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Why We're Attached to Possessions

9 reasons why we have such a complicated relationship with our belongings.

At a recent training I attended by Dr. Randy Frost, a renowned expert in the field of hoarding, he talked about 9 reasons why people form attachments to their possessions. 

They are as follows:

1- Beauty/aesthetics

An item has a visually appealing quality to it that a person can't part with. It could be the metallic quality of rocks, the color of a bag of bottle caps, or the shape of a rusted kitchen utensil. It doesn't have to be something of value, but basically, it just looks good to the eye of the beholder.

2- Memory

For many people who struggle with clutter, they keep things as visual reminders. They don't feel like they can rely on their memory so objects serve that purpose for them. This could mean that their desk is covered with stacks of business cards instead of entering them in an address book, they save every scrap of paper from any past hospitalizations rather than relying on their online medical record, or they have to keep their electric bill taped to the fridge each month for fear of forgetting to pay it. 

3- Utility/ opportunity

Collectors like to keep anything that has any type of use. They believe utilitarian items have value and therefore should always be kept. Despite having 10 bottle openers, they keep the one they just got for free at the vendor fair. They have a hairdryer bonnet from the 60s that no one uses anymore but because it's still in working order it remains under the bathroom sink. It needs a new seat cushion and 3 casters, but it'll make a great rolling desk chair when it's in working order so it's kept in the basement.

4- Sentimental

Many times an item can invoke a memory whether positive or negative that influences a person's relationship to an item.  It can be the dusty mortarboard from their junior high graduation, a worn potholder that was their deceased grandmother's, or broken golf clubs from their father. These items help them connect with people and their past. 

5- Comfort

I've heard my clients say time and time again that friends and family let them down, but their stuff is always there for them. I've worked with women who have trauma histories who say their stuff provides protection. They insulate themselves as the clutter is pushed against every door and window in their home acting as a safe cocoon.

6- Identity/potential identity 

Asking someone who struggles with hoarding behaviors when the last time they used something is not a good argument for them to get rid of an object. To them, the item represents goals and aspirations they want to reach. If they get rid of the object, they get rid of the dream. It's the imagery that's created by the object, not the actual use of it which makes their attachment to it that much stronger. At least a few women I've worked with like to save cookbooks, but not because they cook regularly. It's the idea that they could host a holiday meal, throw a fancy dinner party, or be that grandma to make the Christmas cookies with their grandchildren that keep them from getting rid of the cookbooks.

7- Control

Many people who struggle with hoarding often struggle in other areas of their life whether that be with depression, weak family relations, poor job performance, anxiety, etc. But having possessions helps them feel powerful and in control in at least one area of functioning. 

8- Responsibility/waste

This is one of the strongest predictors of hoarding behaviors. People who struggle with stuff often feel they are responsible for giving their items a good home. They have difficulty parting with things for fear they aren't going to end up with someone who can take care of them and appreciate them like they can. Add to that the fact that people prone to collecting don't like to waste items. This goes back to them being able to find usefulness in everything. I once worked with a woman who had so much expired food in her kitchen she knew she had to get rid of it, but the task overwhelmed her. When I asked about it she was able to say that she couldn't just throw the food away, but rather wanted to open up each bag of crackers, cereal, oatmeal, etc and spread it out in her yard for the animals. But she never could find the time to haul all the bags and boxes to her backyard, or it was raining that day, or she couldn't find the scissors. This feeling of responsibility ultimately was crippling her actions. 

9- Mistakes

Many people who struggle with hoarding behaviors also have perfectionistic tendencies. You might not think so given that perfectionism is often associated with cleanliness and order, but it's true. The person with hoarding behaviors has an idea in their head of what they want their home to look like or how they want to dispose of things, but because they can't live up to these expectations or fear that they'll mess it up along the way, they overwhelm themselves into inaction. It's like analysis paralysis. They overthink things to the point of not being able to do anything.  

As you can see from this list, people have complicated relationships with their belongings for many reasons. Whether you're a person struggling with clutter or not, these factors ring true for all of us.

Which one most closely identifies for why you keep the possessions that you do?

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