Change the conversation

Change the conversation

ME: “You don’t need 10 ironing boards!”

CLIENT: ” Throwing them out is wasteful.  They’re all still good.”

ME: “But you don’t have room to iron in here…”

CLIENT: “My kids will need them when they move out…”

ME: “Your kids are 2 and 4!”

CLIENT: “Well maybe I can donate them BUT I’ll have to know they won’t be sent to landfill. I need to know they’re going to a good home and someone will use them.”

ME: “How about we try and experiment and take the ironing boards out of the house and see how you feel next week about letting them go?”

CLIENT: “NO! You’ll toss them and then all my hard work trying to save the environment will go to waste…(READ BETWEEN THE LINES: ‘and living in this mess for so long with nowhere for my children to play, will be for nothing’)”


In my Professional Organising life this type of conversation with the clutter challenged was a regular occurrence.  In fact, probably 80% of the time.  Starting the conversation sitting in the kitchen over a cup of tea, my client would discuss the problems associated with the disordered living spaces and pronounce they wanted to change – starting today.  However, when we got down to the physical sorting, something changed.  Time and time again clients would go from a macro view to a micro view and only see the stuff.  Conversations like the one above would continue in an eternal loop.

What if we STOP trying to use rational arguments and “evidence” to convince our clients/patients/family members that their attachment to their belongings is “irrational” or “maladaptive”?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the gold standard in treatment for hoarding disorder, confronts “flawed” cognitions, thoughts, and beliefs using rational arguments with supporting evidence to “disprove”them.  This can work well with symptoms that are in conflict with what a person thinks is their true nature or moral standpoint.  For example someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may have frequent disturbing thoughts about harming a family member and feels the need to counteract these immoral thoughts by saying the persons name three times to negate the effect those thoughts may magically have on the loved one.  Hoarding disorder appears to present in a different way to OCD;  the thoughts and beliefs hoarding sufferers have are in line with the person’s moral code; they’re core rationales for saving and acquiring are inherently “good”:

“People are wasteful, throwing away this perfectly good – chair/doll/jacket”

“I know this is still good, someone could use this!”

“I love the feeling of pride when I create something from nothing.”

The problem occurs when the sufferer’s core values are so strong they over-shadow other values like: health, family, friends, hobbies, and work.   CBT can easily be derailed because attempts at restructuring these beliefs, as demonstrated in the conversation above, that are in essence rational and positive – just out of proportion, can create a road-block, making progress close to impossible.

Could the treatment of clinical hoarding disorder be made more effective by simply focusing people back on their core values? … here is my attempt to demonstrate in a practical example:

ME: “What’s most important to you in your life going forward?”

CLIENT: “Well my family, friends, especially my children – and their health.  Heck, my health.”

ME: “You also value the environment and try not to waste don’t you?”

CLIENT: “Yes, it’s always been very important to me.  I get very cross when I see people throwing out perfectly good stuff that is still good/useful.  I’m very passionate about it.”

ME: “Is it more important than family, friends, health…your children’s development?”

CLIENT: “Hell no!!! That’s ridiculous… I’m very focused on my family.  I don’t work so I can be there for my kids!”

ME: “Can you see the disconnect here?  You say family is THE most important thing to you..?”

CIENT: “Yes…”

ME: “Yet your values around the environment and reducing waste have taken the front position..?”

CLIENT: “I wouldn’t say that!” (defensively)

ME: “Your behaviours right now are not in line with your true values.”

CLIENT: “But my family understand my passion for the environment…”

ME: “Yes, to a point, but they don’t deserve to live in this clutter; it’s unsafe, and is not a nurturing environment.”

CLIENT: “But you don’t understand – if I stop no one will pick up where I left off and so much will be wasted.  I can’t let that happen.”

ME: “Right now all you’re doing is picking up stuff to bring home … and you’ve turned your house into the tip! Do you agree?  Take a look at this photo of the children’s room…”

CLIENT: “Oh goodness, does it really look like that?”

ME: “Yes”

CLIENT: “My family is the most precious thing to me and I need to change NOW.  I don’t want them growing up without a space to play and relax!”

ME: “First thing you need to do is accept that other’s behaviours are OUTSIDE your control.  If others waste things, you can’t solely be responsible for making right their mistakes.”

CLIENT: “So, I’m not a one woman crusade?” LAUGH

ME: “We need to help you refocus on your true values – your family and the environment in a way that is workable.”

CLIENT: “That doesn’t sound possible.”

ME: “Begin with accepting what you can’t change – others wastefulness.  When you feel the urge and hear those voices telling you to save the planet by picking up someone else’s roadside junk say: ‘Thanks mind that’s great BUT I’m going to behave in a way that gives me a more fulfilling life – by NOT picking up that junk.’  Every time you feel like acquiring something or keeping something you don’t need as you work through the house – remember your key value is family.  Listen to the voice if you like, feel the anxiety involved but take action in the direction of your true values anyway.  I’m not going to say it will be easy or anxiety-free but it can be done.  Behave in the way you want your life to be…don’t let the voice control you.  They’re just words in your head, not the truth and unless they take you in the direction of your deepest values they are unworkable and you can disregard them.  Don’t fight with the words; arguing about the truth is futile because everyone holds a different version of the truth.  Agree to disagree.”

CLIENT: “So you think I need to find a new way to help protect the environment that is workable for me in light of my core values?”

ME: “Exactly.  This isn’t going to be easy but once you have your values in mind you can gain control of the hoarding, the hoarding won’t control you.”

CLIENT: “I choose the people not the stuff!”

While my demo conversation may be Pollyanna-ish, it gives you the idea of what I mean by values-focus.  It may take time to get this idea of valued living across to the hoarding sufferer over a number of sessions, but if you keep getting stuck in an endless loop, stop arguing.  Your truth is different to theirs and you don’t need to agree, just help them find what is central to their sense of wellbeing.


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