Understanding Messiness and Hoarding By Marcia Sirota (2023)

Some people are extremely neat, while others tend to accumulate a bit of clutter. Some people live in filth and don’t seem to notice. Then there’s the hoarder, whose possessions pile up until their home is a fire and health hazard.

What goes on in the minds of very messy people? I think that they can be separated into are two types: those who are disorganized and those who have psychological disorders. The former group includes individuals who have problems with keeping things tidy.

They might have some spacial organization issues and just don’t know how to deal with all the papers and objects that make up their home life. They become overwhelmed by it all, and as they give up in despair, the piles begin to accumulate.

These people know that they have a problem but can’t figure out the solution on their own. What they need is a lot of support and some simple systems to fall back on. Organizational consultants are people who are skilled at finding the proper place to put everything and can help those who suffer from clutter and disorganization to have a tidier, less chaotic home life.

When even this doesn’t help, it’s because the person’s problems are more severe – perhaps they suffer from ADD – attention-deficit disorder – and simply can’t cope with trying to keep all their stuff organized. These individuals need a lot more support, perhaps even medication, in order to manage all their papers and possessions.

A more severe form of messiness pertains to those people who don’t clean. We’ve all seen them on the reality shows about dirty homes. These are the people who never change their bed sheets or the kitchen sponge; who rarely if ever empty the cat litter, dust, sweep, mop or even scrub a surface. Their kitchen and bathroom are petri dishes growing pestilence and plagues, and yet they persist in their ways.

Chronic non-cleaners are living in an unpleasant, smelly and unhealthy environment, but don’t seem overly upset by this, which is in itself, a sign of a serious problem. Many of these individuals have a mental disorder which allows them to create mess and then live in it without concern. They may be able to function adequately in other areas of their life, but their psychological problems are demonstrated by the literal dirty secret of their filthy home.

A milder form of this problem is those individuals who let their dishes pile up in their sink over a week, don’t do their laundry for a month, sweep their floors only occasionally and rarely if ever dust. They wouldn’t qualify for the TV shows but the level of mess and dirt in their homes is unacceptable to a normally neat and tidy person.

These folks suffer from low self-esteem, passivity and inertia. They are overwhelmed by life and feel helpless about having any control over things. Basically, they have given up on themselves and their messiness is just one sign of the problem. They could benefit from supportive psychotherapy.

Finally, there are the hoarders. These people have an extreme disorder. Their overwhelming anxiety and internal chaos is expressed through the need to accumulate as much stuff as possible and the inability to throw anything away, be it old clothes, wrapping papers, newspapers or even their garbage.

When I was in pre-med, I ended up sharing a house with a 27 year-old woman, let’s call her Jenny, who had a form of this problem. She was, on the surface, an attractive, well-groomed young woman from a nice, middle-class family. It was only in living with her that her problem was revealed. The first clue was that she locked her bedroom door and hid the key.

The one time I did get to see her room, I was shocked. There was so much stuff heaped up on the floor that I had to wade through it all to get to the other side of the room. She’d invited me in only because she was in a panic: she’d lost something in the two-foot-high piles and needed my help in finding it.

Every week Jenny would go grocery shopping, and would come home with enough food to feed a family of six. She was one small person, and yet she’d buy a dozen grapefruit, ten pounds of potatoes, two quarts of milk and three loaves of bread for her own consumption. Each night she’d cook herself a big dinner, and then dutifully put the left-overs into a plastic container which she never looked at again.

I’d go through the fridge and pantry each week, throwing out squishy grapefruit, rancid left-overs (container and all), potatoes with long green sprouts, curdled milk and moldy bread. I wondered at the time if she just missed her family, but I realized later on that she just had to accumulate things. This was further demonstrated by her compulsive shopping; the evidence of which lay piled on her bedroom floor in the form of bags, scarves, belts, sweaters, jewelery and assorted shopping bags.

Jenny had filled the room across the hall with the overflow from her bedroom. One day I came home to find her sitting in the hallway, surrounded by bags and boxes and piles of stuff. She’d emptied out the room, hoping to sort through years worth of possessions and throw out as much as she could. She sat there, paralyzed, for several hours and eventually gave up and put it all back into the spare room.

At the time, I thought that she was just odd. She was kind of uptight and had some strange habits, like piling all the cutlery into the utensils drawer without sorting the various forks, etc. into each slot of the tray. I didn’t realize that her problem had a name. It’s actually a form of OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. There are many manifestations, and compulsive hoarding is a particularly challenging one.

Jenny began dating Harold, and chose to hide her problem from him. On the few occasions he came by to visit, they stayed in the living room. Over the course of their entire relationship, Harold never once got to see her bedroom. I wondered at the time what it must be like to be intimate with someone and keep such a big secret from them.

I moved out at the end of the year, and never saw Jenny again. We got along OK as room-mates but her problem made it impossible for us to be close. I thought about her from time to time, and once I was a psychiatry resident, realized how instructive it had be face-to-face with someone who was described in my textbooks. There’s nothing like seeing it first-hand to recognize how troubled these people are. And it turns out that hers was a mild case. More severe sufferers can’t contain the clutter, and their lives are taken over by the problem.

It’s clear that except for those who are organizationally impaired, individuals who live with extreme messiness or hoarding are actually exhibiting signs of a significant mental disorder. Unless these problems are recognized for what they are and are dealt with by skilled mental health professionals, the people who live in extremely disorganized, cluttered or dirty environments will stand no chance of making any meaningful changes toward cleanliness and order.

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What are the 5 stages of hoarding? ›

The 5 Stages of Hoarding: What are They?
  • Clutter, but no concern. ...
  • Deteriorating hygiene, possible hoarder. ...
  • Extreme disorganization, likely disorder. ...
  • Excessive clutter & behavior, contact professionals. ...
  • Severe unsanitary conditions, hoarding diagnosis.
May 3, 2022

What is the psychological root of hoarding? ›

Perfectionism and worrying

If you hoard things, you might feel very worried about making mistakes – also known as perfectionism. You might also find it hard to make decisions, plan ahead or work out how to do tasks. These could be possible reasons why some of us are more vulnerable to hoarding.

What is the psychology behind messiness? ›

Indeed, according to psychological research, sloppiness might be an indicator of emotional distress. Like someone with OCD who feels they need to micromanage every aspect of their life, someone who is chronically disorganized may suffer from depression or another mental health condition.

What does a messy room mean psychologically? ›

Psychologically, a messy room can represent:

A disorganized mind. Feeling overwhelmed. Difficulty letting go (common for hoarding behaviors) Trouble focusing on a task.

What kind of personality does a hoarder have? ›

Personality. Many people who have hoarding disorder have a behavior style that includes trouble making decisions and problems with attention, organization and problem-solving. Family history. There is a strong association between having a family member who has hoarding disorder and having the disorder yourself.

What should you not say to a hoarder? ›

Don't refer to their possessions as 'junk' or 'rubbish'. This shows that you don't understand their connection to the objects or why they want to keep them. They will be less likely to open up to you if you talk about their things this way. Don't focus on a total clean-up.

Do hoarders know they have a problem? ›

Hoarding disorders are challenging to treat because many people who hoard frequently do not see it as a problem, or have little awareness of how it's affecting their life or the lives of others.

Do hoarders have control issues? ›

“In addition, hoarders exhibit a need for control over their possessions, which echoes the efficacy and effectance motivation in psychological ownership. Thus, hoarding may be an extreme form of psychological ownership when viewed through the lens of consumer behavior.”

What mental illness leads to hoarding? ›

Many people with hoarding disorder also experience other mental disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or alcohol use disorder.

What does being messy tell us about a person's personality? ›

Psychology says that messiness can indeed be a sign that a person is having trouble. Just like someone who is suffering from OCD and has to control everything, being a messy person might show that they are dealing with depression or some other mental illness.

Is messiness genetic or learned? ›

Dr Brendan Zietsch of the University of Queensland studies the genetic underpinnings of human behaviour and says people can inherit a genetic tendency for messiness from one or both parents. “Both genes and environment play a role in influencing traits in general.

What causes someone to not clean their house? ›

If you don't clean your house, it might mean you are busy and have little time to clean and organize. It might be a sign that you have too much stuff. Or it might be the result of having young kids in the house who are usually not motivated to clean up after themselves.

What mental illness causes messy rooms? ›

People with depression can often find themselves living in messy spaces. This is because feelings of hopelessness, low energy, and lack of motivation can make it hard to keep on top of everyday tasks, such as tidying.

What is messy house syndrome? ›

Abstract. The messy house syndrome (Diogenes syndrome) is present when, owing to a disordering of the personality structure, a person is unable to keep order, for example, in the household or his finances. Such persons are also referred to as "messies".

Why am I so messy and disorganized? ›

"Excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression or obsessive compulsive disorder," says Hurtado. "If this is the case, the behavior needs to change versus the logistics of the home, like space or layout."

Do hoarders have empathy? ›

Conclusions: Hoarding symptoms are associated with increased emotional contagion and decreased cognitive empathy. Empathy may be an avenue for understanding and treating interpersonal difficulties in hoarding disorder.

What are the two types of hoarding? ›

Two of the most common forms are cat hoarding and dog hoarding. However, a person can hoard any animal.

Why do hoarders blame others? ›

They cringe at the prospect of being judged as broken, flawed, or inadequate by others. They already believe it is probably true. How could it not be when they tell themselves the very same things? This leaves them in a chronic state of feeling overwhelmed.

Why do hoarders get so angry? ›

“One of the characteristics of hoarding is that people feel this sense of discomfort if they feel like they may be giving away something that they could use in future,” says Hollander, explaining that patients often become greatly distressed or even angry if they are pushed to give up apparently useless or excess ...

Does hoarding get worse with age? ›

Hoarding disorder often begins during adolescence and gradually worsens with age, causing significant issues by the mid-30s. Hoarding disorder is more likely to affect people over 60 years old and people with other mental health conditions, especially anxiety and depression.

What is the fastest way to clean a hoarder's house? ›

How to Quickly Declutter a Hoarder's House
  1. Make a Plan. Inveterate hoarders have let the house get like this because they have a problem. ...
  2. Create Different Storage Areas. Initially, one of the biggest problems is the lack of space within which to work. ...
  3. Clear Hallways and Walkways First. ...
  4. Work Room by Room. ...
  5. Clean the Room.
Apr 13, 2022

What is the best medication for hoarding? ›

The medicines most commonly used are a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Research continues on the most effective ways to use medicines in the treatment of hoarding disorder.

Do hoarders have brain damage? ›

These results suggest that hoarders' decisions about possessions are hampered by abnormal activity in brain regions used to identify the emotional significance of things. “They lose the ability to make relative judgments, so the decision becomes absolutely overwhelming and aversive to them,” Tolin says.

Why are hoarders always messy? ›

Why are hoarders dirty? A hoarder's house fills with a range of items from rubbish to collectable items and the clutter makes the house feel dirty. Hoarding takes up lots of space in a house, stopping people from being able to properly clean the house.

What are the first signs of hoarding? ›

Signs of compulsive hoarding include always having clutter, showing emotional distress disposing of items, not inviting others over, having a shopping addiction, not allowing others to touch or borrow their possessions, having multiple pets, and constantly talking about their collection.

How do you help a hoarder get rid of stuff? ›

Tell the person what to discard or touch their possessions without consent. The items being hoarded may seem worthless to you, but it's important to allow the hoarder to feel in control. Remain respectful, let your loved one decide what to get rid of, and ask permission before touching anything.

Which state has the most hoarders? ›

When it comes to hoarding, Americans are all over the map. South Carolina had the highest percentage of self-identified hoarders at 50%, followed by Ohio at 42% and Alabama at 41.7%.

What is the difference between hoarding and clutter? ›

Clutter: Possessions are disorganized and may accumulate around living areas. Collecting: Possessions are part of a larger set of items. Display does not impede active living areas in home. Hoarding: Possessions become unorganized piles preventing rooms from being used for their intended purpose.

Are hoarders sociopaths? ›

More than 70% of hoarders are women, many are elderly, and recidivism is nearly universal. Some hoarders are sociopaths indifferent to the concerns or needs of either people or animals, driven by a need to accumulate and control animals. Sometimes the hoarder calls her collection a shelter or animal refuge.

Which type of personality is likely to be messy and disorganized? ›

Pros and cons of hiring Type D personality

People with Type D personality traits are usually very organized; being around a messy environment or disorganization will bother them.

What do you call a person who is always messy? ›

oinker (slang) pig [⇒ thesaurus] (figurative) schlep. schlump (slang) scruff.

How do you tolerate messy people? ›

How to live with a messy person
  1. Know they're not doing it on purpose. ...
  2. Work out your non-negotiables. ...
  3. Compromise a little. ...
  4. Draw up a cleaning chart/schedule. ...
  5. Go shopping together for home organisational things. ...
  6. Purchase items that make cleaning easier/more entertaining. ...
  7. Ask them to keep their mess to their corner.

Is messiness a symptom of depression? ›

Being messy is not necessarily a symptom of depression. However, it can result from symptoms of depression such as hopelessness, lack of motivation, or social isolation.

Are most people's houses messy? ›

Having a messy house is very normal and common, even if it doesn't seem so. Mess can be found in every house. Sometimes clutter becomes a bit overwhelming, but there's no need to panic because all houses become messy at times. If the space is still sanitary there shouldn't be serious long-term harm.

Can a messy person become organized? ›

According to home organizers and experts in habit formation, anyone can learn to be neat, even if they've spent a lifetime doing the opposite.

Why are some people unable to be tidy? ›

How messy or tidy you're feeling can also correlate with your mental health. Some people may use tidying as a stress reliever, while for others it slips off while they're stressed. Life traumas (such as divorce or death of a loved one), transitions (such as having a baby), or illness can cause a person to backslide.

What happens if you never clean your house? ›

Polluted air vents and untidy filters can contaminate the air. Soiled sheets and bedding can cause skin rashes and irritations. Dust mites can trigger allergies, asthma, and other respiratory issues. Bugs, pests, vermin, and critters are carriers of germs and many diseases.

What happens if you dont clean your house regularly? ›

If you don't dust or vacuum, your home will turn into an allergy festival. Pollen will gather in all the nooks in your home, pet hair will lie in wait, and dust mites will come out in force. All the things that make your eyes water and your nose run will be sitting around your home making your allergies worse.

Is being messy a trauma response? ›

Excessive clutter and disorganization are often symptoms of a bigger health problem. People who have suffered an emotional trauma or a brain injury often find housecleaning an insurmountable task.

Why do some people choose to live in Filth? ›

Many of these individuals have a mental disorder which allows them to create mess and then live in it without concern. They may be able to function adequately in other areas of their life, but their psychological problems are demonstrated by the literal dirty secret of their filthy home.

What does a messy room do to your brain? ›

But research shows disorganisation and clutter have a cumulative effect on our brains. Our brains like order, and constant visual reminders of disorganisation drain our cognitive resources, reducing our ability to focus. The visual distraction of clutter increases cognitive overload and can reduce our working memory.

Does a messy home say a lot about mental health? ›

Research has found that a messy home is linked with worsening well-being. For example, a 2020 study found that both adults and kids who lived in disorganized households were more likely to experience cognitive and behavioral problems. A cluttered home also contributed to higher family conflict.

Why do I feel overwhelmed when my house is messy? ›

A cluttered, untidy environment actually generates more of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. So, if your home and living spaces are clutter-free, tidy and clean then you can assume you'll generate less cortisol and reap the rewards mentally.

How do I stop being so overwhelmed by a messy house? ›

With that being said, we have some tips to help you overcome the overwhelmed feeling that can come from not knowing where to start.
  1. Don't Sit Down. ...
  2. Have the Right Tools for the Task on Hand. ...
  3. Race the Clock Cleaning. ...
  4. Choose Somewhere to Start. ...
  5. Figure Out Your Priorities & Make a List. ...
  6. Create a Cleaning Playlist.
Oct 29, 2020

What is clutter a symptom of? ›

While some chalk it up to laziness, there's actually underlying psychology of clutter and disorganization that keeps people from tidying up. Potential reasons people hold onto clutter include: They feel overwhelmed: It's often a huge job to get rid of things, which can be both physically and mentally exhausting.

What are the bad habits that make you a disorganized person? ›

The following are 7 habits of disorganised people, and if you recognise yourself in any of them, get ready to make some changes.
  • Avoid Planning. If you dislike planning, you might be a disorganised person. ...
  • Multitask. ...
  • Let Your Inbox Get Crowded. ...
  • Keep Everything in Your Head. ...
  • Scattering. ...
  • Failing to Prioritise.

How do I stop living like a slob? ›

How to stop being messy and lazy
  1. Love, forgive and accept yourself exactly as you are.
  2. Work out what you want your home and life to feel like.
  3. Ask for help when needed.
  4. We messy people do not have the luxury of owning as many things as we want - we can drastically reduce the mess by minimizing and organizing our home.
Nov 7, 2022

What are 3 symptoms of hoarding disorder? ›

What are the symptoms of hoarding disorder?
  • Inability to get rid of possessions.
  • Experiencing extreme stress when attempting to throw out items.
  • Anxiety about needing items in the future.
  • Uncertainty about where to put things.
  • Distrust of other people touching possessions.
  • Living in unusable spaces due to clutter.
Jul 12, 2022

What is the first line treatment for hoarding? ›

Cognitive behavioral therapy is the first treatment recommended for hoarding disorder.

What does a Level 1 hoarder look like? ›

Level 1: The Least Severe Level with Few Indicators

The individual that is a level 1 hoarder finds throwing items away difficult and does an unreasonable amount of shopping for items that are not needed. A level 1 situation may appear as follows: Light clutter. No noticeable odors.

What is a Level 4 hoarder? ›

Hoarding Level Four: Sewer backup, hazardous electrical wiring, flea infestation, rotting food on counters, lice on bedding, and pet damage to home. Hoarding Level Five: Rodent infestation, kitchen and bathroom unusable due to clutter, human and animal feces, and disconnected electrical and/or water service.

Do hoarders lack empathy? ›

Conclusions: Hoarding symptoms are associated with increased emotional contagion and decreased cognitive empathy. Empathy may be an avenue for understanding and treating interpersonal difficulties in hoarding disorder.

What is the difference between clutter and hoarding? ›

Clutter: Possessions are disorganized and may accumulate around living areas. Collecting: Possessions are part of a larger set of items. Display does not impede active living areas in home. Hoarding: Possessions become unorganized piles preventing rooms from being used for their intended purpose.

Why does hoarding get worse with age? ›

Many factors may play a role, including personality traits and stressful life events. It is important to rule out dementia, depression and other mental health conditions that may be contributing to their hoarding behaviors.

How do you break a hoarding cycle? ›

How to Overcome Hoarding: 6 Helpful Tips
  1. Clean Up Clutter Immediately. ...
  2. Declutter for 15 Minutes Each Day. ...
  3. Throw Away Anything You Haven't Used in the Past Year. ...
  4. Use the OHIO Rule for Mail and Emails. ...
  5. Request Help From Friends and Family. ...
  6. Seek Treatment.

Are hoarders mentally ill? ›

Hoarding disorder is a mental health problem that a doctor can diagnose. But you might also experience hoarding as part of another mental or physical health problem. If you hoard, you might: Feel the need to get more things, even if you have a lot already.

What is a Class 2 hoarder? ›

The indicators of a Level 2 Hoard include visible clutter, difficulty in cleaning the hoarded home, messy kitchens and bathrooms, blocked exits from the home, excessive accumulation of garbage, formation of pest populations, self-isolation of the hoarder, and presence of pet dander and excrement.

How do you tell a hoarder they have a problem? ›

Create A Discussion

Encourage the person with the problem to open up to you. Reassure them that you're there to listen and not be judgemental. People struggling with hoarding may be in strong denial so be patient and allow them to have their say, whatever that may be.

What is the average age of hoarding disorder? ›

Hoarding behaviors can begin as early as the teenage years, although the average age of a person seeking treatment for hoarding is about 50. Hoarders often endure a lifelong struggle with hoarding. They tend to live alone and may have a family member with the problem.

Is hoarding a form of abuse? ›

Parents might feel glued to their "stuff." But hoarding can become child abuse. Children growing up with an alcoholic parent may feel neglected. When they get older, they may be furious that they had to live with a shameful secret.

Do hoarders feel embarrassed? ›

Hoarders generally experience embarrassment about their possessions and feel uncomfortable when others see them. Their clutter often takes over functional living space, and they feel sad or ashamed after acquiring additional items.


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