Understanding and recognizing hoarding as a psychological condition, plus tips for controlling clutter and letting go

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: I am curious as to what defines a “hoarder.” When I see TV shows on hoarding, it is extreme and obvious. However, where do you move from having a cluttered house to being a hoarder? Do you have any experience with this?

Thank you for asking this question. Interestingly, I do have a lot of firsthand experience in this area because of my upbringing and my feng shui work. My mother was and still is a serious hoarder, but it was only when I started this work that I came to see that hoarding was an undiagnosed mental disorder. In just a few months, the American Psychiatric Association will recognize it as a diagnosable mental disorder.


Here are a few of the many guidelines that point toward diagnosis as a true hoarder:

• Your possessions start spreading themselves out. Many of us have at least a drawer or two or even a closet or a room with an unorganized mess, or “clutter.” Be concerned when the unorganized mess starts taking over more than one room or even the entire home.

• You just can’t seem to throw things away. Hoarders have a tendency to experience extreme anxiety when faced with throwing away things that friends and family would consider garbage.

• “Things” in the home have taken over. One of the surefire clues is when the living area is unavailable for human habitation, having been taken over by “things” and only a narrow path of “free” space is available for walking through the room.


• You dread having people see your home. The idea of others seeing your home causes anxiety and embarrassment, or, when others do visit, you make excuses as to why you have all these “things” cluttering your space.

• You can’t imagine letting go of any of it. Even when you find your possessions unmanageable, you feel anxious when others offer to help you to clean up.

• You just can’t pass up a bargain. When you find a bargain or hear of a free giveaway, it hurts to pass it up. You buy or accept it thinking that you will have it if you ever need it.

• You feel that people don’t understand you and your things. Even though reasonable people would consider your things trash, you have an extreme emotional attachment to them and consider them valuable.

• You move stuff around without throwing anything away. Whenever you need to find something or sort through your stuff, instead of throwing things like old newspapers away, you just move them from pile to pile.

• You can no longer function in your home. At the extreme, the sink is full of dishes and clutter has made it impossible to use your appliances and engage in daily functions like cooking and bathing.

Not Quite a Hoarder?

If you recognize that you are nowhere near being a hoarder, but just need some clutter-controlling tips, the following should help. Decluttering does not involve magic, but the magic happens afterwards, as you see how taking control of your clutter leads to solutions and clarity in other areas of your life.


Don’t try to do it all at once! It took time for your clutter to accumulate, so allow time to get your home back to a “happy” place. Start with a drawer, shelf, or corner of a room. A few small successes will help inspire you to continue.

Spread your things out. Taking everything out of a drawer or closet and spreading it out will enable you to see what you have and to let go of more and organize more efficiently.

If in doubt, throw it out. Seriously, when in doubt, either throw it out or give it away. Your doubt suggests an emotional attachment, and, unless it is a family heirloom, you can release it or even list it on Craigslist under “free.” Nothing moves faster than free stuff.

Contain the small stuff. Use baskets with covers and ornamental bowls to hold pens and pencils, mail, loose change, and odds and ends that collect on counters, creating clutter.

Get furnishings that do double duty. A chest with storage can serve as both a coffee table and a place to store blankets. An ottoman with a top that opens can serve as a leg prop, a drink table, and a place to hold extra items

Most importantly, stop judging yourself. Stop thinking that you are “bad” for not decluttering. Although I often talk about the energetic disadvantages of clutter, some clutter may have advantages, but I will save that for another article. Meanwhile, be present with your family and your life, and don’t waste time beating yourself up. It serves no purpose.

My favorite tip of all

Go virtual: If you have things that are sentimental that you haven’t been able to let go of, take a few digital photos of them. This way you can release them and still “have” them, without using up valuable physical space in your home.

We are programmed


Clutter is understandable because we live in a country of conspicuous consumption and are programmed to believe that acquisition of material goods gives us value. We face more choices in one trip to the grocery store than our grandparents faced in their entire lifetime. A multitude of choices psychologically leads us to acquire more than we really need.

Alice Inoue is a life guide at Alice Inoue Life Guidance LLC, a company committed to assisting people in living empowered lives. Alice shares her wisdom as a professional speaker and personal consultant, and offers a series of instructional DVDs on feng shui, as well as her award-winning books on feng shui, happiness and spiritual life wisdom. Visit www.aliceinspired.com to read her blog, sign up for her newsletters and download useful feng shui tips.