Collectors and hoarders both buy more things than one could argue they “need,” and may be reluctant to give up the stuff they have. And they both may fill their homes with their chosen objects. So where’s the line? Why do we see one as a hobby and the other as a mental disorder?
Hoarding disorder was only recently recognized as a mental health condition, gaining recognition in the DSM-5, which was published in 2013. That’s when it got an official definition, although plenty of questions remain. Psychologists still aren’t sure whether collecting can evolve into hoarding or vice-versa, and the causes and best treatments are still not fully understood.
What is hoarding disorder?
The main features of hoarding disorder are compulsively acquiring new things, having difficulty parting with the things you already own, and having little to no organization of the growing amount of hoarded items.
Collecting, on the other hand, tends to be more controlled. Collectors may still struggle with parting with their favorite items, or may buy more things than they arguably should. But they also tend to their collections with care, organizing and admiring them. Here are a few other differences.
Collectors tend to be more organized
One of the biggest distinctions between collectors and hoarders is that hoarders tend to see clutter build up in their homes. Items accumulate in piles, and the person may forget or be unaware of what they have.
Collectors, on the other hand, usually organize their finds. Instead of objects strewn around the home, they may have a closet or a room dedicated to the collected items. The items may be displayed, arranged, or sorted in a specific way. According to a study that surveyed both collectors and people with hoarding disorder, 95% of collectors organized their items, while less than half of hoarders said they did.
Collectors care about individual objects
In the same study, collectors were more likely than others to seek out specific items and make an effort to learn more about the objects they collected. Hoarders are less intentional in their acquisition. They’re more likely to see things and decide to acquire them, rather than decide that their collection is missing a certain item and seek it out.
Collectors also tended to have a theme for their collection—usually a fairly narrow one—and they tended to make plans for what they wanted to collect next. Only 55% of collectors said they collected items they could get for free; 95% purchased items for their collection. On the flip side, 70% of hoarders collected free items, and 87% bought items.
Hoarding interferes with a person’s social and home life
Collectors may socialize with others about their hobby, making friends with other collectors and discussing the things they collect. The study also found that collectors were more likely to be married and to have a healthy social life. On the other hand, hoarders are more likely to be socially withdrawn, and for their condition to affect them at work.
Hoarders also feel distress about their clutter, whereas collectors are more likely to report that their collection brings them joy. The lack of organization contributes to this: The room that a collection lives in tends to still be “functional” as a room, whereas hoarding tends to result in piles of things that make the home harder to use or move around in.
To meet the diagnostic criteria for hoarding, the person has to experience “significant distress” in their work, social, or home life due to hoarding. Clutter often builds up to the point where parts of their home aren’t functional anymore (being unable to get to the stove to cook something, for example), which adds to the stress.
Treatment for hoarding disorder usually involves talk therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. The underlying anxieties about getting rid of things or not “wasting” things can be hard to shake. If you or someone you know seems to have a problem with hoarding, seek out mental health help.
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