Cluttering and Hoarding -Outer Child Messes

Cluttering and Hoarding -- Messy Outer Child Behaviors

(c) Susan Anderson 2010


Is your Outer Child a clutterer?  Do you want to develop neater habits?  Become more orderly?   Would you like to purge your home and overstuffed schedule of unnecessary things?   This chapter will help you.   


If you’re a garden variety clutterer – you might have clothes that need putting away, dishes stacked up in the sink, or stacks of unopened mail – it is probably due to the rigors of modern life; your inner child feel stressed, tired, discombobulated, or preoccupied, and your Outer Child acts out by dodging clean-up tasks. 


Some people have hoarding problems that are nothing short of extreme. 


“I’ve fallen behind in my house keeping. Stuff started piling up about six months ago and I seem to have misplaced the living room sofa.”


“I just can’t throw things away, so I move instead.  I’ve lived in three different houses in past five years to get away from the clutter but the stacks and piles just grow all over again until they fill up the bathroom and force me to move again.”   


Most of us have seen images on TV displaying the chaotic, squalid messes inside the homes of extreme clutterers.  If these images arouse our disgust, they also arouse our curiosity and an unspoken acknowledgment there is a spectrum of hoarding behavior and most of us fall somewhere along its continuum.  Who doesn’t have a closet or at least a drawer that’s an absolute wreck?


In looking at people’s pileups, we are observing a metaphor for pileups in our own lives that don’t take up physical space. The metaphor unwittingly reminds us of our own unfinished emotional business, unattended goals, unsorted feelings, and un-discarded negative self-messages – messy conglomerations of issues that bury us under their psychological weight. 


By looking inside an extreme clutter’s home, we are looking at the results of extreme Outer Child behavior, and the feelings we imagine that must go with it.  It boggles the mind.  In straining to make sense of it, we consult our own murkiest feelings.  By plumbing the depths of our emotional understanding, we get in touch with our human core, and perhaps feel better about ourselves. 


Clutterers’ Voices


In attempting to explain their habits and compulsions no matter where they are on the spectrum, people attribute their behavior to a variety of emotional issues: 


“I’m a clutterer because I get too easily overwhelmed.  A mess makes me so anxious, I avoid doing anything about it.”  


“I’m a clutterer because I doubt myself a lot and I’m afraid of making a mistake. ‘When in doubt, don’t throw it out’ – so my piles just keep growing.” 


“I’m a clutterer, but I think it’s all about procrastination. I don’t get around to discarding things.”


“I’m a clutterer because I can never have enough. I’m afraid I’ll be out in the world with nothing. Keeping all this stuff keeps me packed in and safe.”   


“I’m a clutterer because I have guilt about wasting things.  I’d better save them.  What if someone might need it some day?  But somehow I’ve taken ‘waste not, want not’ through the roof.”


“I’m a clutterer because I don’t feel good enough about myself to live in neat, tidy surroundings I can be proud of.” 


“I’m a clutterer because I’m an artist and I guess my messy space is a form of impressionism – a tableau expressing the state of my mind: Chaos.”


“I’m a clutterer because I attach sentimental value to everything that comes my way.  I collect it all.  I feel too attached to it to get rid of most things.”


“I’m a clutterer because I have trouble making decisions and keeping things avoids making all of those decisions.”  


“I’m a clutterer because I’ve had a lot of trauma and throwing things on the floor releases stress.”


“I’m a clutterer because I’m a perfectionist.  I wouldn’t want to make the mistake of not keeping something I’m supposed to keep.”  


“I’m clutterer because I just can’t just abandon my stuff.  I feel too loyal to it. Keeping stuff feels like right thing to do.”  


Although most people are able to connect their hoarding, cluttering behaviors to personal issues, they’re not able to answer the next logical question: Why do their problems manifest themselves in physical disarray and not in some other way?  More than almost any other ailment we’ve discussed so far, when cluttering and hoarding become compulsive, it leaves people bewildered with their own behavior. 


Quite a few extreme clutters have attended my abandonment recovery workshops over the years.  They’d tried every other type of treatment, but their feelings and behaviors were so entwined, their attempts to break free kept them running in circles.  So they’ve tried my program hoping to free themselves from Outer Child compulsions by healing the source – unresolved abandonment.  


Beneath it All


Yes, at the heart of every extreme clutterer I have met lurks primal abandonment fear.  One workshop attendee nominated herself to be poster child for cluttering.     



“It’s all about abandonment.  I was sent to live with my aunt when I was a child, so I had this terror about being discarded.  When I lived on my own, I stopped throwing things away.  I became a packrat, a shopper, and a non-returner.  I’m afraid my husband will leave me over the hoarding, so I resort to removing price tags and throwing new clothes on the laundry pile so he won’t suspect I’ve never worn them.  I know the growing stacks push him to the brink, but when he threatens divorce, I panic and go buy more in case I wind up with nothing.”


Another woman reported that her cluttering stemmed from low self-esteem. Her mother had been rejecting and extremely critical and she’d turned this toward herself, creating self-abandonment. 



“Although I’m not an extreme hoarder, I’m somewhat messy.  But when my home is out of place, it makes me feel inadequate, so I guess I was recreating the familiar.  My friends kept their homes in perfect order, never had anything out of place.  I compared myself to them and felt inferior.  When they came over, I tried to look like I lived the same way, but I had to scurry around beforehand to clean the mess so they’d never guess that I was an ‘unworthy person.’”


Many clutterers report that a history of trauma – with roots in childhood abandonment – led to their compulsion. 



“My parents were both severely abusive and I get easily stressed out.  I’m always reacting to some crisis.  I have too much going on to be bothered with whether stuff is piling up.” 



“Losing so many people in my family was so traumatic that when I’ve faced with the thought of throwing something away, it reminds me of loss.  So instead of feel that all the time, I just save everything.” 



“I was sexually abused and I know it was behind me becoming a packrat, because living like this keeps me in shame.  It forces me to live like a hermit, in a kind of cocoon that keeps people out.”  



“My cluttering started as a cry for help.  I created a physical mess because no one was acknowledging my emotional problems. It was my way of saying, ‘Doesn’t anybody get it? This mess means I’m messed up!’” 


Whatever the cause or level of insight people have into their cluttering and hoarding, they often feel too hopeless and overwhelmed to do anything about their stacks and piles, except add to them. 

“It’s beyond me to get rid of stuff, so I just move things from pile to pile.” 


Moving things from pile to pile is so prevalent a behavior, that hoarding recovery gives it its own name: churning. 


A Medical Mystery


Extreme cluttering remains a mysterious ailment, a behavioral disorder that therapists and researchers are still trying to fully understand.  It is expressed through acts of commission such as collecting and saving and acts of omission like failing to throwing things away. Some believe hoarding represents a glitch in the brain’s foraging component.  The behavior is found in birds and other animals – they hoard aluminum foil, beads, and other brightly colored things[i].


Some experts consider cluttering a subtype of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) yet it doesn’t respond to any of the medications that help the other OCD patients. Some people do respond to antidepressants (SSRI’s), but not all[ii].  Clutterers may suffer from other conditions too, ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to depression to borderline personality to dementia[iii].  The compulsion becomes established in some people as early as the age of five. There are some known genetic factors[iv].  


When we look at the brain chemistry of cluttering, we see that, once again, dopamine, the neurochemical mediating reward and addiction we talked about in Chapter 14, is implicated[v].  Extreme clutterers produce interesting readings on brain scanning equipment like fMRIs which show low metabolism in brain regions associated with problem solving, decision making, and visual spatial relations[vi], but these readings do not explain why people compulsively hoard to the extent that the accumulation prohibits the use of the bathtub.


I’ve heard some very fancy terms applied to pathological collecting like ‘object-affect fusion’, but there is yet no medical consensus about the cause – or exactly what to do about it. 

Researchers are testing medications for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Ritalin and Adderall to see if they might help clutterers by stimulating those under-metabolizing areas of the brain. They are also exploring Alzheimer medications such as Aricept (which increases acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in cognitive functioning).  Results remain inconclusive to date.


Cleaning House


Whether you’re a compulsive clutterer or just a little behind in your ‘to do’ list, the three prongs of the Outer Child program help you restore order in your life and home.


The quality and scope of the images you implant in your brain are important.  Use your sense of future to create a positive vision of how you would like your living environment to look and how you would like to feel about it.  Imagine it is as if you’ve already brought it to that ideal condition.  Whenever you feel overwhelmed by the current condition of your home, conjure up a clear mental image of this future vision to give you aim, trajectory, and focus as you proceed through the program. 


The second component of the program involves using the tools of separation therapy to attribute your cluttering behavior to your Outer Child. This allows you to form a tighter emotional connection between your Adult Self and your Inner Child around this issue.  Imagine how sad, lonely, and frustrated your inner self has been feeling about living in a disordered world.  He needs you to do something about it.  The empathy Big You builds toward Little You, creates dynamic internal change that allows you to change behavior. 



“I was so ashamed of the squalor. My house certainly wasn’t visitor-friendly.  I told people I was a hoarder, but they had no idea I had to walk sideways just to get in the door. I lived in exile.  Then I looked at my life through the lens of the Outer Child framework and saw that Outer was imprisoning me in a house of shame.  Outer’s brain was wired weirdly – that’s how I thought of it – and I knew I had to take stringent measures to get on top of that.  I finally realized I couldn’t take the task on by myself.  Since my Outer Child was so strong, I got a strong therapist. I also held a vision of my apartment as a calm, shame-free place, somewhere I could feel proud to invite people to.  And then I started taking action steps.  Pile by pile, room by room, I was able to get my house to look more like my vision.”



“The dialogues helped me stop hating myself for my hoarding. I took my anger out on Outer instead of on myself.  Keeping Outer separate let me love myself for the first time.  Lately I’ve made Outer my buddy because I need her energy to help me untangle the mess. The action steps help me become orderly by making one small dent in it at a time.” 



“I’ve learned to care too much about Little Me to live in a messy house.  I know what she wants and I give it to her.  I keep Outer busy creating new social events for my friends.  If my house isn’t perfect, who cares? I love me and my friends love me for being me.”


The Neatnick


The Outer Child program also helps people at the opposite end of obsessive compulsive disorder’s continuum, namely people suffering from a compulsion to be neat. 



“My OCD caused me to create major messes when I was younger, but then it swung to the other extreme and turned me into a neat freak.  If there was anything out of place before I went to bed, I’d be too anxious to fall asleep. When I learned to separate behavior from feelings, I was able to work with my fears for the first time and nurture Little Portia.  It took many dialogues and lots of practice until I could get Big Me strong enough to calm her down.  Today my OCD is much better, although I still like things pristine.  But I can let a few dishes collect in the sink overnight because I can reassure Little Me that we’ll be okay.  I also hold this future vision of my house having lots of calming natural beauty in it, so lately I’ve been bringing branches and wildflowers indoors (nature walks are Outer’s favorite action steps) and I don’t freak out when the leaves fall on the counter – the litter reminds me that life is okay.” 


Being obsessive compulsive about being neat can create a kind of tyranny that affects other people.



“I grew up in squalor – my parents had food, beer cans, filth everywhere you looked.   I couldn’t invite kids over, even though I kept my own room perfect. When I bought my own house, my Outer Child became a bully – insisted that every square inch of the house be kept perfect. I was imposing this compulsiveness on my wife and kids!  I had to deal with my neatness Nazi before he destroyed my marriage. So I went to a workshop and leaned to create a mental image of my home being a place of freedom, fun, and comfort.  Holding this image and staying connected with my inner shame and fear helped me gain a balance and enjoy my family life.  So, when the kids all have their friends over, I’m able to enjoy the moment, amidst the spilled popcorn.”




What about people who stuff their schedules rather than their closets?  Some are so busy rushing from one activity to the next that they find they’ve squeezed out quality time to relax at home, hang out with friends, or develop other interests.  Outer turned them into human doings instead of human beings.  



“I was a time clutterer, running all day, too busy to enjoy the moment, until I realized that Outer Child was destroying my life.  Little Me?  I didn’t know she was in there.  It took weeks to find her voice.  Now I have time for everything – work, play, friends, relaxation, sleep, Me.  My Outer Child is still busy – busy helping me create a new life.” 


In separating feelings from behavior – Inner from Outer – you untangle once enmeshed parts that perpetuated the cluttering behavior.  Guided by your goals, your stronger Adult Self emerges to nurture your Inner Child as a separate entity, freeing up your Outer Child’s energy.  With your internal parts in order, you are prepared for the third component of the program – taking action to put your world in order. You are ready to take advantage of the behavioral remedies for taming Outer’s cluttering behavior.  They take you step by step.  To increase your incentive to follow through, you can build these remedies into your dialogues as action steps.


I’m going to share some techniques I have collected from hoarding experts, but I’ll begin with two tips of my own that can help you overcome one of the biggest obstacles to getting started:  all-or-nothing thinking, as in “My to do list is too long, I can’t do it all, so what’s the point of even trying?”  


Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking


The thought of having mountains of clutter can be paralyzing if you start by thinking it’s all got to happen in one fell swoop.  Perhaps you’ve been stuck there for a long time, just letting things collect.  Let’s put that kind of thinking aside.  The first tip comes from my mother who taught me a policy she called ‘first things first.’  It means that if you’re all set to enjoy something – getting a snack from the refrigerator, running to the mall, or calling a friend – use it as an incentive to first get one small thing done on your to do list.  Use the snack as a reward.  With first things first, you call to schedule your mammogram, then call your friend as a reward.  First empty the garbage, then go to the mall.  First pay the water bill, then leaf through your favorite catalogue.  As first things first becomes a habit, your life gets ordered and you have more time to enjoy its little rewards guilt free and with greater consciousness. 


The second technique I call the ‘Just 10 Things Rule.’ This technique helps you break down what might seem like a superhuman task.  When you’re faced with monstrous clutter, rather than let it overwhelm you, take a reasonable number of baby steps toward your goal a few minutes at a time. Say you had a party and your house is a disaster area. Just pick up ten dishes.  If you create a little momentum along the way and wind up doing more, fine.  And when you run out of steam, stop.  Next time you approach the mess, pick up ten wine glasses.  Rest easy knowing the task will eventually get done, ten things at a time.


Of course ten isn’t a magic number.  Think of a task and decide on the number of baby steps you want to take at a time.  If you have clothes piled up all over your bedroom, just put away three things.  Clean jeans go in the drawer, dirty shirt in the hamper, shoes on the rack.  Next time put away three more things, or ratchet it up to five if you feel like it. 


These two tools are effective in using small action steps to create momentum – whether your house is a just a little messy or you have stacks and piles that take over your entire living space.


CBT for Hoarding


Cluttering has been known to respond to a specialized form of therapy for compulsive acquiring called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Hoarding[vii].   CBT works well with the Outer Child Program in that it seeks to strengthen the resources of your cognitive mind and emphasizes taking small behavioral steps to address the problem.  I gathered the following tips from studies and books by therapists who developed this technique.


1)      Get Help.   If you feel too overwhelmed to get started, ask for help.  Ask a friend. Some friends would love nothing better than to help you throw things out.  They might see it as a way to get an energetic physical and mental workout – and feel needed at the same time.  Or find a professional organizer or therapist who specializes in hoarding.  There are national organizations and websites to help clutterers. Do an online search to find resources in your area.  Try the search words: hoarding, cognitive behavioral therapy, and obsessive compulsive disorder. 

2)      Challenge all-or-nothing thinking.   In this moment you’re going to focus your thoughts and energy on one small corner.  The rest of your piles and to-do lists don’t matter for now.  You’re going to take it one corner at a time.

3)      Day by day.   It doesn’t mater if it takes hours, weeks, months, or years to resolve the problem.  Keep your focus on today – on this corner, on this moment.  As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Keep it in the Day.’’    

4)      What can go first?   Create a hierarchy for sorting, ranked from easy to hard, and start with the easy stuff.  You might be able to get rid of dated catalogues first, for example,  and perhaps last year’s newspapers next.

5)       It’s hard, but you can do it.   Remind yourself that some discomfort is involved.  Being emotionally prepared for a strong challenge is a good coping strategy. 

6)      Ask yourself.    When you approach a more difficult item on a pile, here are some questions the CBT experts have devised to help you[viii]. 

* How many of these do I have?

* Do I have any plans for its use?  

* How would I cope without having it? 

* How distressing would it feel to get rid of it? 

* What are advantages or disadvantages of keeping it? 

* Is it a Need or a Want? 

7)  Create a moratorium on collecting new stuff:  It’s important to know that for many pathological hoarders, acquiring is one of the first behaviors to go.  Consider collecting fewer new items. 

8)  There will be setbacks.  Give yourself permission to be human and expect to do this imperfectly.  When you have a setback, be gentle with yourself; you can just pick up where you left off.

9)  Consider storage. When it comes to items you feel a strong attachment to, you can           move them to storage outside of home. 

10)   It takes as long as it takes.  Progress can be slow, steady, and sporadic and still get you where you need to go. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists for Hoarding report that effective treatment can take nine months or more. Expect it to take time.  Be patient with yourself and the process. 


The Outer Child program bequeaths five more points to the list. 


11)   Keep holding your future vision in your mind.  Make this image a mental refuge of peace and calm and beauty.

12)   You’re a work in process. With each baby step you take, consider yourself in the process of getting your life in order. 

13)   Stop and smell the roses.  Take in this moment, find the joy in it.  Reward yourself with the knowledge that you’re moving in the right direction.

14)   It’s Outer Child’s mess. Continue attributing your cluttering to your Outer Child to prevent self-anger and self-hatred from infiltrating your newly emerging, still fragile sense of self.  Just blame your resistance and old habits on Outer and then work to improve your love relationship with yourself.  You need a tight coalition between Big You and Little You to keep Outer constructively occupied.   

15)  Your Higher Self is in charge. When you take a baby step, take it as your volitional self – your higher self.  A stronger Adult Self is able to make peace with your Outer Child and use its energy to keep your life, schedule, and home in order.  

[i]  Walter Brown and Zsuzsa Meszaros, Md, Phd  (2007).


[ii]  Disappearance of hoarding behavior after 6 hydroxydopamine lesions of he mesolimbic dopamine neurons and its reinstatement with L-dopa,” Kelley AE, Stinus L. (1999).  Hoarding represents a glitch in brain’s foraging


Article by Walter Brown and Zsuzsa Meszaros, Md, Phd  (2007).

[iii] In the elderly, compulsive hoarding is known as part of senile squalor syndrome or Diogenes syndrome, “Senile breakdown in standards of personal and environmental cleanliness” Br Med J (1966).  See also _____________ article on COLLYERS SYNDROME______________ 

[iv] Genes: The Neurobiology and Medication Treatment of Compulsive Hoarding, by Sanjaya Saxena MD, 2009.  Also:  “Genetic susceptibility to obsessive-compulsive hoarding”, P. Alonso, et al (2007). 

[v] When we look at the brain chemistry of cluttering: Heightened dopamine in promoting salience would make ‘everything’ seem important; collecting them would be dopamine rewarded, causing the behavior to become compulsive.  From Compulsive Hoarding Syndrome” by Maria Grealla (2005).When areas producing dopamine are severed in certain brain regions, it abolishes hoarding behavior in rats; when L-dopa is administered, the rats go back to hoarding. 


[vii] CBT for Hoarding is also known as Manualized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

For more information, read Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding by David Tolin, Randy Frost, and Gail Steketee 2007.  For professionals: Compulsive Hoarding and Acquiring: Therapist Guide by Steketee and Frost 2006.   

[viii]: From “Cognitive Behavioral treatment Interventions for Compulsive Hoarding” 2007 by Christiana Bratiotis 2007.