Collecting, Shopping, and Hoarding Disorder

When people find out I’m a Professional Organizer, they often ask me, “So, do you work with hoarders?” First of all, the correct term is hoarding disorder. (We don’t label people). I believe it’s very important for all of us to understand that hoarding disorder is a mental health issue. In fact, collecting, shopping and hoarding disorder are quite different. Let me explain.

Paper shopping bags full of purchased items representing collecting, shopping and hoarding disorder.
Image by Kaboompics on Pixabay.

I had a friend in elementary school whom I lost touch with but was fortunate enough to visit a few years ago. When she learned I was an organizer, she showed me her salt and pepper shaker collection. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a collection as well organized as hers. She has an entire room in the basement of their house with floor-to-ceiling shelving displaying every possible salt and pepper shaker you could ever imagine. And she has a glass case in the living room that displays really special ones. I believe she rotates them from the basement into the living room every once and a while.

Collectors buy and sell items in their collections with a very clear mission. They hang out with other collectors. They usually have a specific spot where they plan to put the new purchase. And they love to show their collection to other people. They budget carefully for collecting and enjoy caring for their pieces.

There isn’t a scale on what defines someone as a compulsive shopper. There could be underlying mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or stress-related issues. Whatever the issue, it’s important to recognize that most compulsive shoppers don’t have control over their shopping habits. For that reason, they buy more than they need. However, they often have control over their choices and may purchase multiple favourite items.

Compulsive shoppers often keep their purchases fairly organized and purchase storage containers to store their stuff. Some compulsive shoppers hide their behaviour from others, especially if they sometimes can’t afford what they buy and/or feel like their loved ones are too judgemental. I’ve had a few clients over the years who really wanted to stop over-shopping but just couldn’t resist the thrill they got from hunting for the perfect thing or getting something for a great deal.

As we can see, collecting, shopping, and hoarding disorder are not the same thing. Although collecting and compulsive shopping could be components of hoarding disorder. It is very important for anyone to understand the distinction before trying to “help” someone dealing with a hoarding disorder.

There are three specific symptoms that psychiatrists use to define hoarding disorder:

  • the inability to let go of objects even though others consider them worthless/trash
  • a perceived need to save all items and experiencing significant distress when faced with discarding items
  • the accumulation of items is significant enough that it is detrimental to the person’s lifestyle and prevents them from using areas in the home

The connection between all three acquiring behaviours – collecting, shopping, and hoarding disorder is that collecting could result in compulsive shopping, and compulsive shopping could be evidence of hoarding disorder. For example, if someone who enjoys acquiring stuff experiences a traumatic event, it could trigger an escalation to the next level. If you know anyone who shows signs of being in trouble, be compassionate and non-judgmental. Focus on your concern for their well-being and support them by suggesting they seek a qualified therapist. Unless they address the psychological aspects first, no amount of decluttering and organizing will help.

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