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Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Hoarding

You may have watched television shows or heard about someone who hoards. Usually, we think of piles and piles of stuff. Hoarders typically cannot throw away anything and find reasons to save old papers, rubber bands, empty bottles, or anything they deem as important. They suffer extreme distress at the thought of getting rid of anything regardless of its actual value. They live under clutter, and no matter how narrow their pathways through clutter become, they cannot part with the stuff.

Emotional hoarding is similar in that people who have it are more committed to hanging on to their sorrow than their joy. In fact, emotional hoarders find their identity in their sorrow. They stockpile traumatic memories, embarrassments, and heartbreaks from the past and would feel extreme panic if they had to let them go. Emotional hoarders use their painful past as a mechanism to insulate themselves from dangers they feel in the real world. This causes isolation for them and limits any chance for joy in the present or future. If you or your loved one suffers from emotional hoarding, it is helpful to understand why many resist attempts at moving forward. These three reasons are the most typical:

1. You or your loved one is caught in a vicious cycle of addiction to a hoarding lifestyle. When someone uses emotional hoarding to remind themselves why they are so hurt, they begin unconsciously pushing others away. They further isolate themselves, making their reality fit their sadness. When you push others away, people stop coming around. You become your own worst enemy and create a cycle that validates your present situation. The way out is to become aware of what you are doing and allow one person into your situation. If a loved one has reached out for you in the past, take a small step such as texting them back or thanking them for caring.

2. Emotional hoarding is a defense mechanism to a past trauma or painful experience. Sometimes our brains work against us; we mean to protect ourselves but are only furthering our pain. When you make a habit of running away and not facing uncomfortable feelings, you become more and more fearful that you will be rejected if you do. It’s normal to feel fear, pain, rage, and anger, so begin with accepting all feelings. Accepting them does not mean you act on them; it means you allow yourself to feel the feeling and move on.

3. You’ve lived as an emotional hoarder for so long you’re terrified to change. When you live as an emotional hoarder, you feel safe in the environment you’ve created even if lonely. Change is hard, and it’s scary to give up control (even if it’s a false sense of control). The addiction to pain is as intense as an addiction to a chemical substance. Beginning a support group for addictions can be extremely helpful, and if you’re helping a loved one escape emotional hoarding consider joining Al anon to help prevent you from becoming their enabler.

Emotional hoarding can happen at any time. Those who have experienced severe childhood trauma, natural disasters, or loss from the pandemic, may want to cling to their pain instead of allowing themselves to feel the pain and move forward. One of the greatest gifts you can give another is to be present and listen without judgment. What heals another is not that you agree with their feelings, but that you hear them out and seek to understand what they feel.


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