Are You a Hoarder? Or Just Messy?

Serious hoarding is a compulsive disorder that affects about 5 percent of the population, but there are ways to deal with the problem.

By Leah Zerbe


Find out if you're a hoarder—or just messy.The topic of hoarding is hot, even though it's a pretty unglamorous condition. Reality TV shows are providing an inside view into the world of hoarders, people who jam-pack their homes by accumulating free items, or even fall into serious debt purchasing things, and then won't get rid of stuff they no longer need. "I think we have always been fascinated by unusual behavior, and hoarding behavior and the situations in which many of those who suffer it live are beyond what many people can imagine," says psychologist and hoarding expert Michael Tompkins, Ph.D., author of Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring (New Harbinger Publications, 2009). "Many people are baffled by what they see and wonder how anyone could live in these conditions. In addition, I think people are fascinated, in part, because they know someone who may have this problem." The increased attention to the phenomenon may lead to more understanding and empathy, Thompkins adds. "Too often, these individuals have been labeled as lazy, dirty, or worse. Now, as an audience, we are discovering that what was thought to be laziness or a character flaw is a real mental health problem."

And there certainly are many people in living with the condition. People with serious hoarding problems account for at least 5 percent of the population. The good news is, no matter if you or a loved one classifies as a hoarder, or just a messy person in need of some organization, there are ways to live clutter-free lives again.

So how do you tell the difference between a true hoarder and a messy person? A true hoarding problem is maintained through two problem behaviors—compulsively accumulating items, and avoiding getting rid of things even though they're not useful anymore. Signs of hoarding behavior:

•  The person's home is so highly cluttered that it is difficult for the person to live comfortably or effectively, or even threatens his or her health or safety.

•  The person can't declutter a room (meaning discard certain items, sort, categorize, and store items) in a few hours or a day.

•  The person doesn't allow others into his or her home.

"Someone who is messy yet has great trouble getting rid of things may over time meet the definition of a true hoarding problem," says Tompkins. "A major feature of a true hoarding problem is the large amount of disorganized clutter that creates chaos in the home. People can no longer sit on the sofa or at the kitchen table. They find it very difficult to move around the house, and the doors and windows are blocked with clutter such that they could not exit the home quickly in case of an emergency.

"A messy person, who can let go of things and can, when pressed, organize, file, and store items in a relatively efficient manner, is not likely to have a true hoarding problem," he adds.