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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Stuff, Why Is It So Difficult to Part With?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jun 19th 2008

 I have am once again reminded of the importance of the above question because my wife and I are planning to relocate from Colorado to Florida. In planning the move we find ourselves faced with the daunting question of what items we want to take with us, sell or discard.

Have you ever noticed that it can be difficult to get rid of stuff?

For purposes of this posting I define "stuff" as any type of possession, from money to houses, papers, frying pans, newspapers, magazines, old furniture and etc.

Having difficulty parting with things is a type of normal behavior that can slip into Obsessive Compulsive Behavior if it gets out of control. Recently, fMRI studies have been done of the brain while subjects are making decisions about items they want to discard. The studies have revealed the difficulty in parting with things is neurologically based. In other words, our tendency to hold on to stuff is based in parts of the brain.

Fear of Loss of Possessions:

How it works, according to what these fMRI studies have shown, is that we struggle with a fear of loss of possessions. In other words, we have a kind of "loss aversion." The fear is that something of value may be lost and that loss will be regretted in the future.

Of course, everyone has a different level or intensity of loss aversion. Some people are willing to take risks based on the possibility of making gains. That is probably one reason why some of us are more active in the stock market than others of us. Those with a strong sense of loss aversion would rather keep what they have than to risk any of it in the stock market even though they could make more money by investing. For these people the fear of loss outweighs the possibility of making larger profits.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:

Some of the same principles are at work for individuals who have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is one of the anxiety disorders. For someone with intense OCD the danger of loss is too intense with the result that they must retain what they have.

Decisions:

However, with OCD there is another phenomenon at work with regard to selling, buying or discarding "stuff." That phenomenon is the pain and anxiety associated with making choices. All of us with even mild OCD are aware that making choices can be difficult. As a result of this indecisiveness, the individual simply keeps possessions and, thus, does not have to discard anything.

Some studies show that hoarding is a way of maintaining control over possessions. Of course, one of the driving issues for those with OCD is attempting to maintain control as a way of allaying anxiety.

"Just in case:"

In terms of anxiety, the hoarder is also driven by the term "just in case." In other words, more larger numbers of an item are purchased "just in case" there is a future need. Newspapers, magazines, books and other items are kept "just in case" they are needed in the future. What marks this way of thinking is that the items are rarely needed. If an occasion arises where something is needed it reinforces the "just in case" way of thinking.

Worst Case Scenarios:

At worst, hoarding can be pathological if the individual is harboring a psychosis under the OCD. For example, as a young Social Worker my job took me into the homes of some very mentally ill clients who were classic examples of pathological hoarding. I clearly remember some of the apartments of those clients.There was not one empty space available because all the rooms were filled up to the ceiling with stacks of newspapers and magazines. In some of these cases the client was suffering from paranoid thinking, among other delusions. Even the windows were covered, the door double bolted and the entire place a complete shambles. I always found the total effect to be shocking.

Treatment:

For those of us who are not clinically hoarders there is the ability to finally get rid of things by either selling, donating or just tossing them away. For those afflicted with clinical levels of OCD the usual treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with or without anti depressant medication, depending on the severity of symptoms and response to treatment. For those with psychotic illnesses, anti psychotic medications supportive psychotherapy are the best approaches.

Note:

We all become attached to some "stuff" because it has sentimental or some other type of value to it. However, it is important to remember that it is just "stuff" and that, in life, it is sometimes more important to let go of stuff and move on. If there is a flood, as there has been in the mid west, it is more important to save lives than to cry over lost possessions. The reason for this is that where life is concerned there is always a way to get more "stuff" in the future.

To return to my personal story of moving, the decisions of what to keep and what to discard has been rendered fairly easy by the increased cost of shipping possessions across the country due to the sharp increase in gasoline. And, so, lots of our "stuff has been either given away, donated or tossed out.

What are your experiences with "stuff."

Comments are always welcome.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    "Ask Dr. Schwartz - Allan N Schwartz - Dec 15th 2008

    Hi Kenny,

    You will find a response to "Please fix my mom" under "Ask Dr. Schwartz" later in the day."

    Dr. Schwartz

    Please help fix my mom. - Kenny - Dec 14th 2008
    I'm really worried about my mom. She just can't let ANYTHING go. This problem has always had the potential to be a major issue, but now that I have become idependent, it is spiraling out of control. I'm an only child, and I think she is trying to compensate for the fact that i am no longer in the nest. The magazines, greeting cards, and old newspapers have always been a problem. Now she's progressed to a level that is starting to scare me. She has over 2,000 beanie babies. Every time a fast food restaurant gives some little piece of chunk away with there food, she'll buy there kid's meals until she has the entire collection. Every little trinket from a cereal box. I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. I've tried totalk to her about it, but she always gets angry and says she does'nt want to talk about it. Or she'll call herself a collector and scream, " it's my stuff", and then storm off. I really am not sure how to tackle this problem. I just found this site and thought it might not be a bad place to start. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank You for your time. KB

    sentimental hoarding - - Nov 15th 2008

    I have a severe case of sentimental hoarding. I recently lost some papers I wrote in graduate school and letters of appreciation from clients I counseled during my employment as an Outpatient Therapist due to a flood in the lower level of my home. Any help in overcoming the emotional trauma of this would be greatly appreciated.

    Paper piles - leah - Jun 21st 2008

    I enjoyed reading about hoarding, but wonder what the psychological problem is with piling papers/magazines/mail until I can get to it.  When one pile gets too tall, I start another.  I do try to sit down and go through it and end up keeping much of it...paper adds up so quickly!  Got any words of advice?

    It's an Ill Wind ... - JR - Jun 20th 2008

    ... that Blows No Good, and Every Cloud has a Silver Lining!  I think that is the first good thing I have heard about high oil prices - that it relieves the anxiety associated with abandoning the junk of life because high gas prices have made them too costly to shift!  Doctor, I envy you your sunny outlook - I truly wish I shared it a bit more fully.  All the very best for your move.

    Now, whatever will I do with all those old paperbacks ...?

    Very best regards,

    JR

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