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Compulsive Decluttering: The Opposite of Hoarding

Compulsive Decluttering The Opposite of Hoarding The Atlantic


For some, the need to shed possessions is a life-consuming illness—but the cultural embrace of decluttering can make it hard to seek help.

“Do we just assume that decluttering is a good thing because it’s the opposite of hoarding?” says Vivien Diller, a psychologist in New York who has worked with patients like Charbit who compulsively rid themselves of their possessions. “Being organized and throwing things out and being efficient is applauded in our society because it is productive. But you take somebody who cannot tolerate mess or cannot sit still without cleaning or throwing things out, and we’re talking about a symptom.”

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Very few things are good when taken to the extreme. 

The essence of simplifying is only keeping what you need.

Obsessive compulsive is a condition where you cannot turn it off. 

Currently a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, Charbit was obsessively decluttering before the word really existed in popular culture. Google Ngram, which charts the use of certain words in book titles, shows that “declutter” first came into use in the 1970s, its popularity shooting up through the ’80s, ’90s, and the first decade of the 21st century. According to Oxford University Press, the term was only added to the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary in June 2015. Today, women’s magazines routinely urge readers to purge; personal organizers offer to coach clients in their pursuit of minimalist perfection; earlier this year, Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which promises to help people achieve “the unique magic of a tidy home,” became a bestseller. But for some people, the cultural embrace of decluttering can provide cover for more problematic behavior.

The cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help.

The author Helen Barbour, who blogs at The Reluctant Perfectionist and wrote The A to Z of Normal, a novel about OCD, believes the cultural embrace of decluttering makes it harder for those who do it compulsively to seek help. “[People] see my tidy home and sigh about the fact that theirs is a dump,” says Barbour, who was diagnosed with OCD in 1995. “What they don’t realize  is how long it has taken me to order everything with millimeter precision, or the anxiety I feel at things being even slightly out of position.” Barbour lives alone, in part, she says, because her long-term partner is “the king of stuff.”

Barbour also found a supportive community online when she wrote a blog postabout her compulsive decluttering last February. “Sorting and rearranging helps a little,” she wrote, “and getting rid of just one or two things can also temporarily alleviate the feeling.” Commenters responded with their own experiences: “I get a physical sensation as though I’m being crushed when I have too many things around me,” one wrote. “To say I hate clutter is an understatement … it literally feels like gears grinding in my head,” said another.