Are You an Emotional Hoarder?

Recently, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) added hoarding to their list of diagnostic categories. We’ve heard a lot about hoarding lately. There are even reality shows tracking hoarders. This got me thinking that hoarding doesn’t just apply to physical possessions. Some people, it seems to me, are emotional hoarders. They hold grudges. They hold onto negative feelings not only longer than is necessary but longer than you night think was possible. I know someone who has been holding a grudge since the late 60’s who, when asked when they might let go of it, responded, “never.” That may be extreme, but how many people can you think of who have stashed away every negative experience, every misunderstanding and every bad thing that ever happened to them? It’s not that uncommon.

Emotional hoarding is just as debilitating as physical hoarding – perhaps even more so. Both types of hoarders keep their habit secret. One group won’t let you into their homes. The other won’t let you into their lives. You may think you have a relationship, but it’s an illusion – on the surface without any real depth. Just as you’ll never see a physical hoarder’s living room, you’ll never see an emotional hoarder’s real feelings.

Why hoard?

Hoarding behavior is self-protective. Holding on to old feelings, old grudges can be a reminder that the world is not a nice place. If people hurt you in the past, they can do it again. Old feelings can create a layer of insulation against new pain. They can stop new feelings from getting through. Emotional hoarding can also allow the hoarder to feel superior to everyone else. “Look what people have done to me,” the thinking goes, “and yet I’ve survived. I haven’t been vindictive. I haven’t tried to get back at anyone. I am a morally superior individual.”

Just as there becomes less and less space in the home of a physical hoarder, the interior landscape of an emotional hoarder becomes increasingly limited. There’s no room for new emotions, which, in turn, often means no room for new relationships.

Signs that you are an emotional hoarder

The most obvious signal of emotional hoarding is holding grudges. Are there events in your life that you blame on someone else while holding yourself free of any responsibility? Are there people or institutions you refuse to deal with because of some real or imagined past wrong? When you see certain people, do you have a spontaneous negative reaction? Another sign is constantly reliving your past. Do you replay scenarios again and again? If yu do, do you get an emotional charge of self-righteousness?

Prepare to declutter your emotional space

If you’d like to clear out your emotional space and make room for new feelings, it generally doesn’t require years of deep therapy. There are steps that you can take on your own or with the support of close friends or a trusted coach.

1. Make a commitment to change. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Hoarders, you know that the process always begins with the hoarder making a commitment to throw things out. You’ll need to be ready for the hard work of letting go.

2. Get your clutter out in the open. With physical decluttering, it’s important to see the objects so that they can be sorted through. Similarly, you’ll need to “see” your emotional clutter. Make a list of grudges you are holding against people or institutions. I admit to holding a grudge for years against the only organization that ever fired me, for example. Add events that you think should have turned out differently. Add family members, guardians, teachers and other authority figures who may have treated you unfairly. This might be a long list, but don’t worry. You won’t be handling everything at once.

3. Prioritize the list from situations having the least strength to those with the greatest strength. There may be items on the list that are so intense you may not be able to deal with them without professional support. There may be grudges you just are not ready to give up yet. You’ll need to know this so that you can start with something that will be easy to part with.

4. Understand that there will be some sense of loss involved. Somehow, even when we lose something bad, this is true.

Decluttering techniques

Begin with the easiest items on your list. That clears up emotional space for deciding which of the harder ones you may want to tackle.

1. Reframe (change) the story. One of the most basic ways to look at ways to reframe a situation comes from the work of Byron Katie. She uses the deceptively simple question, “Is that true?” to unravel the stories we tell ourselves. Tell yourself the story that created the grudge. You may want to write it out. Then, go back over each step of the story asking, if this is true. Are there alternate interpretations? Are there things that you may have misremembered? What can you verify? Try retelling the story with alternate explanations. Do any of these make sense? Does another version allow for greater understanding of the events? This may make it easier to let go of the old story and let go of the grudge.

2. Write out the grudge and release it by burning it. You may want to create a bit of ritual around this – music, candles – or just a no-nonsense fire in a bowl in your sink. Be sure, though, to state out loud “I release this.”

3. Have an air-clearing conversation. If it’s an easy item on your list (that’s where you’re starting), you can do this over coffee or sometimes on the phone. If it’s a harder one, take time over dinner and/or a bottle of wine in a quiet, private place. Remember, some grudges may take more than one conversation. Some progress is good. Don’t be discouraged if the issues aren’t resolved at once.

4. Simply make a decision to forgive and move on. For years, I resented the employer who fired me. Finally, it no longer seemed so important. As I began to recognize – and resent – the emotional energy holding this grudge was causing me, I was able to let it go.

When you declutter our home, there’s a wonderfully liberating feeling. So much space! You’ll have that same feeling when you declutter your emotional space. And remember – you don’t have to fill it back up again.


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