OCD Hoarding Assistance: What Is Your Life Worth?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can involve different types of compulsive behaviors. This audio discusses the compulsion of hoarding which is the fear
of losing something. The concept of hoarding and the thinking that needs to be challenged to help make choices regarding saving or
throwing things away is discussed. This audio also describes how the fear of loss and grief is associated with hoarding.
The purpose of this audio is to help you become more aware of the specific choice you are making when you engage in a hoarding compulsion. In
particular, is the item you are saving worth more than you are? By being aware of this choice, you can take the next step of changing the
behavior that controls your life.
NOTE: This audio is not relevant for general issues of clutter and disorganization. It is specific to OCD.
Transcript of OCD Hoarding Assistance: What Is Your Life Worth?
People with the hoarding type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder develop all sorts of rationales for the hoarding behavior:
"What if I throw away something that has special memories?"
"What if I want to read this again later?"
"What if I never see something like this again? It is lost forever."
"What if I throw away something of value and it costs me money to replace it?"
"I don't want to waste anything!"
"What if I miss out on a bargain?"
"What if I regret a decision I make today to throw something away? I might think it is important some time in the future."
"I can't tolerate the feelings of loss and regret so I will avoid them by not throwing away anything that I might feel bad about."
The problem with these rationales is that they may seem logical on the surface but when you examine them to the ultimate conclusion, they are illogical. In particular, think about how much time you spend either worrying about losing something or going through things to determine what to save and what to throw away. Also, consider how these things affect your life. How much space do they take up? How much time do they involve? By worrying about a bargain or wasting something others may consider trash, how much of the precious resources of your life do you waste? Do you lose out on other things in your life due to the hoarding? Does it take time to find things you do need? Are you embarrassed or unable to have friends over to your home? Logically, if you really don't want to waste anything, you wouldn't waste your life by focusing on saving things. No matter what those things might be, they are not as valuable as the rest of your life.
But I don't expect this logic to just change your mind because the hoarding type of OCD is a disorder. Although you can learn steps to manage hoarding, it is not as simple as telling yourself to think differently about saving things. Learning to change thinking is a challenging process that takes effort. However, the first step is recognizing that the logic I am describing about getting rid of clutter in your life is accurate even if it feels unacceptable to you right now. The second step is to understand what hoarding represents for you so that you can deal more directly with the problem. To understand this, let's look at what OCD and hoarding is.
Hoarding is not just refusing to throw things away. It is a feeling of anxiety and loss about the idea of throwing things away. This feeling controls your life in some way. Otherwise, you would not be listening to this audio. Many people save mementos from their past or their family's past. However, such mementos are saved to be enjoyed. They are displayed and shared with others to be viewed and talked about. They are not hidden at the bottom of a pile of stuff in the closet. People who save mementos focus on the pleasurable memories those items bring. Whereas people who hoard are focused on the fear of loss.
This is the difference between hoarding and saving meaningful items. Hoarding is indiscriminate. Because people who hoard may consider everything of value, items of true meaning and value are treated no better than the rest. These items cannot bring any pleasurable memories because all the energy is focused on not losing things rather than on enjoying things. Most hoarders also lead very disorganized lives. The stuff they save ends up just being piles of stuff. No pleasure is obtained from these piles of stuff. Instead they only feel misery at the prospect of losing their stuff. Choosing misery over enjoyment is what I mean by wasting the “precious resources” of your life. Do you want your life to focus in a negative way on the fear of loss rather than the pleasure that can be experienced in life?
Most people with OCD focus on the immediate suffering or discomfort they might feel if they don't engage in the compulsion. However, they lose sight of the greater long-term suffering in their life if they DO engage in the compulsion. Erik Erikson described the various stages of development that we pass through in life. The final stage he described is Integrity vs. Despair. This is the point when we look back at our lives and ask ourselves “Did I live a good life? How do I feel about the life I lived?” Believe me, having treated people at this stage in their life, it is heart-breaking when they look back on their life with despair, at the time they have wasted and wistfully say “I wish I had known this when I was younger.”
Having seen this many times, I try to keep the long-term perspective of my life in mind so that a feeling of integrity is more likely to be my final moments rather than despair. A technique I use when having to decide between what will give me immediate satisfaction vs long-term satisfaction is to ask myself “When you are old and gray and looking back on your life, which are you more likely to regret?”
In other words, for people who hoard things, in the future are you more likely to regret having thrown something away that might cause you discomfort or are you more likely to regret having spent your life obsessing, avoiding, and hoarding? What is more valuable to you? This item you are afraid of losing or the rest of your life?
Notice I did not say “no regrets” because it is impossible to go through life without any regrets. Whenever we make a choice there may be some regret attached to it. The issue is: what are you likely to regret more? Throwing away something or throwing away your life?
It is important to keep this perspective. You are already placing a value on things and on your life. But is it the value you want? You need to make this value more explicit and keep it in mind all the time. Are these items that you want to save more valuable than your life? Are they worth more than you are? Because that is the choice you are making when you decide to save something when it is costing time, effort, relationships, or other precious resources that could be used in other ways in your life.
When people hoard they often look at just the particular item they want to save and don't examine it in context of their entire life. It may seem reasonable to them to save a particular item. In fact, they can usually describe a logical rationale for saving the item. However, what may be logical in one particular circumstance with one particular item, is not logical when placed into the context of your entire life.
That is why it is important to constantly keep in mind the choice you are making. You are choosing to alleviate some discomfort now that is likely to cause a great deal of discomfort in the future. When you choose to hoard an item you focus very clearly and specifically on the meaning of that item to you. But instead, you need to focus just as clearly and just as specifically on your future and the impact of hoarding this item on your future. Each thing you keep becomes a greater burden to you. Each item you refuse to throw away may alleviate some discomfort or pain now, but will cause greater pain for you in the future. Your life will be focused around these things. These things become more important than any other aspect of your life.
Is this what you want? Do you want to look back on your life when you are old and gray and see that your major accomplishment is having saved hoards of stuff that you don't even have the opportunity to enjoy? If not, you need to keep the perspective of what your future will look like to help guide you today. To help you keep today in perspective, keep in mind the loss you will feel tomorrow by making the decision to feel comfort today.
Some people who are familiar with the mindfulness concepts that I teach may say that this perspective is inconsistent with the present-focused concept of mindfulness. They might even try to rationalize that saving something today is being mindful in the moment. But that is not accurate. You are saving something because of the fear of how you might feel in the future. Hoarding is not about the moment. It is about trying to prevent a feeling in the future even if that future is just a moment away. You are fearful of the feeling of loss.
Mindfulness is not inconsistent with developing goals and plans for the future. Mindfulness means not focusing on the unnecessary and distracting thoughts and feelings. For instance, focusing on grieving loss in the future when it has not occurred yet is unnecessary. Mindfulness is about experiencing the present and feeling it fully even if the present moment is loss and grief. Grieve loss when it occurs. Throwing something away today allows you to feel the loss today which opens up your future so that your future is not controlled by the hoards of stuff you have accumulated. Instead, so much more is available to you in your future. If you are hoarding so that you will never grieve loss or waste or change, you are living an illusion. The grief you will feel when you look back on your life and see what you missed will be so much greater than the grief of throwing away these meaningless items now. And I mean that they are ALL meaningless because compared to your precious life, no item you save can possibly be important.
If this audio applies to your situation, listen to it again and again until it becomes a way of thinking for you. I recognize that changing hoarding behavior is difficult but the first step is changing the way you think so that you can begin to take the steps of changing the compulsive behavior. The key to changing thinking is repetition. Tell yourself these things over and over so that you can be automatically aware of them when you are making a choice about throwing something away.
Let me leave you with some words from the Tao te Ching which I think of as the earliest form of cognitive therapy: “Know when enough is enough and you will always have enough” and “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”