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Lockdown 'clearout' can cause genuine anxiety for hoarders

'It's important not to force help' if someone is not ready

Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Gardner


01635 886684

Lockdown 'clearout' can cause genuine anxiety for hoarders

MANY of us are using this period of lockdown to have a clear out, but it can be challenging helping someone who has hoarding behaviours.

Hoarding Awareness week was an initiative started by the Chief Fire Officers Association in 2014 to raise awareness of hoarding facts, to promote greater understanding and acceptance across those who can influence change and to encourage a stronger tendency for key influencers to support and promote at key moments.  

During National Hoarding Awareness Week 2020, which runs from May 18-May 22, Hoarding Disorders UK offers this advice:

It’s important not to force help if they are not ready. It is helpful to try encourage the person you are helping to create a vision of what they want their house to look like. This will certainly help with motivation.

Ask what help you can be: It’s all too easy for someone looking in at someone’s hoard to automatically slide into “solution mode” and formulate ideas of where things can go, be ordered, be thrown, be organised.  Hold back and ask how you can help. It may not be that practical help is needed but might be emotional and moral support. Ask how you can help. Remember it’s not your agenda and be careful not to take things over.

Bit by bit: Hoarding is typically something that has built up over a period of time so it’s not going to go away overnight. It is important to work at a pace that is right – slowly and surely. Many people with hoarding behaviours feel overwhelmed so be careful not rush or push the person.  Be mindful too of any potential overwhelm that you may feel too. Change is scary and it is important that they feel in charge and build up a rhythm. Bit by bit, chunk by chunk.

Be consistent in asking how you can help: It is important for the person you are wanting to help be feel assured that you are there to help them in whatever way they would like –and remind them that you are there for them as and when they are ready for help. Help and support can take many forms and it is not necessarily about their “hoard”.  It could be helping fill in a form, having a chat, having a coffee. Kindness and compassion are key to helping. Be consistent and persistent and be gentle in your approach of offering help.

Do not judge: Quite often people with hoarding issues can present as being both defensive and difficult, and quite often you will find that this is a protection towards the embarrassment and shame that they often feel but to you this might not be completely obvious. Be mindful of any potential barriers towards being able to help.  Establishing trust and rapport is key to helping. They need to feel confident that you are not judging them in any way. Confrontation and opinions are not helpful in a hoarding situation.

Be mindful of the language you are using: Do not to use negative language and mirror the language they are using.  You might think an empty yoghurt pot is rubbish that that is not your decision to make.  It’s a case of not being derogatory but being encouraging and using positive talk such as “letting go” rather than “getting rid of stuff. The word “hoarder” is stigmatising. Some people would prefer “hoarding behaviours”  or consider themselves “stockpilers” or “collectors”.

Remember it’s the person, not the stuff: It is important to respect the person you are helping and how they feel about their possessions. A person’s hoard represents their history and there will be a host of emotional attachments to their stuff. Curiosity, compassion, and conversations are key.  Ask about what certain items mean to them. Their belongings will have a story, they will have a story.

Provide tools: Many people with hoarding behaviours feel a sense of overwhelm and often say “they don’t know where to start”. We can make suggestions – the hallway, the least emotional area and by doing that will help steer them to a decision. Do not make the decisions for them on what stays and what goes but help facilitate those decisions. Having knowledge of where items can be recycling or where items can be given a new lease of life and valued by another person can make a huge difference in whether an item stays or goes.

LEAP: Michael Tompkins, the author of Digging Out, refers to the strategy  LEAP which stands for

L isten

E mpathy

A cceptance

P artnering

Open ended questions really help, putting yourself in their shoes, accepting that it is their decision, not yours and partnering is a reminder that you are not the president of their possessions but are helping them.

Celebrate: It’s important to celebrate any space that is cleared however small or large, from seeing carpet, to a space on the table to eat or to a place to sit. Recognition of clearing space, making decisions, and letting go all need praising, acknowledging, and celebrating. This will bring increased confidence and motivation towards continuing to sort their stuff.

Tolerance: It is emotionally challenging to deal with sorting our belongings, and with each item comes a story, a memory and a decision so it is important that you do not overdo it. Protect yourself and your time. Do not argue. Both of you need to establish boundaries, timelines and keep a reserve of physical and emotional energy.

For more information visit or or follow the hashtag #helpinghoarders on Twitter.

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