Are You a Hoarder, or Just a Chronic Clutterer?

by Becky BlantonJuly 11, 2017

When Louise and her adult son Jack decided to move to be closer to Jack’s job, they decided to sell their house and move into a small apartment to save money. A smaller space meant less stuff. Downsizing wouldn’t have been a problem before Louise’s cluttering became an issue.

“My husband died seven years ago and I just fell apart,” she said. “I couldn’t let go of anything that reminded me of him.” Like millions of homeowners, Louise and Jack failed to confront their clutter until it came time to move. They couldn’t show the home they were selling until they addressed the clutter.

Two rooms of her home were piled to the tops of the windows with furniture, toys, books, and magazines and clothing. The rest of the house was also overrun with clutter. But Louise and Jack aren’t hoarders. Like millions of Americans, they were “chronic clutterers” – people who simply let “stuff” overtake them and their home. Over several months, Louise and Jack were able to eliminate more than half of the belongings in their home before moving to their new place.

“It was very hard physically,” Louise said, “But emotionally it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.” It was Louise’s ability to let go of items without much emotional distress that set her apart from what experts call “HD” or hoarding disorder.
Messy Abandoned Garage Full Of Stuff

What is Clutter?

“Clutter,” said, “Is anything you’re keeping around your house that doesn’t add value to your life. De-cluttering is all about making room in your home for the things that matter.”

What is Hoarding?

“A hoarding disorder is defined by difficulty discarding or parting with objects. Some people are just disorganized or messy and have cluttered homes that they can clean up with some focused attention. They toss out things they no longer need or want fairly easily,” said Dr. Gail Steketee, Dean of the Boston University School of Social Work and an expert on hoarding and clutter. Steketee and her colleague Randy Frost were the first professionals to study hoarding more than two decades ago. When they began their research, they expected to find a handful of hoarders but discovered an epidemic.

According to Steketee, hoarding, and the mental illness that causes it affects more than 6 million people. She and Frost documented their research in their best-selling book, Stuff. Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. Her current research focuses on the assessment and treatment of hoarding disorders. “We wrote Stuff for the general public to help people understand hoarding and its various symptoms through a series of cases,” she said. “Buried in Treasures, is a self-help book for people who want to work on the problem using the most established methods.” Oprah Winfrey used excerpts from Buried in Treasures, a book on hoarding written by David Tomlin, Steketee, and Frost, on her show about hoarding.

It takes some persuading, Steketee noted, but most clutterers are content and even relieved to let things go, especially if they have help to do so. Hoarders, on the other hand, have a terrible time throwing away anything, even rotting food or their own feces. Working with hoarders requires tremendous psychological skills, patience and time because it is an illness.

“‘Hoarding disorder’ is a mental disorder,” said Steketee. “It’s clearly well beyond the problem of having mild clutter and the ability to decide what to keep and what to discard when the person takes time to do that work. The term ‘hoarding’ should be reserved for people who have difficulty parting with things, including things most people can get rid of relatively easily,” she said. The official term for the illness that causes hoarding is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It affects one out of every 100 people worldwide, and some three million adults and half a million children and teens in the United States.

If you’re looking around at your home and panicking or simply worrying that you might be a hoarder, ask yourself how mentally and emotionally difficult it is for you to get rid of things. De-cluttering is rarely easy, but it shouldn’t be anxiety producing to the point you can’t do it. If getting rid of things is extremely distressing, or you don’t see a problem but others do, it might be time to seek professional help.
Bunching Layers Of Home Junk On Kitchen Floor And Sofa.


  • Have great difficulty getting rid of unwanted or unneeded items. We all struggle with cleaning out our closets, but hoarders can’t get rid of anything – believing they’ll “need it someday,” or that they can “fix it,” or use it in some creative way “someday.”
  • Are reluctant to allow visitors into their home. They don’t allow anyone, family or friends, into their home, either because they’re afraid someone will touch their things, or out of shame they will see their accumulation of stuff or both.
  • Can’t make rational decisions about what is useful and what is not. This is why they save or collect soiled items, garbage, and even their own body wastes.
  • A hoarder obsesses about her stuff and is compelled to collect it. Clutterers just let stuff pile up.
  • Hoarders aren’t aware anything is wrong. They will often deny the concern of others or even an official diagnosis of OCD or hoarding.


  • Feel a combination of emotions when getting rid of items. Unlike hoarders, clutterers may hate to see things go, but they don’t struggle with throwing or giving things away. They’re often relieved to see the clutter cleared away and may even embrace the decluttering process once they start.
  • Just let clutter pile up. Clutterers aren’t compelled to collect and unlike hoarders, they are often concerned about the growing piles of stuff in their home.
  • Often becomes overwhelmed by there stuff. Clutterers do have emotional attachments to their possessions, but they don’t save garbage and they fail to declutter because they do feel overwhelmed.
  • Tend to have low self-esteem. They also have difficulty in making decisions, a fear of loss and failure, mild depression, and a belief that they don’t deserve any better.

declutter concept (keep, recycle, trash, sell, donate - handwrit

How to De-Clutter

There are thousands of websites, books, and YouTube Videos on how to de-clutter, but the majority of the popular sites, experts, and authors advise clutterers to:

  • Start small. Don’t try to de-clutter your entire house in a day. Begin with one area at a time. Start with something as small as a junk drawer, or a kitchen counter.
  • Keep it short. Start with 15-20 minutes a day. Set a timer and de-clutter until the timer goes off.
  • Use the one trash bag approach. Take an empty trash bag and fill it up with trash and clutter. When the bag is full, you’re done. Do this daily until your home is de-cluttered.
  • Make a list of areas to de-clutter. Tackle one area at a time. When you de-clutter that area, stop. De-clutter the next area on your list another day.
  • Use the popular “four box method.” Get four boxes and label them – one box for trash, another box for items to give away, a box for things to keep, and a box for things to “relocate” (garage, filing, basement, storage.)
  • Create a 5-5-5 challenge with your spouse, roommate, or kids. All that challenge means is see how quickly you can find five items to throw away, five items to give away, and five items to return to their proper place in your home.

For more information on hoarding, what it is, how to help someone you love, or learn if you may be a hoarder read more at the International OCD Foundation.

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About The Author
Becky Blanton
Becky Blanton is a full-time ghostwriter and writing coach for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and business speakers. In 2009 she spoke at TED Global at Oxford University, her first ever public speaking gig. When she's not writing, she's kayaking in the Chesapeake Bay. Her dream home is to live aboard a sailing or houseboat.