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How To Detach From A Person Who Hoards

How To Detach From A Person Who Hoards

I've been to many a training on hoarding disorder and seen it first hand with the clients I work with: A person with hoarding disorder gets less and less distressed about their situation over time while a family member or friend gets more and more distressed about their loved one's situation. 


Family members have a hard time cutting the "hoarder" slack as the family doesn't see hoarding as a true mental illness, but rather as a character flaw. As a result family members have little tolerance for it.


A study in 2008 by Tolin, et al was done in which 665 individuals  who reported having a friend or family member who hoards completed an internet-based survey. The findings were that these individuals had high levels of patient rejection attitudes as well as increased levels of hostility and frustration. Their rejection had to do with the severity of the hoarding symptoms and the person's lack of insight into their hoarding behavior. 


Ultimately this study makes clear that hoarding not only impacts the person with the disorder but has adverse effects on those living with them. So what does one do? 


It's very hard to feel empathy and connectedness to someone you feel hostility and frustration towards. Sometimes the best thing that can be done in situations where tempers run high and conflicts run deep is to safely detach from the individual. Here are 9 ways to hold boundaries with someone with hoarding disorder:


1. Focus on what you can control.

You can't control someone's poor choices or how they choose to live their life. You can control how often you visit or have contact with them and for how long.


2. Don't enable them.

If they call you yet again on the eve of Tax Day to help them find their paperwork, don't help them like you've done in the past. This only condones their hoarding behavior. The more you enable them, the more they will continue to stay stagnant in their ways.


3. Don't give advice or tell them what to do.

They don't want to hear what you have to say. Do you like being told what to do? When someone doesn't see that they have a problem, giving them advice to change it isn't helpful. Furthermore, I can bet the advice wouldn't be coming from a place of kindness and neutrality so best to leave your bossy pants at home.


4. Give your expectations a reality check.

For a person with hoarding disorder to part with their belongings is huge. To give something up, to them, is like giving up a part of themselves. If they tell you they got rid of 10 butter tubs, be happy for them. You can't expect fast, transformative change when it comes to combating hoarding.


5. Respond in a different way.

When your family member insists on purchasing yet another soup tureen to add to their collection of 20, ask about what attracted them to this one. You might get an answer that it reminds them of their grandmother who used to serve a soup course at every Sunday dinner. This could lead to further discussion about previous generations, family traditions, treasured recipes, childhood memories - much better conversation topics then: Why do you need another soup pot? Where are you going to put it? When was the last time you made soup?


6. Don't obsess about their problem.

Many times family members will worry themselves silly about their loved one with hoarding. It's hard not to worry about someone you love and want what's best for. As I said at the beginning, the more distressed you become the less distressed the person with hoarding will be. Unless there are immediate and imminent safety concerns, the worry is unproductive. 


7. Choose not to visit.

It's okay to set a boundary that you don't want to visit your loved one in their hoarded home or have the grandkids attend gatherings there. Set up visits to a local park, attend a community event together, or host them at your house. If their home is a trigger for you, don't subject yourself to being in the space. 


8. Respond don't react.

When your loved one tells you about another tag sale find or that they got a great deal from QVC, keep your feelings in check. Surely you might struggle with anger, disappointment, sadness, annoyance, etc, but keeping responses neutral is always best. Reacting in a negative way might shut the person down and they may refuse to have further contact with you, which could lead to bigger issues if you're not able to keep tabs on them for safety reasons. 


9. Practice self-care.

This gets back to focusing on what you can control. You can control how you nurture and care for yourself. Making sure you're exercising, eating healthy, and staying socially connected to healthy non-hoarding folks is crucial to your well being and being able to feel recharged. Doing things just for you helps you keep perspective and maintain resiliency. 


Have you found healthy ways to detach from a loved one with hoarding disorder? What would you add to the list?


Categories: Mental Health / Hoarding


  • Hi Sarah I had never thought about the dichotomy of this. The ownership of the problem falls more on the person wanting to help than the person with the problem. I believe in practicing harm reduction as much as possible. Also patience, patience and more patience.
    10/25/2017 6:03:35 AM Reply
    • @Kim : Yes! Harm reduction is key and patience is crucial!!! Couldn't agree more, Kim. :)
      10/25/2017 3:39:53 PM Reply
  • Great advice, Sarah. I found that people who are hoarders (or borderline hoarders) were more likely not to invite me over because they know I helped people get organized. Odd, right, they are my friends and they don't need to worry, I would never judge anyone on how they lived, not even friends. I realized, over the years, it was all about them and not me. They had issues with allowing people (not just me) see their space. This revelation helped me not feel rejected. I still reach out because that is how I am but I don't expect a response. Thanks for sharing.
    10/23/2017 9:43:54 AM Reply
    • @Sabrina Quairoli: How great that you came to that realization and have some insight about your friends and family in this regard. And it's nice that you continue to try and reach out despite this. It's important for them to know you still care.
      10/23/2017 9:53:53 AM Reply
  • Great post as always Sarah. This one really spoke to me as so many of our clients families feel this way. You've offered some great reminders, tools and verbiage for us all!
    10/20/2017 4:59:48 PM Reply
    • @Ann Zanon: Thanks for stopping by, Ann! And I appreciate the positive feedback. Glad you found it helpful.
      10/23/2017 9:15:12 AM Reply
  • This is so helpful, as many people are in this situation. I think it is interesting that the more distressed I might be, the less the person struggling with hoarding disorder might feel... as if I am taking care of worrying, so he/she doesn't have to. My heart always goes out to children living in these situations, as they lack the tools and power to effect change. That said, I find that many people who struggle are wonderful, thoughtful, kind, and compassionate people! Finding a way to stay in relationship, while maintaining healthy boundaries, is so important.
    10/20/2017 6:49:23 AM Reply
    • @Seana Turner: Yes, the distress balance is an interesting one! It's hard to maintain a healthy relationship in these types of situations, but I hope these suggestions on boundaries are helpful to folks.
      10/20/2017 1:28:15 PM Reply

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