Hoarding: The Metaphors Behind the Madness


“Eric” a successful businessman in his early 50’s, came to my office burdened with a shameful secret. He reluctantly admitted that no one had been inside his home for over a decade. Unlike many hoarders, Eric was not in denial. He nervously handed me a stack of photographs of his home and garage in an upscale neighborhood. Piles of books and stacks of files and papers littered every surface and the two-car garage was stacked nearly to the ceiling with more cardboard boxes of files.

I “read” the energetic signature of Eric’s situation by interpreting the symbolism or metaphor being expressed through his hoarding. “Ok, so you’re saving information. You can get information on the internet, and scan important documents and store them electronically. Why are you saving all this information?”
Eric looked bewildered. “Information…. I never looked at it that way before. I don’t know why, I just know I HAVE to.”

“Cynthia” was in her early 40’s and morbidly obese. Her husband brought her in because her hoarding was threatening to destroy their marriage. Cynthia had recently lost a baby, her second miscarriage. Her hoarding, like so many others depicted on the A & E show “Hoarders” and TLC’s “Hoarders: Buried Alive” was rooted in the emptiness of grief and loss, compounded by abandonment, deprivation and loss in her own childhood. No wonder she was filling herself and the house as fast as she could and building a physical wall to shield her from further emotional pain.

Hoarding is currently classified as a form of Obsessive/Compulsive (OCD) behavior in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, (DSM V) the reference book used by mental health clinicians to diagnose and classify mental illness, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety and personality disorders. Hoarding behavior is highly metaphorical, which is why unearthing and healing the root(s) is so crucial.
Five Primary Wounds Underlie Traumatic Emotional Patterns
The five primary emotional wounds that underlie almost all emotional patterns, some combination of which are evident in many cases of hoarding are:






Before a hoarder can be treated or cooperate with a professional organizer, their anxiety needs to be released so they don’t resist and sabotage the process. Unless the anxiety and trauma that is causing the anxiety that is driving the hoarding is addressed, the hoarder will vigorously resist a cleanup. They will procrastinate, complicate the sort and purge process and their intense anxiety will generally stonewall any progress. If a cleanup does manage to be done, they will in most cases set about filling everything back up anyway, much to the exasperation of everyone involved in the cleanup.

Here’s a standard approach for a “beyond reason” situation:

Step one: Using metaphor language, evaluate, very literally, what is occurring in the present situation, as I did with Eric—he was obsessively storing information. Filling his house with piles and boxes of information was beyond reason, as metaphorical behavior patterns frequently are.

Step two: Consider that presenting situation in combination with possible scenarios that could precede and then trigger the behavior the hoarder is doing. Hoarders gather, store and fill– look for anxiety that is driving emotional emptiness in the form of deprivation, feeling unloved, rejected, abandoned either physically or emotionally, (some adoptees have this) grief, loss, death, divorce, miscarriage, etc. If food or other addictions are also present, there is a void of pain that is craving anesthesia– numbing, comfort, protection and avoidance. What are they craving? What are they hungry for? Maybe it’s love, safety, validation, control. The need to control can be part of hoarding, in that they are creating their own chaos in an attempt at control. They had no control as helpless, vulnerable children in a chaotic or violent home. Being in a situation where you’re at the mercy of other for any reason, where you’re out of control, is going to provoke anxiety in most people, especially people with a history of childhood trauma.

Common hoarding “themes

Emotional and/or physical deprivation, which is an energetic signature of loss, drives one to obsessively gather to excess and fill up, to prevent the perception of either starvation or deprivation– of food, love, comfort, acceptance, safety, etc. Sometimes the hoarding can be an effort at building a physical barrier, an impenetrable wall of stuff that no one can get through and that they are able to hide inside of, “safe” from the outside world that was so scary and painful. Obesity can sometimes be a physical manifestation of a hoarders protective walls of stuff. The inner self is in there somewhere, hiding behind the big person. If it wasn’t safe to be small, that person can gain weight and grow until the small child within can feel safe inside.

Any perceived or actual threat to survival, for example abandonment in childhood, ramps up the resistance to letting go of stuff times 1000. This was the case with Eric. In what appeared to be a past life, Eric and his tribe were massacred because he didn’t have the information that an enemy attack was coming. When that past-life trauma was cleared, Eric cleaned out his house. He no longer needed the information to survive.

Some people who felt abandoned, rejected and unloved in childhood will hoard animals as well as possessions. They feel a kinship with a small helpless creature needing love, food, nurturing and protection, which they did not get. This is one reason why it’s useless to explain to an animal hoarder that 35 cats are 33 too many. They see it as 35 they’ve been able to save from the pain and abandonment they’ve suffered, and the more cats they “save” the calmer and more in control they feel as the chaos and filth grows around them. The metaphorical nature of hoarding transcends reason, which is why in my experience cognitive behavioral counseling has a high failure rate with OCD and hoarding.

Attempting to reason with a hoarder, ie. “Let’s have you try to just throw away this one little bottle cap” is frustrating and ineffective. Instead, ask them, ‘what was happening in your life when you started “collecting,” then listen for the metaphors. Feed back to them the themes of loss and grief, deprivation, abandonment, emptiness, loneliness and pain and draw for them the metaphorical correlations. Gently explain that the problem is not what is wrong with them, it’s what happened to them. If they resonate with the metaphorical connections, explain that you’re going to refer them to someone who has specialized training in treating the painful trauma that drives hoarding.

How to Heal with Energy Psychology: EFT

Anyone can use the most popular energy psychology healing modality, EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique, which is basically acupressure for the emotions. EFT is holistic, (no-harm) self-healing that is safe, simple, easy-to-use and produces very fast, permanent healing once the core issues are identified. EFT is performed by tapping with fingertips on emotional release points on the face, hands and trunk while talking about the problem or negative emotion. Anyone can use it, even kids, and no license is required to practice or teach it. Some basic EFT may help resistant hoarders calm their anxiety enough to cooperate with a cleanup. Since hoarding is a symptom of severe trauma, it’s best to refer a hoarder to an EFT practitioner who has expertise in treating trauma. EFT is a one-size-fits-all portable stress-reduction method that should be in everyone’s personal emotional first aid kit for self-care as well as to help clients.

2 comments on “Hoarding: The Metaphors Behind the Madness

  1. Linda Peña says:

    I was abused most of my life and now live alone with my animals. I can relate and understand/comprehend on one level everything you are saying. I agree with your reasoning and explanations about hoarders. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I am a hoarder. I have not gotten to the point of being extreme…but…I have to admit I am a hoarder. This realization is very shameful.

    • Sue Hannibal says:

      Hi Linda,

      Know that the hoarding is only a metaphor for the trauma that you suffered and is a symptom of the pain. I’m working on an ebook about the underlying emotional themes behind hoarding. Once these “energetic signatures” are identified and the traumas that created them are healed, the need to hoard begins to dissipate. There’s also a strong correlation with weight, very metaphorical. Hang in there, you’re a trauma survivor and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Let me know if I can help you. namaste, Sue

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