 🙂

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  9. I confess, to being to lazy to sort through things and decide what to keep and what not to keep. That being said, I have a different take on this. I see it as a general problem of not being able to make choices. People who have this problem are often “emotionless” and they get caught in an endless loop of weighing one choice against the other. It seems that emotion is necessary to break out of this loop and tilt the scales to one choice or the other. Its a documented psychological problem.

  10. Why is one of my favorite words. I have no problem asking questions. Having lived in Hong Kong, I had to learn to ask or I would forever be lost and confused. Besides, if you don’t ask why something is being done, how will you know how to react to it properly?

    The hoarding issue really gets to me. I have keepsakes, art, books, music, photos and such that are valuable in terms of funds and valuable in terms of sentimental emotions. But, I have no problem tossing things that aren’t important under one of those terms. People who hoard, very often, are people who have never felt that they were loved enough, understood enough, or felt secure enough during their childhood or after some catastrophic event in their lives.

    I understand, because when my son was murdered, I wouldn’t let one single item that belonged to him be removed from my keeping. It all went into storage while we were away for seven years, but the things that mattered most went from country to country with us. His writings, his favorite book (An anthology of Victorian thinkers), and his favorite shirt. I still have them, and I treasure them. But I was able to let go of the unimportant things once we returned to the US. I could have turned into a hoarder of all things Arron. I almost did. So I understand what might drive that need.

    The Dutch inside of me shudders at the filth in a hoarder’s home. The organizer in me wants to jump in and ‘fix’ things. The compassionate me, wants to understand and help the hoarder deal with the reason for the hoarding. Like all compulsive behavior, it won’t stop with wishing it away. It takes therapy and constant work to overcome the addictive behavior.

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