Shortly after her mother passed away, Paula, 33, began to feel a strong urge to hold on to artifacts that were reminiscent of her, such as her hairbrush and a basket of shells collected on a family vacation to St. Simon Island. But what began as a means of coping with grief quickly morphed into something more.
After her beloved grandparents also passed, Paula inherited additional pieces to which she felt connected, like her grandmother’s paint brushes, canning jars and miniature display plates. In addition to the emotional attachment she felt toward her late loved ones’ former belongings, Paula felt a sense of responsibility as their keeper — and a lot of guilt at the thought of getting rid of anything. Over the decades that followed, her children and husband frequently pleaded with her to declutter, but she “struggled to do it because what they saw as insignificant or unimportant was extremely important to me,” she says.
Even if you’ve never inherited a loved ones’ things, it’s common to feel a sense of agony over cleaning out your closet or simply dealing with the ever-growing clutter on your desk. Many of us have deep, sometimes subconscious, connections to our stuff, which can require more than decluttering. The stronger the hold our stuff has on us, the greater the risk of developing a problematic attachment to objects. Here’s how to tell when you’ve gone too far.
Object attachment isn’t necessarily pathological
An inclination to hold on to items is completely normal, and most of us have some sort of a relationship with our stuff, says psychologist and object attachment expert Keong Yap, DPsych of Australian Catholic University. This is particularly true following a major life event such as the loss of a loved one or a big move.
It becomes a problem when those feelings lean toward extremes, Yap explains. Most people have cherished objects they’d find difficult to discard that carry positive associations for us, and negative emotions arise when they go missing. But people who want to hold on to possessions don’t necessarily have hoarding disorder. According to a recent study by Yap and colleagues, those with HD associate both positive and negative emotions with their adored items. Feeling simultaneously happy, anxious and sad about one’s belongings can be indicative of an insecure relationship with them.
A study published in Pyschotraumatol explains that, since humans are a social species, a history of interpersonal trauma or loneliness can push us to overcompensate, sometimes by buying and forming relationships with possessions instead. This stems from being unable to trust people and instead putting faith in objects, Yap explains. Tom Hanks’ character’s relationship with Wilson the volleyball in Castaway is one example of this. All alone on an island with no other humans, Hanks had to form a relationship with Wilson to cope.
Object attachment can often be traced back to childhood
According to Yap, object attachment often appears to develop later in life, but many, like Paula, trace its roots back to childhood. As we age, we tend to have more money than when we were younger, so attachment tendencies we’ve always had become more obvious with our newfound ability to buy stuff to comfort ourselves.
Tendencies we had as children to self-soothe with a security blanket or favorite stuffed toy in the absence of secure parents or caretakers can crop up again as a coping mechanism as we grow older, explains cognitive behavioral psychologist Elspeth Bell, Ph.D. As adults, object attachment can serve the same purpose as retail therapy, as a way to soothe ourselves through adverse circumstances.
What triggers emotional attachment varies from person to person, says Bell. For Paula, whose father was in the Navy, moving around a lot as a kid left her without a strong sense of home. Frequent moves also meant she couldn’t bring many physical items with her from location to location.
Bereavement can also be a huge trigger because rarely do people suddenly inherit an entire house full of items except in conjunction with grief, according to Bell and Yap. That combination of factors can set off a tendency toward hoarding. This was certainly the case for Paula, who credits losing her mother with setting off her desire to hold onto things. Even though she noticed the connection as it was happening, she failed to do anything about it out of fear that the happy memories her stuff evoked would disappear if she let go of the items themselves.
Society reinforces our need to gather goods
Today’s consumerist society constantly encourages us to buy, buy, buy, with endless advertisements for products we “can’t live without.” This environment combined with even the slightest inclination to hold on to items can create or exacerbate a tendency toward outsize object attachment.
At the same time, we can’t get away from messaging about decluttering, whether it’s Marie Kondo encouraging you to get rid of whatever doesn’t spark joy, television series cheering people on for cleaning up or a new IKEA catalog (or Good Housekeeping article) suggesting specific furniture to organize your home. None of this is motivating for those with an outsize attachment to objects, who likely already know they need to throw out a few boxes (or more), says Yap. Instead, messaging focused on decluttering can invoke shame and makes those with problematic bonds to their stuff even less inclined to address the issue.
However, recent design trends show signs of a shift. Maximalism has become more prevalent in interior design, according to design expert Annika Hansteen-Izora. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have spent more time at home, which led to a spike in home improvement projects over the past two years. That reflects “a wider trend of some people whose lives slowed down,” according to Hansteen-Izora. “People are thinking about what they hold important in life and finding ways to make that importance reflect in various areas, whether that be the design of their home, picking up new hobbies or switching careers.”
Many of Bell’s clients say that bears out in their own experiences as well, as they feel a greater sense of security when surrounded by their things. Stuff can also serve as an identity marker that people are reluctant to give up. Hansteen-Izora and Bell both note that objects can instill a sense of self. For example, if you express yourself through fashion, it may be difficult to let go of clothes, even if you don’t wear them anymore.
How to recognize when you’re getting too attached
If your attachment to stuff is getting in the way of your life, you may want to seek help. Paula struggled when loved ones encouraged her to get rid of her things, and she still does. But she recently completed a big clean-out of her house with the help of her children. “I’d like to say it’s easier today than it used to be, but it’s really not,” she says. “It’s been a lifelong struggle. I’m just more able to handle it now.” She credits her supportive family and says their conversations over the years helped her realize that her loved ones didn’t have the same attachment to the things she was clinging to. Their encouragement made it easier to let things go, a little bit at a time.
If you find yourself having strained conversations with loved ones over accumulating items or the state of your home is getting in the way of meaningful relationships, that’s a sign your attachment to stuff might be a problem, according to Bell and Yap. For example, if you can’t use a room in your house anymore because it’s too overrun with things or you’re embarrassed to invite friends over due to lack of space or the state of your home, you may be heading into problematic territory.
Where to seek help
The International OCD Foundation has a webpage dedicated to the topic of hoarding disorder and is running an online conference in March 2023, for affected individuals and family members. Additionally, the Institute for Challenging Disorganization operates a database of professional organizers, including numerous experts who are familiar with the mental health element of object attachment and can adjust their approach accordingly.
And finally, remember that just because you can’t throw out your grandpa’s favorite sweater or your childhood keepsakes doesn’t mean you have a problem. “Emotional attachment to objects is completely normal,” Yap explains. Having things and relationships or sentimental feelings towards them is human nature, as long as you’re still able to treasure people over things.
Sydney is a writer and international education professional from Seattle. She has lived in Sydney and Montreal, is currently based in Luxembourg, speaks French, a bit of German, and is always on the lookout for the next adventure!
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