How Does Someone Become Chronically Disorganized?

How does someone become chronically disorganized? Most chronically disorganized people become compulsive without really realizing it. Hoarders also usually have deeper problems than just clutter management.

There are different theories about the causes of compulsive hoarding. Dr. David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at The Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital, writes on Oprah.com that compulsive hoarding is believed to be the result of a problem in one or more of the following areas: information processing, beliefs about possessions, and emotional distress triggered by discarding.


Dr. Tolin writes that if people have problems with information processing that means they have difficulty making decisions about what to do with their possessions. They may have trouble sorting their possessions, deciding what's worth keeping and what should be discarded, or deciding where to put things. Compulsive hoarders may also be afraid that if they put things away in drawers or closets where they can't see them, they won't be able to remember where the things are. That leads to their leaving their possessions somewhere out in the open, often flung on top of existing piles. As time passes, the piles grow.


In extreme cases, many areas of hoarders' homes will eventually become unusable for their intended purposes. But it doesn't happen overnight. Ron Alford, Managing Director of Disaster Masters, a company that specializes in cleaning out apartments that have become "utter disasters", says, "It's a long process."

Compulsive hoarders are often, though not always, people who live alone. "The underlying reason for most of it," Alford says, "is loneliness. I talked to a lot of people whose husbands and wives are on the cusp of becoming compulsive hoarders, but it is the spouse or the roommate that keeps them straightened out. Sometimes, though, when people live with each other and one hoards, the other person gets sort of knuckled under by all the stuff and gives up. They may be enabling the hoarder and keeping just one part of the house clean."

Just as there are different theories about the causes of compulsive hoarding, there are different theories about treatment. Alford thinks that "psychologists don't have a clue about how to solve the problem of compulsive hoarding." He says, 'All the therapy on earth and all the drugs on earth will not do a thing for people's houses that are loaded up with stuff, people who collect tons of stuff or just forgot or refuse to get rid it."

Ironically, when people buy items that they hope will help them solve their clutter problem, the items may instead turn into more clutter, making the problem worse rather than better. Alford says, "There have been hundreds of books written on clutter management by professional organizers. You are talking to a guy who saw more of those books thrown away than any other man on earth. I know that I hold the world's record for throwing out books on clutter management as well as stuff from a place called The Container Store, where people go and buy huge amounts of supplies -- cleaning supplies, organization supplies, books on organization and time management. All that becomes a part of the clutter, and compulsive hoarders just can't make it work."

People who have problems with beliefs about possessions may identify so strongly with their possessions that they feel the possessions are a part of them, which makes it seem unbearable to throw the possessions away. Hoarders may also feel a strong need to control their possessions, and they may become anxious if other people touch their things or try to move them.

The emotional distress triggered by discarding can be so uncomfortable that hoarders will try to avoid having to make any decisions about whether to throw out particular items. Hoarders may procrastinate, putting the decisions off for later, or they may manage to avoid dealing with the items altogether.

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