Hoarding: Taking the First Step - Organizing

Marie finds the contradiction fascinating, but also extremely frustrating.  On one hand, her mother could sit and read an entire academic journal article on the most inane topic without losing focus (or falling asleep!), and yet when it comes to sorting her academic journals, she can’t remain on task for five minutes.


Every time Marie attempts to help her, Gladys starts out strong, but her enthusiasm wanes in no time.  After just the second or third item, she is no longer deciding how to sort anything. She just picks up one book, then sets it down and picks up another, and sets it down too.  She’s just churning through the pile without actually sorting or accomplishing anything.  Then she declares she’s too tired and needs a break.


Marie is frustrated because she set aside an entire afternoon of time to help her mother sort and organize. She knows if she just persevered and remained on task for a few hours, she could accomplish so much!  Besides, how hard can it be to sort items into different piles?


books organized in a row

For Gladys, it can be exceedingly difficult.

Reading her academic journals for hours is easy—it reaffirms her identity, it doesn’t ask anything of her, she doesn’t need to make decisions, there are no negative emotions involved such as fear, guilt, shame, or regret. She just gets to focus on a topic of her choice and read.


Organizing, on the other hand, requires a lot of energy from Gladys. The process can trigger a lot of emotions.  With each magazine or newspaper, she might be processing guilt that she hasn’t yet finished that particular article; or shame that she didn’t read a magazine that arrived on your birthday; or a sense of identity insecurity that she skipped reading the academic journal; or disappointment that her beloved books are in such disarray. It takes a lot of emotional energy to process such strong and varied emotions.


Each and every item Gladys touches requires her to make a decision. How should she categorize this particular publication? And where should she put it?  She might view each and every issue as being distinct from other publications. She may benefit from Marie’s help in noting the similarities between publications to make them easier to categorize. For example, Marie might suggest that all academic journals of the same series be stacked up together. 


To Marie, that might seem self-evident. But to Gladys, it might not be so obvious. Part of the reason she may be overwhelmed at the prospect of sorting is that she is seeing all the differences between items rather than the similarities. So she might be noticing that a given publication contained an article written by a particular author. She may then search for a different publication altogether that also contains an article by that author. Because she is so focused on the details, she may be inclined to miss the broader categorization. With Marie’s help and guidance, she may feel more equipped to effectively sort her publications in a meaningful way.


Before Marie and Gladys get started, they should try to agree to some definitions.  If they can collectively agree on how they will sort particular items (ie: magazine series grouped by titles, etc), it reduces the decision-making load on Gladys. If it’s a really good day, they may even agree that certain items can be recycled—perhaps newspapers from 2019 and earlier. Instead of viewing each and every publication as a novel item that needs to be considered as an individual entity, Gladys will already know the game plan on what to do with particular items. Reducing the decision-making burden can ease her emotional distress and exhaustion.

Do not expect the process to be easy! 

Even if Gladys agreed that she does not need to keep any newspapers from 2019 or earlier, she may second-guess that decision.  She may come across a particular newspaper and start to feel that it should be kept. Marie’s role is to gently remind her mother of the parameters that she set out and encourage her that she can do it. It will be more emotional for Gladys than it will be for Marie. Gladys may experience a sense of loss at letting go of a particular issue; she may fear regret that she has let a publication go that she may want to reference again one day.


By gently reminding her of the organization categories and providing positive feedback on her decisiveness and progress, Marie can help her to continue following the process.


These gentle reminders will be necessary not only when Gladys and Marie are actively sorting, but also when Marie visits next and discovers newly developing stacks of publications.  In our next blog post, we’ll recommend how to pose questions that are less confrontational and more collaborative.

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