Jessie Sholl

Dirty Secret

What is the Difference Between Compulsive Hoarding and Collecting?

People keep confessing their secret hoarding tendencies to me.

Posted Dec 17, 2010

A surprising number of people, when I tell them about my book, confide nervously that they think they might be a hoarder, too. I'll usually ask then if they have any rooms in home that can no longer be used.
"No," the person will say, surprised.
"Your bathroom and kitchen are usable?"
"Of course."
"So your collection of antique salt and pepper shakers isn't disrupting your life or anyone in your family's life?"
"No," the person will respond, shaking their head at my ludicrous question.
"Then I'd say you're pretty safe. It sounds like you're a collector."

Since it keeps coming up, I thought I'd address some differences between collecting and hoarding.

Let's start with the generally accepted definition of compulsive hoarding, which comes from a 1996 article by doctors Randy Frost and Tamara Hartl: "(1) the acquisition of, and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value; (2) living spaces sufficiently cluttered so as to preclude activities for which those spaces were designed; and (3) significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding."

So in other words, ask yourself if that baseball card collection you've had since you were eleven is impeding your life in some way. What about the salt and pepper shakers? Do you take pride in them, and leave them out on display? Do you enjoy looking them and perhaps even invite others to look at them? If the answer is yes, I'd say you're a collector.

Can a collector become a hoarder?

Hoarding is often set off by a trauma, though symptoms of it appear earlier, sometimes going as far back as childhood. When I was growing up, my mother was always unorganized, lackadaisical about cleaning, and certainly an over-purchaser, but it wasn't until the late ‘90s, when her boyfriend of ten years died, that she entered the realm of the pathological and became a true hoarder.

Many hoarders consider themselves artists, and art supplies comprise a large part of many hoards. As the authors of Buried in Treasures, the doctors Tolin, Frost, and Steketee, write: "People who hoard often come up with idea after idea, saving things for all kinds of creative reasons but never following through with those plans. They have become victims of their own creativity." My mother spent close to a year trying to crochet a bikini for me even though I told her a hundred times that I would never wear a bikini at all, and especially not a crocheted one. But she ignored me and continued working on it, pulling it apart and starting over each time she discovered a flaw. (This is an example of the perfectionism that hoarders often exhibit.) Even after she's abandoned a project, she can't get rid of the supplies for it, just in case. She may never find another spool of yarn like it, after all.

Spotting and savoring an item's so-called uniqueness is linked to one of the information processing problems that accompanies hoarding. The concept is called underinclusion, and it's a thought pattern that interferes with the ability to group similar items together -- a key part of organizing. So, rather than having one category for yarn, the hoarder will see one category for the yellow yarn, one category for the pale yellow yarn, one category for the saffron yellow yarn, one category for the sunflower yellow yarn ... etcetera, thus ending up with forty different categories each containing just one object. Since each item is one-of-a-kind it automatically has more value, and because nothing ends up grouped with anything else, each object must be scrutinized individually before its fate is decided. (Making it difficult, for example, to get rid of an entire garbage bag stuffed with musty and dusty yellow yarn.)

A beloved Star Wars collection.

Comments or questions? I'd love to hear from you!

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