How I started to deal with my hoarding habit

I read this short article on hoarding a few hours after taking a big rucksack full of old stuff to the charity shop. The writer describes the anti-endowment effect: using techniques to avoid emotional attachment to items so we can judge them purely on the basis of what they’re worth economically. Then you will soon be “joyously throwing away things”.

My problem with this is that thinking about our relationship with stuff in purely economic terms is how you end up with levels of waste that the planet can’t handle. The economically rational choice often isn’t the rational choice in terms of reducing waste or getting the most out of the planet’s resources. It’s economically rational for the toaster manufacturer to make a product that will break soon and require you to buy another one. And it’s probably economically rational for you to do just that, because the cost of repairing that broken toaster is usually more than the cost of just buying a new one.

Thinking about things in purely economic terms is how you end up with a pile of broken toasters going into landfill and staying in landfill until long after you (and the toaster manufacturer, for that matter) are dead. When you realise that, you can’t “joyously” throw things away any more. Not least because there is no away.

I’ll admit to having a problem with hoarding and clutter, not least because I’m too environmentally conscious just to bin everything I don’t want any more. It’s not so much that I value stuff (although I do); it’s that I’m conscious of a sort of negative value, the sense that these things could do calculable damage if discarded wrongly.

Last year I decided to deal with a different pro-hoarding gremlin: the one that says: “That’s too nice to be used.” I dealt with it by asking myself: what unspecified event in the future will merit these things being used? Or is the best time actually now? I embarked on Mission Use Everything Up, designating every day a suitable day for using that hair gel, drinking that liqueur, wearing that nice jacket, actually soaking and cooking the dried pulses in the cupboard. Mission Use Everything Up genuinely makes me feel as if I’m living my life more fully, in some small but significant way. I’m going to continue with it. But it somehow didn’t really make a dent in the amount of amorphous clutter I owned.

A determined effort at facing the faceless clutter gave me an insight into the reason: most of my clutter is not made up of things I’ve made a choice to own. Most of it is actually composed of gifts from other people. Unearthed during one weekend’s clearout:

1. Sunblock I’ll never use. I’ve been allergic to almost every brand of sunscreen I’ve ever tried, including children’s brands. Finding the one brand I’m not allergic to has created a pile of part-used bottles of  other brands I tried along the way. I don’t want to get rid of the new one I’ve been given, because it was a well-meaning gift from someone who knows I need and use sunblock. But I don’t want to use it, because it’ll bring my face out in a rash. And if I open it just to try it, nobody else will want it because it won’t be sealed. But if I just give it to a charity shop, chances are it will end up in landfill anyway.

2. A bottle of weird non-alcoholic liqueur. I opened it to be polite to the people who gave it to me, so again, it can’t go to the charity shop. But it’s taken a couple of years and some concerted effort (including persuading teetotal friends to “try” it) to get through a cupful of it. If I keep going at this rate, it’ll be a few decades before it’s finished. But I don’t want to pour it down the sink, because that’s a terrible thing to do to a gift that might have some use after all. So I’ve tried to think of creative ways to make it drinkable.

3. Aftershave samples and other weird freebies. You know the kind of thing. Branded cotton tote bags. Biros that don’t quite work. All given to me by people who got them free themselves, didn’t want them and passed them on to me.

4. Photographs given to me by an ex. Mostly featuring pictures of the ex.

What these things have in common is that the person who gave it to me put a lot less thought into the gift than I’ve put into working out what to do with it. Shortly after my clearout I actually saw the people who gave me the non-alcoholic liqueur, and asked them where they got it. Turns out someone else gave it to them. They didn’t want it, because nobody in their right mind would want a weird-tasting liqueur that isn’t even alcoholic, so they passed it on to me.

The thing is, even writing this makes me feel uncomfortable because I sound so ungrateful. The whole post is just calling out for the #firstworldproblems hashtag. And there is still a huge social taboo about coming out and saying you don’t want the thing someone is trying to give you. That’s why there’s so much comedy about badly knitted Christmas jumpers and the like. But when giving something involves removing a responsibility from your own plate and putting it on somebody else’s, surely that’s taking and not giving? Why don’t we have a vocabulary to talk about this? Is it because owning too much is too new a concept? Is it because the links between giving, receiving, responsibility, love, money, ownership, worry and clutter are too complex or too touchy to talk about?

I remember thinking that a colleague was heartless because she refused to buy any toys for her baby son, on the grounds that she couldn’t stop others giving him toys but she could at least control her own behaviour. Now I understand her point completely.

This story sort of has a happy ending, because blogging about things that bug you in a low-level way is a great way of getting yourself to look directly at the problem. I realised the unmade decisions about things like sunblock won’t get made if I just keep those unused items in storage for ever. The only logical conclusion to that approach is that someone else will have to bin them for me when they’re clearing my house after I die. So: charity shop for those items, and if the shop volunteers have to bin them anyway… well, I’m sorry to push that decision onto you guys, but it’s less painful for you than it would be for me.

The liqueur, I discovered, is remarkably refreshing when you put some in a glass of fizzy water. Then add a shot of vodka.

As for the photos, I realised they were making me feel unhappy every time I looked at them. And it suddenly dawned on me: why am I giving space in my home to something which serves no purpose other than to make me feel unhappy? So I shredded them all. Fast. Then I threw the shreds away. It felt good.

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2 Comments on “How I started to deal with my hoarding habit”

  1. […] I don’t want it or even like it? If someone is trying really hard to declutter and they give me a bottle of non-alcoholic liqueur and a cotton tote bag branded with the logo of a festival I didn’t go to, shouldn’t I help them declutter by taking […]

  2. […] [M]ost of my clutter is not made up of things I’ve made a choice to own. Most of it is actually co…. […]

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