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Episode 223: Hoarding


And hello to you, and welcome to the Richard Nicholls Podcast, the personal development podcast series that's here to help inspire, educate, and motivate you to be the best you can be. I'm psychotherapist Richard Nicholls, and this episode is titled Hoarding. And if you are ready, we'll start the show.

Hello people. How are things? Hey, the weather's picking up a little bit here in the UK anyway, tiny bit at a time. March is supposedly the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. We put the clocks forward. We have some lighter evenings, and everybody starts spring cleaning, don't they? And maybe there is a lot of stuff in your house that you could do with taking to the charity shop, sticking on eBay, or just plain old putting in the bin. My son is 18 now and for the last 18 years we've been collecting so much crap and a lot of it just got took to the charity shops bit by bit or I gave some to friends or relatives with younger kids and my wife sold quite a bit on eBay actually as well. But we still have a stack of stuff in the garage to get rid of. Stuff that my son got too old for.

Mostly books and clothes and stuff and until recently, this enormous telescope. That has been doing the rounds around the family for about 20 years, and it's about as powerful as something that fits in your pocket. So my wife stuck it on eBay. She got 30 quid for it because one man's junk is another man's car boot sale bargain, isn't it?

I remember when eBay started to become quite popular. Back in, I think it was about 2005, there was a bbc journalist called Rajan Datar, still works for the bbc, and he wanted to show how ridiculous it was and how gullible we all were by literally putting a piece of old rope that he found on the beach onto eBay for sale to see if anybody would buy it.

And somebody did for 30 p plus postage. And they followed them up a week later to see what they'd done with it. And this guy who'd bought this bit of old rope, it was a classic car enthusiast. He bought it to strap down some tarpaulin on this gorgeous soft top racing green MG. Because there is literally money in old rope, let alone old books and toys and everyone benefits.

It just seems such a shame to throw away things that are useful, doesn't it? But what if these things aren't actually useful? Because that begs the question of why we were holding onto it in the first place, doesn't it? Because there's a lot of sentimentality in objects, isn't there? It can be hard to let things go sometimes.

I mean, you should still see our loft. We've moved a lot of stuff to the garage to sell, but there's a lot of things in our loft that have no purpose whatsoever. But it's sad to throw it away. And every Christmas I go up there to get the decorations down and see what could so easily be thrown away. But it feels like throwing away the past, doesn't it?

When my son was, I dunno, six years old, seven years old, something like that. He made a totem pole at school with my wife. She's the creative one. But this totem pole got collected at the end of term and maybe sat in the front room all the way through the summer and up until Christmas, that's when it went up into the loft.

And for all these years that's where it sat. And every Christmas I'd look at it and think, is it time to throw this away? But it feels like throwing away the past. And we've all been doing it for generations. My Mum, bearing in mind, I'm now 47, she's got a Christmas card I made at primary school when I was five.

Just a piece of red oblong card that's been folded into a triangle with some cotton wool stuck onto it to make a, a rough version of Santa. And she'd bring it out every single Christmas cuz throwing it away feels like throwing away little five year old me. And of course it isn't, it isn't even throwing away the memory of a little five year old me.

But these sorts of things are reminders, aren't they? We see them and we are reminded of something that makes us feel good. But according to one study, there's often another reason why some people struggle, and it's the reason why hoarding disorder has become more than just a part of obsessive compulsive disorder. Up until fairly recently, really, the last couple of years hoarding was just classed as a symptom of O C D, you see?

But recently it's been classified as a disorder all by itself because it wasn't really sharing as many symptoms with anything else. And this is because of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism, if you don't already know, is the concept of humanising things that aren't human, attributing human traits to non-human things like saying that your dog looks sad or guilty or jealous.

Quick tangent for you. There was a funny little experiment done with dogs once to look for guilt. If you leave a a dog on its own in a room with a dog treat and either tell it No, or you tell it to eat the treat, whether it eats it or not, it acts exactly the same way afterwards. If the owner thinks that they did eat it, they will act so-called guilty.

if you tell them off, it's the telling off that makes them put their tail between the legs and not make eye contact, bit cruel really. Cuz to test that you have to trick the owners into thinking that their dog had eaten a treat when they hadn't. But as well as anthropomorphising animals, we also do it with objects as well.

And this is where it can cause problems because people with hoarding disorder will say things like, This ornament is feeling really sorry for itself. It needs some care and attention, things like that. And I know we all say things like that from time to time, but we don't really mean it. But some people will actually feel an emotional attachment to something inanimate that way. And it makes it really hard to throw it out because whenever they think of it being in a skip or something, it genuinely upsets them in the same way that thinking about being responsible for putting a child in a skip would. They feel like a horrible person for thinking of throwing it away. This is also part of why they might collect things that other people have thrown away, stuff that anyone else sees as rubbish. They might say things like, How could someone do this to them?

These objects become a Them or a He or a She rather than just an It. And this causes problems in shops, especially junk shops or shops that sell random stuff because someone can look at something on a shelf that's sitting there by itself and they'll feel the need to buy it. Because it looks lonely and of course it isn't lonely.

It's a flipping terracotta panda. Now, in the study that I was looking through that talked about this, it found that what made it worse was a combination of things. People who felt that they had a need to control their environment, they didn't necessarily start hoarding and collecting stuff and neither did just having a tendency to anthropomorphise in general.

But when you combine those two, that's when the terracotta pandas soon start piling up. And if you know someone in your life who's like this, then please do have some patience with them. Because the pain that they're going through, the distress they experience is huge. When I say that it feels the same as throwing a child in a skip I'm not exaggerating. Now, don't get me wrong, they're not daft. They know it's only an old Ideal Home Magazine, but their brain and their body has linked that magazine to something else. So the emotions it brings up are wrong, but they're still real. And you know, this concept isn't just about hoarding. All disorders working this way, and it's not their fault. They can't turn off the feelings. It's like having some water pipes connected together. If you wanna plumb in the new sink in your utility room, but you accidentally connect the water service to an old, faulty outside tap that doesn't switch off. It doesn't matter how many times you turn the water main on and then go into the utility room to see if the taps are working.

They won't. And you can look out into your garden and see the water from that knackered old tap spraying everywhere and it's making a right old mess of things. And it doesn't matter how many times you turn everything off and then back on again to see what happens, because the same thing will happen. Only everything gets even messier every time you try. You need to actually change the water pipes over. This is just how the brain works. And I know every, analogy breaks down eventually, doesn't it? The neurons and axons and connections in our brain they're not pipes that you can just cut off. It's an organic pipe, and you have to start connecting up both pipes, unfortunately.

But as anybody knows, with a hose pipe. You can put a kink in it and slow it down to a trickle, and with enough effort and enough weight behind it, you can stop it flowing all together. Anyway, I've exhausted that metaphor. I really have. But it's worth understanding about hoarding disorder because if we're honest, it's a lot more of a problem than you might think. Now.

No, I expect you've heard of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, everybody's heard of those? Are they popular? Not really. Only one or 2% of people, but hoarding disorder is probably double that. So if you know 25 or 30 people, one of them might have a secret. The stars have to really align badly to create this disorder, but they do align sometimes if you have this anthropomorphizing trait and you throw in some need to control your environment and you also mix into this, what we call distress intolerance, a low ability to handle being uncomfortable. And then you also add in an inability to handle uncertainty. You know, that sort of What if thinking. Oh, what if somebody would need it? I can't throw it out. What if I need it in the future, I'd best buy that.

What if? What if? What if? It becomes this absolute swamp that people get stuck in? Almost literally. I'm sure you've seen the documentaries of people that are genuinely stuck in their homes with newspapers piled high and so on. And here's the frustrating thing about how we interact with our brain. We know from previous studies that if our brain and body reacts in some way, we cognitively, intellectually try to make some sense of it with some sort of narrative.

We lie to ourselves, we confabulate, we make things up. If people don't realize that they've seen something, an object or some words, then you can influence them. Either sneakily in that sort of Derren Brown manipulative way, or if they have a disconnection between the two hemispheres of the brain and they're seeing something with one eye that corresponds to the hemisphere of the brain that doesn't handle language very well, then they'll respond to it.

They'll respond to a note that says, stand up, even though they can't really read it. And when you ask them why they stood up, they'll make something up about needing to stretch their legs or something. It's very weird. So we know that we lie to ourselves. If we feel any emotion, we create a narrative as to why we feel it.

So people with hoarding disorder might feel anxious because their brain has wired up the feelings of throwing away an old Kermit the frog with the guilt of harming a baby. A bit like displacement. Displacement is when we redirect a negative emotion from one thing and we place it onto something else.

Something that is easier to control. And typically displacement, the example we often use is when somebody's had a bad day at work and they can't shout at their boss, cuz they'll get fired. So they go home and they shout at their partner or their kids instead. They're actually angry at their boss for making them feel small or worthless or whatever.

And this need for control and power makes them act controlling and powerful with something else less threatening. Like I always say, overcoming these sorts of things comes from accepting that the problem exists in the first place, and I think the best way to accept it is to understand a bit more about it.

And by accept I never mean to be okay with I mean not denying it. We don't overcome anything by denying it or validating it with excuses, but it takes a lot of practice and it's all about challenging the thoughts and challenging the feelings, looking for any other reasons why we feel the way that we feel, so that you can cognitively make decisions that are more in line with your goals, whether that's to stop being controlling with your partner or stop anthropomorphising Kermit the frog toys.

It takes a while, but if you repeat it, what once took an hour to get your head around eventually becomes half an hour, 15 minutes, five minutes, and so on until it's instant, but you need to rinse and repeat again and again and again. But it really is worth it, honestly. right then pod fans, I love you and leave you have a super-duper week.

I'll be back on Monday on Patreon, where I'll be talking about, um, what am I up to this month on Patreon, um, making plans, personality disorders, regulating emotions, and something else Don't know yet, but believe me, I got lots to share. You can also get my monday episodes on Apple Podcast. They have a paid for subscription service on there, but you get a few extra things on Patreon, like hypnotherapy tracks and early release extended stuff.

So come along on there if you want support what I do, let's go disco, enjoy yourselves and I'll be back before you know it. See ya.