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Why We're Attached to Possessions

Why We're Attached to Possessions


At a recent training I attended by Dr. Randy Frost, a renowned expert in the field of hoarding, he talked about 9 reasons why people form attachments to their possessions. 


They are as follows:


1- Beauty/aesthetics

An item has a visually appealing quality to it that a person can't part with. It could be the metallic quality of rocks, the color of a bag of bottle caps, or the shape of a rusted kitchen utensil. It doesn't have to be something of value, but basically, it just looks good to the eye of the beholder.


2- Memory

For many people who struggle with clutter, they keep things as visual reminders. They don't feel like they can rely on their memory so objects serve that purpose for them. This could mean that their desk is covered with stacks of business cards instead of entering them in an address book, they save every scrap of paper from any past hospitalizations rather than relying on their online medical record, or they have to keep their electric bill taped to the fridge each month for fear of forgetting to pay it. 


3- Utility/ opportunity

Collectors like to keep anything that has any type of use. They believe utilitarian items have value and therefore should always be kept. Despite having 10 bottle openers, they keep the one they just got for free at the vendor fair. They have a hairdryer bonnet from the 60s that no one uses anymore but because it's still in working order it remains under the bathroom sink. It needs a new seat cushion and 3 casters, but it'll make a great rolling desk chair when it's in working order so it's kept in the basement.


4- Sentimental

Many times an item can invoke a memory whether positive or negative that influences a person's relationship to an item.  It can be the dusty mortarboard from their junior high graduation, a worn potholder that was their deceased grandmother's, or broken golf clubs from their father. These items help them connect with people and their past. 


5- Comfort 

I've heard my clients say time and time again that friends and family let them down, but their stuff is always there for them. I've worked with women who have trauma histories who say their stuff provides protection. They insulate themselves as the clutter is pushed against every door and window in their home acting as a safe cocoon.


6- Identity/potential identity 

Asking someone who struggles with hoarding behaviors when the last time they used something is not a good argument for them to get rid of an object. To them, the item represents goals and aspirations they want to reach. If they get rid of the object, they get rid of the dream. It's the imagery that's created by the object, not the actual use of it which makes their attachment to it that much stronger. At least a few women I've worked with like to save cookbooks, but not because they cook regularly. It's the idea that they could host a holiday meal, throw a fancy dinner party, or be that grandma to make the Christmas cookies with their grandchildren that keep them from getting rid of the cookbooks.


7- Control

Many people who struggle with hoarding often struggle in other areas of their life whether that be with depression, weak family relations, poor job performance, anxiety, etc. But having possessions helps them feel powerful and in control in at least one area of functioning. 


8- Responsibility/waste 

This is one of the strongest predictors of hoarding behaviors. People who struggle with stuff often feel they are responsible for giving their items a good home. They have difficulty parting with things for fear they aren't going to end up with someone who can take care of them and appreciate them like they can. Add to that the fact that people prone to collecting don't like to waste items. This goes back to them being able to find usefulness in everything. I once worked with a woman who had so much expired food in her kitchen she knew she had to get rid of it, but the task overwhelmed her. When I asked about it she was able to say that she couldn't just throw the food away, but rather wanted to open up each bag of crackers, cereal, oatmeal, etc and spread it out in her yard for the animals. But she never could find the time to haul all the bags and boxes to her backyard, or it was raining that day, or she couldn't find the scissors. This feeling of responsibility ultimately was crippling her actions. 


9- Mistakes

Many people who struggle with hoarding behaviors also have perfectionistic tendencies. You might not think so given that perfectionism is often associated with cleanliness and order, but it's true. The person with hoarding behaviors has an idea in their head of what they want their home to look like or how they want to dispose of things, but because they can't live up to these expectations or fear that they'll mess it up along the way, they overwhelm themselves into inaction. It's like analysis paralysis. They overthink things to the point of not being able to do anything.  


As you can see from this list, people have complicated relationships with their belongings for many reasons. Whether you're a person struggling with clutter or not, these factors ring true for all of us. Which one most closely identifies for why you keep the possessions that you do? 


Categories: Mental Health / Hoarding


  • How wonderful that you had a recent workshop with Dr. Randy Frost. He presented for ICD many years ago on a few occasions and I loved hearing all that he had to share. Your post is terrific and really identifies so many important factors around attachment. The identity potential (#6) stood out the most to me. I saw this in a new light (thanks to you) in terms of the challenge with letting go of something specific like cookbooks even if you don't cook because of the potential dream or possibilities it represents. Sometimes it's difficult to determine when it's time to move on from certain dreams.
    6/25/2018 2:51:41 PM Reply
    • @Linda Samuels: This was actually the second time Dr. Frost presented for our CT Hoarding Task Force. He's such a dynamic presenter! I'm glad you were able to get a different perspective on the identity piece. It's always great when you get to look at something through a new lens
      6/27/2018 8:00:02 AM Reply
  • I find that sentimental items are more difficult to get rid of for me. I like to take digital images of items and then I am more willing to get rid of the item.
    6/25/2018 10:18:34 AM Reply
    • @Sabrina Quairoli: I do the same, Sabrina. I'm always taking pictures of my son's artwork or school mementos so I can let the physical item go.
      6/27/2018 7:57:52 AM Reply
  • This is a wonderful list. Like Seana many of the folks I come across hold onto things because of what they might do with them. I love the word 'imagery'. It's so helpful for me to know.
    6/25/2018 8:55:14 AM Reply
    • @Diane Quintana: When you think of the imagery that a client has created in their mind around the object you can see what it's hard for them to let go. It's that quintessential picture of what could be!
      6/27/2018 7:57:01 AM Reply
  • I've been running into a lot of #6 recently. Projects that they believe they will tackle, careers they wish to pursue, etc. This is difficult, but important, to talk through. A few of these are wonderful, but when you have a stack of supplies for 20 projects, odds are you aren't going to be able to follow through. When we walk through what this would really look like, I try to help come to this realization, and then focus in on identifying just a couple that matter most. It can be freeing to simply ditch that half-completed knitting project that makes you cringe. It isn't a failure to decide you no longer wish to work on it!
    6/22/2018 10:31:34 AM Reply
    • @Seana Turner: You hit the nail on the head when you stated how important it is to talk through some of these ideas. It's important to discuss what's involved in these projects to realize the unlikelihood that everything will get done. It really is part of the process of understanding why we keep what we do and how to be able to move on as needed.
      6/22/2018 1:13:07 PM Reply

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