How to Detach From a Person Who Hoards

6 ways to hold boundaries with a loved one who hoards.

I've been to many a training on hoarding disorder and seen it first hand with the clients I work with: A person with hoarding disorder gets less and less distressed about their situation over time while a family member or friend gets more and more distressed about their loved one's situation. 


Family members have a hard time cutting the "hoarder" slack as the family doesn't see hoarding as a true mental illness, but rather as a character flaw. As a result family members have little tolerance for it.


A study in 2008 by Tolin, et al was done in which 665 individuals  who reported having a friend or family member who hoards completed an internet-based survey. The findings were that these individuals had high levels of patient rejection attitudes as well as increased levels of hostility and frustration. Their rejection had to do with the severity of the hoarding symptoms and the person's lack of insight into their hoarding behavior. 


Ultimately this study makes clear that hoarding not only impacts the person with the disorder but has adverse effects on those living with them. So what does one do? 

It's very hard to feel empathy and connectedness to someone you feel hostility and frustration towards. Sometimes the best thing that can be done in situations where tempers run high and conflicts run deep is to safely detach from the individual.

Here are 9 ways to hold boundaries with someone with hoarding disorder:


1. Focus on what you can control.

You can't control someone's poor choices or how they choose to live their life. You can control how often you visit or have contact with them and for how long.


2. Don't enable them.

If they call you yet again on the eve of Tax Day to help them find their paperwork, don't help them like you've done in the past. This only condones their hoarding behavior. The more you enable them, the more they will continue to stay stagnant in their ways.


3. Don't give advice or tell them what to do.

They don't want to hear what you have to say. Do you like being told what to do? When someone doesn't see that they have a problem, giving them advice to change it isn't helpful. Furthermore, I can bet the advice wouldn't be coming from a place of kindness and neutrality so best to leave your bossy pants at home.


4. Give your expectations a reality check.

For a person with hoarding disorder to part with their belongings is huge. To give something up, to them, is like giving up a part of themselves. If they tell you they got rid of 10 butter tubs, be happy for them. You can't expect fast, transformative change when it comes to combating hoarding.


5. Respond in a different way.

When your family member insists on purchasing yet another soup tureen to add to their collection of 20, ask about what attracted them to this one. You might get an answer that it reminds them of their grandmother who used to serve a soup course at every Sunday dinner. This could lead to further discussion about previous generations, family traditions, treasured recipes, childhood memories - much better conversation topics then: Why do you need another soup pot? Where are you going to put it? When was the last time you made soup?


6. Don't obsess about their problem.

Many times family members will worry themselves silly about their loved one with hoarding. It's hard not to worry about someone you love and want what's best for. As I said at the beginning, the more distressed you become the less distressed the person with hoarding will be. Unless there are immediate and imminent safety concerns, the worry is unproductive. 


7. Choose not to visit.

It's okay to set a boundary that you don't want to visit your loved one in their hoarded home or have the grandkids attend gatherings there. Set up visits to a local park, attend a community event together, or host them at your house. If their home is a trigger for you, don't subject yourself to being in the space. 


8. Respond don't react.

When your loved one tells you about another tag sale find or that they got a great deal from QVC, keep your feelings in check. Surely you might struggle with anger, disappointment, sadness, annoyance, etc, but keeping responses neutral is always best. Reacting in a negative way might shut the person down and they may refuse to have further contact with you, which could lead to bigger issues if you're not able to keep tabs on them for safety reasons. 


9. Practice self-care.

This gets back to focusing on what you can control. You can control how you nurture and care for yourself. Making sure you're exercising, eating healthy, and staying socially connected to healthy non-hoarding folks is crucial to your well being and being able to feel recharged. Doing things just for you helps you keep perspective and maintain resiliency. 


Have you found healthy ways to detach from a loved one with hoarding disorder?

What would you add to the list?