Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive are two of the most perversely entertaining shows on television. Both feature efforts to help people who’ve crammed their homes with so much trash, animals, or gaudy treasures that it’s almost impossible to move. Most of the time, they have trouble using the bathroom and have to cook in tiny, dangerous spaces. They often end up sleeping on garbage. Some of these people even end up crapping in buckets and sharing their crumbling houses with lizards and rats because there is just so much junk in the way that they don’t feel like they have any other choice.
It’s easy to feel superior to someone so damaged that he’d live in a cluttered pile of filth that most of us wouldn’t let our dogs wander into, but there are actually some deep insights into human behavior that you can pick up from watching the shows, even if your house doesn’t look like it was picked up by a tornado and dropped into the city dump.
1) We can become accustomed to even the worst of problems instead of fixing them.
Many of the hoarders you see on those shows have gotten used to living in homes where they hear rats rustling around at night or where it smells so bad that first-time visitors struggle not to vomit. That’s possible not just because we humans are very adaptable creatures with a talent for lying to ourselves, but because we take many of our cues about what’s acceptable from the people around us. Since hoarders are ashamed of the mess they live in, they tend to isolate themselves from other people who might note that they shouldn’t eat food with mold on it or just start peeing in a jug every day instead of getting the toilet fixed. Give it a few years for things to deteriorate and next thing you know, it makes sense to a hoarder that they slept on a four year old bag of doughnuts last night.
Human beings, by their very nature, are all vulnerable to this same process. So, it’s worth asking yourself, “Have I let my standards slide and told myself there’s no other choice? Is there anything I’m doing that I’m so ashamed of that I have to hide it from people? Have I accepted something in my life as ‘just the way it is’ when I should be doing the hard work it takes to make my life better?”
Tony Robbins has noted, “The only way for us to have long-term happiness is to live by our highest ideals.“Whether it’s hoarding or some other problem, ultimately our happiness will depend on tackling it rather than learning to live with a self-imposed limitation.
2) So many of our troubles are caused by our own lack of persistency and consistency.
If we set aside the mental illness that hoarders have, what makes their situation so difficult to deal with? After all, cleaning isn’t tough. Literally BILLIONS of people across the planet will successfully do some sort of small cleaning task in their home today. So, why is it hard for hoarders? Because we’re talking about people who haven’t cleaned for years, if not decades. Eventually, a simple task that could be done in a few minutes each day turns into an arduous task that will take hundreds or even thousands of man hours to complete.
Much of life is like that. In fact, as the old saying goes, “It’s likely that whatever challenges you have faced in your life currently could have been avoided by some better decisions upstream.” Time and time again, we create problems for ourselves either by doing dumb things that we know are dumb or by refusing to do the right thing when we know better. We do this again and again and create oceans that we have to swim out of that once were puddles we could have stepped over. What “hoard” are you creating in your life today with your inaction and what are you going to do to “clean it up” before it gets out of control?
3) It’s all about a human connection.
The very first thing that’s done to help a hoarder on both shows is to get his friends and family involved. Not only does revealing how bad things have gotten help the hoarder realize how far off the rails he’s gone, rebuilding a connection with people who care about him provides an alternative to his hoard. Instead of trying and failing to fill their empty lives with things, hoarders get what they’re really looking for: love, friendship, and a human connection.
C.S. Lewis is one of the most quotable human beings ever to walk the earth and perhaps the wisest thing he ever said was, “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives.” You may not start a garbage pile in your living room or let 50 cats have the run of your house because you don’t have anyone in your life, but one way or the other, not being able to bathe in the milk of human kindness will leave a mark on you. Whatever else you do in life, don’t give up on reaching out to other people and trying to make connections. Your life may not literally depend on it, but the quality of your life certainly does.
4) You’ve got to accept that people are gone.
After a bit of probing from the therapists on Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive, the hoarders often reveal that their behavior either started or dramatically ramped up after some kind of loss. The kids moved out of the house, a marriage disintegrated, or someone died. The saddest one may have been a woman named Ruth who lost two sons and a husband. Her spouse’s death traumatized her so much that she left his pants on the dresser where he had thrown them for TWELVE YEARS as her house filled up with junk.
When you lose someone you love, either because he dies or just doesn’t want to be around you anymore, it can turn into a wound that you carry around with you. Over time, most of those wounds are transformed through the grieving process into scars, although some of them never heal completely. The problem can be that some people errantly think that they demonstrate their love through suffering over the loss. So, they keep picking at their wound and it never closes. Revisiting that loss again and again, staying trapped in it like a fly caught in amber, serves no one. Not only does it make you unhappy, but it also fails to honor the memory of the person you lost. Even if it did, no one who really loved you would want you to spend years and years suffering on his behalf while your life falls to pieces.
5) “Things” aren’t going to make you happy.
Not every hoarder collects trash and lives in filth. Some of them have spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on shopping-channel goodies, antiques, and collectibles. These aren’t just people who have their favorite things; these are people who have their favorite things coming out of their ears. They’ve got their favorite things in every room, on every wall, in every nook and corner of the house. They have so many of their favorite things in their house that they can’t walk from one part of the house to the other without stepping on one of their favorite things. Yet they’re usually deeply unhappy, isolated people who are failing at life.
In our consumption-oriented, easy-credit, buy-it-today, pay-for-it-next-year, shopping-channel, and Amazon-oriented society, there’s a lesson there. Once you get beyond the basics and have clothes on your back, food in your belly, and a roof over your head, things aren’t going to make you happy. Sure, they may be fun for a little while, just as a child is excited to get a new toy. But eventually, the “favorite toy” goes into the toy box and it is forgotten. It’s no different for adults. The new car gets old, the cool gadget gets boring, and after a few weeks, you stop noticing the incredible view that made your house so much more expensive. The point isn’t that your possessions are meaningless or that you shouldn’t want to have nice things; it’s that no one should confuse the little thrill you get from buying something new with long-term happiness because it’s not even remotely the same thing.