Why It's Time To Stop Labeling People As Hoarders

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woman frustrated at hoarding habit
Self

As you walk around a neighborhood and notice things stacked on a porch or piled in a yard, do you wonder, "Does a hoarder live there?"

Do you wonder about the person? About what they do, who they are, or what caused them to pile things up around their house? Maybe you wonder if the "Hoarders" T.V. show is going to be filming an episode at the house.

What sort of pictures do you paint in your mind’s eye? Probably not very pretty. These visions probably include rotting food, dirty clothes, trash, and lots of newspapers, magazines, and torn paper.

The psychology of hoarding says otherwise.

In fact, the people you may label as "hoarders" are highly unlikely to actually be hoarding anything. Their challenges are something else entirely. 

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As a professional organizer and a hoarding specialist, I can tell you that what looks like hoarding is very often not hoarding at all.

The piles of stuff are often there because of something else. It may be poor organizing skills or strategies, difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, or any number of other things.

The psychology of hoarding shows us that hoarding is a disorder, not a label.

The DSM-V lists hoarding disorder as one of the many disorders a psychiatrist may diagnose.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, hoarding disorder is present in between two to six percent of the population. And, that number only accounts for the people who have come forward to be diagnosed.

The DSM-V also lists ADHD, OCD, PTSD, and a variety of other disorders.

Why is it that we don’t call someone who is diagnosed with one of these disorders by their diagnosis?

People who hoard are like you and me. We can attach many different labels to ourselves.

We may be a parent, grandparent, businessperson, artist, actor, dancer, electrician, plumber, carpenter, gardener, designer, painter, and the list goes on.

People who hoard are much more than the things they collect. Labeling them with this one characteristic is unnecessarily limiting.

Hoarding is not like diabetes or epilepsy where it can be beneficial for someone else to know about their diagnosis because if so you know how to help the person, if need be, in time to avoid a serious problem.

The best way to help someone who hoards is to guide them to therapy and introduce them to a trained professional organizer who specializes in hoarding disorder.

There are labels for places and things.

Labels are wonderful to use to identify a thing or a place. Imagine how hard it would be to find a document in either your computer or your file drawer if the folder were not labeled appropriately.

Maybe you have wasted time searching for a missing document only to later find that it was mislabeled and therefore, misplaced.

It would be even harder to give directions if the streets were not labeled. Think about it. You would need to use landmarks. But isn’t that also a form of labeling?

The same is true for containers. It's easy to find what you're looking for when the outside of the container tells you what's inside.

Imagine a closet filled with 10 identical plastic containers, none of which is labeled. You are looking for the one that holds winter sweaters.

To find those sweaters, you’ll have to open each one of those containers and search through them. Ugh! What a waste of time!

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There are other ways to use labels for people.

Labels for people are good to use when making an introduction. When you introduce someone to a friend by identifying a common interest, you give the two people an instant connection — something to talk about other than the weather.

For instance, if your friend likes to garden and you know that I also like to garden, you could introduce us to each other as fellow gardeners.

You can also make a connection by identifying someone as another person’s brother, sister, or cousin.

Labels are wonderful in this way because they immediately establish the connection to the person.

There was a time in history when people were named based on either their profession or their relation. This is how names like Baker, Smith (blacksmith), Carpenter, or Richardson (Richard's son) came to be.

These labels were intended to help not hurt.

Labels can also be attributes.

The labels "hoarder," "packrat," and "collector" are not helpful.

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If a person has not been diagnosed with hoarding disorder but someone — a family member, perhaps — sees the inside of their home and calls them a hoarder because of a disorganized pile of stuff, they may internalize this label.

We often repeat the things people say to us inside our heads.

The label can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the person was going to get their act together and clean up their pile. Now, they don’t want to because hoarders have piles of stuff.

If they are a hoarder, then that's what they should be.

It’s time to stop using the term "hoarder." It’s a shortcut, I know, but it's important to be accurate. Take the long road and say, "a person with hoarding behaviors."

Or, "It looks like someone has hoarded the house" instead of "A hoarder lives there."

You don’t know if the person has been diagnosed with a hoarding disorder or if they have had to empty their parents’ home and now have a household that's filled to the brim because of unfortunate or stressful life events.

You don’t know if the person is a talented artist or a loving parent.

The truth is you don’t know anything other than the information your eyes take in. Do you know the expression "Don’t judge a book by its cover"?

So why are you labeling someone with a negative term when we don’t have all the facts?

The next time you’re tempted to use the label "hoarder" to describe a person, bite your tongue.

Take a breath and decide not to use that negative label for people with a hoarding disorder.

RELATED: How To Help A Loved One Who’s Hoarding In Their Home

Diane N. Quintana is a Certified Professional Organizer® ,a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization®, Master Trainer and owner of DNQ Solutions, LLC based in Atlanta, Georgia. She specializes in working with people affected by ADD, Hoarding, and chronic disorganization. Contact Diane for a free 30-minute phone conversation.