Home > Outer Child > Cluttering and Hoarding – Outer Child Messes – Part II

Cluttering and Hoarding – Outer Child Messes – Part II

Beneath it All

Yes, at the heart of every extreme clutterer I have met lurks primal abandonment fear.  One workshop attendee nominated herself to be poster child for cluttering.


“It’s all about abandonment.  I was sent to live with my aunt when I was a child, so I had this terror about being discarded.  When I lived on my own, I stopped throwing things away.  I became a packrat, a shopper, and a non-returner.  I’m afraid my husband will leave me over the hoarding, so I resort to removing price tags and throwing new clothes on the laundry pile so he won’t suspect I’ve never worn them.  I know the growing stacks push him to the brink, but when he threatens divorce, I panic and go buy more in case I wind up with nothing.”

Another woman reported that her cluttering stemmed from low self-esteem. Her mother had been rejecting and extremely critical and she’d turned this toward herself, creating self-abandonment.


“Although I’m not an extreme hoarder, I’m somewhat messy.  But when my home is out of place, it makes me feel inadequate, so I guess I was recreating the familiar.  My friends kept their homes in perfect order, never had anything out of place.  I compared myself to them and felt inferior.  When they came over, I tried to look like I lived the same way, but I had to scurry around beforehand to clean the mess so they’d never guess that I was an ‘unworthy person.’”

Many clutterers report that a history of trauma – with roots in childhood abandonment – led to their compulsion.


“My parents were both severely abusive and I get easily stressed out.  I’m always reacting to some crisis.  I have too much going on to be bothered with whether stuff is piling up.” 


“Losing so many people in my family was so traumatic that when I’ve faced with the thought of throwing something away, it reminds me of loss.  So instead of feel that all the time, I just save everything.” 


“I was sexually abused and I know it was behind me becoming a packrat, because living like this keeps me in shame.  It forces me to live like a hermit, in a kind of cocoon that keeps people out.” 


“My cluttering started as a cry for help.  I created a physical mess because no one was acknowledging my emotional problems. It was my way of saying, ‘Doesn’t anybody get it? This mess means I’m messed up!’” 

Whatever the cause or level of insight people have into their cluttering and hoarding, they often feel too hopeless and overwhelmed to do anything about their stacks and piles, except add to them.

“It’s beyond me to get rid of stuff, so I just move things from pile to pile.” 

Moving things from pile to pile is so prevalent a behavior, that hoarding recovery gives it its own name: churning.


A Medical Mystery

Extreme cluttering remains a mysterious ailment, a behavioral disorder that therapists and researchers are still trying to fully understand.  It is expressed through acts of commission such as collecting and saving and acts of omission like failing to throwing things away. Some believe hoarding represents a glitch in the brain’s foraging component.  The behavior is found in birds and other animals – they hoard aluminum foil, beads, and other brightly colored things[i].

Some experts consider cluttering a subtype of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) yet it doesn’t respond to any of the medications that help the other OCD patients. Some people do respond to antidepressants (SSRI’s), but not all[ii].  Clutterers may suffer from other conditions too, ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to depression to borderline personality to dementia[iii].  The compulsion becomes established in some people as early as the age of five. There are some known genetic factors[iv].

When we look at the brain chemistry of cluttering, we see that, once again, dopamine, the neurochemical mediating reward and addiction we talked about in Chapter 14, is implicated[v].  Extreme clutterers produce interesting readings on brain scanning equipment like fMRIs which show low metabolism in brain regions associated with problem solving, decision making, and visual spatial relations[vi], but these readings do not explain why people compulsively hoard to the extent that the accumulation prohibits the use of the bathtub.

I’ve heard some very fancy terms applied to pathological collecting like ‘object-affect fusion’, but there is yet no medical consensus about the cause – or exactly what to do about it.

Researchers are testing medications for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) such as Ritalin and Adderall to see if they might help clutterers by stimulating those under-metabolizing areas of the brain. They are also exploring Alzheimer medications such as Aricept (which increases acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in cognitive functioning).  Results remain inconclusive to date.


Cleaning House

Whether you’re a compulsive clutterer or just a little behind in your ‘to do’ list, the three prongs of the Outer Child program help you restore order in your life and home.

The quality and scope of the images you implant in your brain are important.  Use your sense of future to create a positive vision of how you would like your living environment to look and how you would like to feel about it.  Imagine it is as if you’ve already brought it to that ideal condition.  Whenever you feel overwhelmed by the current condition of your home, conjure up a clear mental image of this future vision to give you aim, trajectory, and focus as you proceed through the program.

The second component of the program involves using the tools of separation therapy to attribute your cluttering behavior to your Outer Child. This allows you to form a tighter emotional connection between your Adult Self and your Inner Child around this issue.  Imagine how sad, lonely, and frustrated your inner self has been feeling about living in a disordered world.  He needs you to do something about it.  The empathy Big You builds toward Little You, creates dynamic internal change that allows you to change behavior.



“I was so ashamed of the squalor. My house certainly wasn’t visitor-friendly.  I told people I was a hoarder, but they had no idea I had to walk sideways just to get in the door. I lived in exile.  Then I looked at my life through the lens of the Outer Child framework and saw that Outer was imprisoning me in a house of shame.  Outer’s brain was wired weirdly – that’s how I thought of it – and I knew I had to take stringent measures to get on top of that.  I finally realized I couldn’t take the task on by myself.  Since my Outer Child was so strong, I got a strong therapist. I also held a vision of my apartment as a calm, shame-free place, somewhere I could feel proud to invite people to.  And then I started taking action steps.  Pile by pile, room by room, I was able to get my house to look more like my vision.”


“The dialogues helped me stop hating myself for my hoarding. I took my anger out on Outer instead of on myself.  Keeping Outer separate let me love myself for the first time.  Lately I’ve made Outer my buddy because I need her energy to help me untangle the mess. The action steps help me become orderly by making one small dent in it at a time.” 


“I’ve learned to care too much about Little Me to live in a messy house.  I know what she wants and I give it to her.  I keep Outer busy creating new social events for my friends.  If my house isn’t perfect, who cares? I love me and my friends love me for being me.”

The Neatnick

The Outer Child program also helps people at the opposite end of obsessive compulsive disorder’s continuum, namely people suffering from a compulsion to be neat.


“My OCD caused me to create major messes when I was younger, but then it swung to the other extreme and turned me into a neat freak.  If there was anything out of place before I went to bed, I’d be too anxious to fall asleep. When I learned to separate behavior from feelings, I was able to work with my fears for the first time and nurture Little Portia.  It took many dialogues and lots of practice until I could get Big Me strong enough to calm her down.  Today my OCD is much better, although I still like things pristine.  But I can let a few dishes collect in the sink overnight because I can reassure Little Me that we’ll be okay.  I also hold this future vision of my house having lots of calming natural beauty in it, so lately I’ve been bringing branches and wildflowers indoors (nature walks are Outer’s favorite action steps) and I don’t freak out when the leaves fall on the counter – the litter reminds me that life is okay.” 

Being obsessive compulsive about being neat can create a kind of tyranny that affects other people.


“I grew up in squalor – my parents had food, beer cans, filth everywhere you looked.   I couldn’t invite kids over, even though I kept my own room perfect. When I bought my own house, my Outer Child became a bully – insisted that every square inch of the house be kept perfect. I was imposing this compulsiveness on my wife and kids!  I had to deal with my neatness Nazi before he destroyed my marriage. So I went to a workshop and leaned to create a mental image of my home being a place of freedom, fun, and comfort.  Holding this image and staying connected with my inner shame and fear helped me gain a balance and enjoy my family life.  So, when the kids all have their friends over, I’m able to enjoy the moment, amidst the spilled popcorn.”


What about people who stuff their schedules rather than their closets?  Some are so busy rushing from one activity to the next that they find they’ve squeezed out quality time to relax at home, hang out with friends, or develop other interests.  Outer turned them into human doings instead of human beings.


“I was a time clutterer, running all day, too busy to enjoy the moment, until I realized that Outer Child was destroying my life.  Little Me?  I didn’t know she was in there.  It took weeks to find her voice.  Now I have time for everything – work, play, friends, relaxation, sleep, Me.  My Outer Child is still busy – busy helping me create a new life.” 

In separating feelings from behavior – Inner from Outer – you untangle once enmeshed parts that perpetuated the cluttering behavior.  Guided by your goals, your stronger Adult Self emerges to nurture your Inner Child as a separate entity, freeing up your Outer Child’s energy.  With your internal parts in order, you are prepared for the third component of the program – taking action to put your world in order. You are ready to take advantage of the behavioral remedies for taming Outer’s cluttering behavior.  They take you step by step.  To increase your incentive to follow through, you can build these remedies into your dialogues as action steps.

I’m going to share some techniques I have collected from hoarding experts, but I’ll begin with two tips of my own that can help you overcome one of the biggest obstacles to getting started:  all-or-nothing thinking, as in “My to do list is too long, I can’t do it all, so what’s the point of even trying?”  

Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking

The thought of having mountains of clutter can be paralyzing if you start by thinking it’s all got to happen in one fell swoop.  Perhaps you’ve been stuck there for a long time, just letting things collect.  Let’s put that kind of thinking aside.  The first tip comes from my mother who taught me a policy she called ‘first things first.’  It means that if you’re all set to enjoy something – getting a snack from the refrigerator, running to the mall, or calling a friend – use it as an incentive to first get one small thing done on your to do list.  Use the snack as a reward.  With first things first, you call to schedule your mammogram, then call your friend as a reward.  First empty the garbage, then go to the mall.  First pay the water bill, then leaf through your favorite catalogue.  As first things first becomes a habit, your life gets ordered and you have more time to enjoy its little rewards guilt free and with greater consciousness.

The second technique I call the ‘Just 10 Things Rule.’ This technique helps you break down what might seem like a superhuman task.  When you’re faced with monstrous clutter, rather than let it overwhelm you, take a reasonable number of baby steps toward your goal a few minutes at a time. Say you had a party and your house is a disaster area. Just pick up ten dishes.  If you create a little momentum along the way and wind up doing more, fine.  And when you run out of steam, stop.  Next time you approach the mess, pick up ten wine glasses.  Rest easy knowing the task will eventually get done, ten things at a time.

Of course ten isn’t a magic number.  Think of a task and decide on the number of baby steps you want to take at a time.  If you have clothes piled up all over your bedroom, just put away three things.  Clean jeans go in the drawer, dirty shirt in the hamper, shoes on the rack.  Next time put away three more things, or ratchet it up to five if you feel like it.

These two tools are effective in using small action steps to create momentum – whether your house is a just a little messy or you have stacks and piles that take over your entire living space.

Categories: Outer Child
  1. Randy Weisbin
    September 17, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Hi Susan – I’m wondering if you know of any useful books or websites for artists with clutter problems. I always feel that the general treatment of the subject somewhat misses the mark for artists when addressing how to deal with the problem, since materials and production is part of what we do. I realize the roots are the same as for other clutterers, but it seems we have specific problems (and excuses for holding on to our clutter) that I’d really appreciate reading about. Love all your writings. Thanks, Randy

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