Ask the Experts

Q: How Can I Face My Hoarding Tendencies Head On?

Hoarding tendencies are common among adults with ADHD who are easily overwhelmed by piles of clutter and who attach emotions to stuff that triggers memories. But it’s not healthy to feel suffocated by your possessions, so use these expert tips for simplifying your life from the inside out.

Q: “I am trying to overcome my hoarding behaviors and extreme ADHD. I can help others, but I’m bad at helping myself. I’m recently divorced after 36 years, my artist mother just died, and I’ve moved to a condo from my big house. My new place is a wreck, and I am paying for four 10′ x 10′ storage units containing so much stuff, including a huge number of my parents’ photo albums. Help!” — RestonMom


Hi RestonMom:

I applaud you for knowing that you are ready to start and that you need help to do so. Knowing you need help is the first step to getting started! I have worked with many individuals with hoarding behaviors, and I understand all too well the frustration, pain, and shame that comes with hoarding as well as the inability to work through it on your own.

So rule #1. Be gentle with yourself. You have experienced some major trauma in your life – your divorce, your mom’s death, even downsizing to a new home. Those experiences take their toll and need to be worked through. Remember, it’s not about your stuff! It’s about the “stuff” behind the stuff! This is my gentle reminder to you that this will not be a quick fix. It didn’t take you hours, days, or even months to get into this situation, so you cannot expect the same when working to get out of it.

Since I don’t know all the circumstances – are there additional emotional triggers that led to the hoarding behavior? How long has this behavior been going on? What do you hoard? Even the level of hoard (check out the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s Clutter Hoarding Scale to help you evaluate. It’s free!) – I’m going to focus on the best way for you to approach this process. But before we dive in, I will mention three important points:

First, you need to understand that “hoarding is not defined by the number of possessions you have, but by how the acquisition and management of those possessions affects you.”

[Are You Hoarding? Take This Self-Test for Adults]

I always ask my clients to name their “10s” — those non-negotiable items that they couldn’t bear to let go of. But here’s the catch: not everything can be a 10. Because if everything is a 10, then nothing is a 10. And that is the true definition of someone who hoards. They assign the same level of significance to everything — whether it is an old grocery list or their marriage certificate — and they can’t differentiate anything’s level of importance.

So to get you started, try making a list of all your possessions by category. Books, photo albums, clothing, and so on. Then give each of those categories a number from one to ten. If old magazines, cookbooks, and toys are a “one,” (meaning they are easy for you to part with) then start by eliminating those items first. Beginning with items that don’t fill you with emotion or anxiety is a wonderful way to start the process. It allows you to build that “detachment” muscle as you move toward items that will be harder. Remember to tread lightly as you build momentum.

Second, define your short- and long-term goals for limiting the hoard in your home. What do you envision your home looking like after the process? Perhaps your short-term goal is to be able to clear the dining room table so you can eat on it. Your long-term goal might be to only have one storage unit filled with possessions you truly want AND need.

Next, write down these goals in a notebook. By defining the goals and writing them down, you will eliminate the internal back-and-forth dialogue and give yourself a solid goal to work toward. What does that look like? Say you are struggling to make a decision to get rid of an item in your home. You can refer back to your goals by asking, “How is keeping this… going to further my goal of…?” I would also suggest writing down any decisions you make. Logging small successes leads to bigger ones!

[Click to Read: Hoarding Help and Clutter Shame: ADHD Organization Tips]

Third, have you thought of hiring a professional to help you? A professional organizer trained in hoarding behaviors could really help you define your goals, put a plan in place, and guide you through the tough decision-making process. And if you are concerned they will get bossy or judgmental, please trust me when I say they will not! They will never go faster or further than you want, discard anything you are not willing to trash, or pass judgement or criticism.

If you are interested, reach out to The National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO.NET) OR The Institute for Challenging Disorganization (challengingdisorganization.org). Their websites are set up so you can easily find a professional by skill set and location.

Good Luck!

[Get This Free Guide: 22 Clutter-Busting Strategies for Adults with ADHD]


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

Updated on July 1, 2020

2 Related Links

  1. Great piece – really supportive. I’ve also found a group program by Linda Roggli of ADDiva to be incredibly helpful for a lot of people who want support as they declutter. There are lots of resources out there – you just have to find the one that works best for you.

  2. Hi there,

    I almost lost my children to a messy place. Thank goodness I was seeing a psychiatrist and she helped me, not only with the deep rooted reason my place is always a mess, but dealing with CPS. It was a horrible time because my apartment had no storage space. Ironically, it was the landlord who called CPS. He would enter my apartment and determine it was a mess then call. Coincidently, that coincided with the neighbours bringing in bedbugs and me being late for rent. Anyway, I was able to realise somehow get it together enough to not lose my children to a messy home. CPS literally forced me quit my Masters degree though. Today, although my children are in their late teens, our place is still disorganized and I have an extremely difficult time asking my landlord for help. So much so that I’ve been doing laundry at the local laundromat even though I have a washing machine. It broke 3 years ago. I’m just deathly afraid he’ll charge me for the entire machine or, worse, evict us over the mess. However, my worry isn’t out of the ordinary since our current landlord (a different one from before) wanted to charge me $250 late fee for rent once. I have called handymen and plumbers but I always hyperventilate and cancel at the last minute. That said, we did have the super come in a couple weeks ago to turn off the hot water valve and he didn’t seem phased at all. He said he’s seen 10 times worse. Which surprised me since we live in a ‘good’ neighbourhood now. Still, I’ve convinced myself that if my children were still children, it would neglectful. If I was an outsider, I would be so frustrated with me. But it’s so difficult to explain the feelings and thought pattern associate with these situations I’m in. Everything is contingent on another thought or feeling. The layers of anxiety and ‘I can’t do this’ are numerous to the point where I’m paralysed. My twin just died and she had the same problem. She never got over it. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this. Even if my place is clean, I’m still nervous searching visitor’s faces for any trace of disapproval or disgust and most of the time I find it. I just want to be normal.

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