Profiling compulsive hoarding: the meaning of possessions – Got Anxiety?

Hoarding Disorder is a condition in which people intentionally (a) over acquire various items such as papers, clothing, food, etc., and (b) find it nearly impossible to discard acquired possessions, which results in excessive clutter throughout active living spaces, making them virtually unusable.

Most items over acquired fall into 3 categories: (1) paper products (magazines, newspapers, receipts), (2) consumable items (food, spices, cooking oils), and (3) clothing & household supplies.

Everyone reading this article has, from time to time, over acquired items and experienced difficulty throwing away possessions. What makes matters worse are the times when, following discarding a particular item, we later find an important use for it, resulting in a firm decision to keep the majority of our remaining possessions well into the future.

So, do these behaviors constitute a diagnosis of “Hoarding Disorder”? The answer is usually found in the meaning we place on our possessions, as well as specific personality traits displayed.

Let’s take a closer look at the profile which contains the defining characteristics of those who engage in compulsive hoarding.


Look around your house and think about why you own certain items. Focus on that vase you haven’t put flowers in for the past five years. What about that 20-year-old wedding album you have looked at only once in the past 19 years? Worse yet, what’s going on with the 15 jars of olive oil in the pantry, all having expired four years ago?

No doubt, you have an answer regarding why you acquired each possession, and a rationale justifying your lack of discarding these items.

Certain characteristics of these objects motivate you to initially acquire them, as well as constitute your refusal to discard them — it is the MEANING you place on them.

For those with a diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder, the meaning or feelings associated with one’s possessions, comprise 3 categories:

1. Instrumental Value: Refers to the belief that a particular possession currently serves a practical function; will serve some important purpose in the future; or may prove useful to another person one day. We refer to this manner of thinking as “just in case reasoning,” which involves overestimating the probability of needing a possession while, at the same time, underestimating a perceived ability to cope with not having the item, should the need arise. This thought process creates the illusion that the lack of discarding possessions prevents a feeling of vulnerability, and thus keeps one safe and protected.

2. Sentimental Value: The other day, we ran across our wedding album assembled 31 years ago, consisting of real pictures (not digital images), contained within a leather album, as opposed to a computer hard drive. Because we have looked at it only a handful of times in the past three decades, why not just toss it out? After all, it has no instrumental (practical) value, right? Well, last I checked, the wedding album remains on the shelf, and will no doubt stay there, after we are gone, for our children to one day hold in their hands as they decide to box it, or toss it. Our guess is, they won’t be able to justify discarding it, and that’s fine. What’s not OK is when this type of sentimental meaning is assigned to objects such as a bar of soap or a bottle of mouthwash brought home from a hotel once visited during a special family vacation; particularly when this pattern is consistently repeated regarding every hotel associated with positive experiences. Before long, one possesses enough of these toiletry items to open a bath & beauty store!

3. Intrinsic Value: When possessions are acquired, and never discarded, due to their perceived aesthetic value, it doesn’t take long before household rooms become filled with objects characterizing unique colors, shapes, textures, etc. Again, the problem is not that a person possesses such items, it is when these items develop into mounds of clutter, making living spaces no longer usable.

With respect to the 3 categories of meaning associated with one’s possessions, those who engage in compulsive hoarding typically assign greater emphasis to the SENTIMENTAL value of their possessions — assigning a “human-like” quality to these items.

To discard a possession is equivalent to losing a loved one, which triggers feelings of grief, sadness and guilt, since these possessions also acted as a means of deriving a sense of security and comfort.

Thus, the lack of discarding serves the primary function of avoiding the experience of these strong negative emotional states.

In our next article, we will profile the most common personality traits associated with compulsive hoarding.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit to learn more.


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