In A Nutshell
Between 700,000 and 1.4 million people in the United States alone have issues with hoarding, and the difference between hoarding and collecting is largely how a person feels about their surroundings. Generally speaking, collectors are proud of their items and display them, while most obsessive-compulsive hoarders keep their possessions because they can’t bear to throw them away, even though they may be ashamed. They may feel anxious whenever anyone asks them about getting rid of things and, unlike collectors, there’s often an element of disorganization to their stash.
The Whole Bushel
According to the International OCD Foundation, about 1 in every 50 people has a serious problem with hoarding. One of the most common explanations a hoarder might have for their overwhelming amount of stuff is that they’re just a collector. That can be difficult to argue with, but there are some very clear differences between the two sets of behaviors.
Both involve buying stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. Hoarders can focus on a handful of particular items and collectors can amass collections of different things . . . so what’s the difference?
Much of it boils down to what’s going on inside a person. Most collectors are those who are proud of their collections, who collect certain things because of the love of the item, or theme, or object. They’re also proud to share their collection with others—they like talking about it, they like sharing stories, and they like showing it to others.
There is also usually a sense of organization to the collector. Things are of value, they’re neatly displayed or organized, and if there’s overflow, the items are boxed and stored carefully. There’s a sense that even though there’s a lot of something—too much, some people might say—it’s all cared for.
You might think someone’s crazy for having 500 different types of pickle jars, but if they’re proud of it, they’re a collector.
Hoarders, on the other hand, may often be ashamed of the state of their house and the items that they’ve amassed. Most hoarders go to great lengths to keep people out of their houses and away from their things; many know that they’re getting carried away, but they can’t help it. They may be embarrassed rather than proud, but they still don’t know how to stop.
There’s usually no organization to a hoarder’s home, no sense that everything has its place. There’s often a wider variety of things that get collected in the hoarder home, and many hoarders gravitate toward free things or stocking up on bargain items that they can’t possibly use.
A collector will find other collectors to share and swap items with, while a hoarder may suffer in isolation.
There’s also a difference in the reason a person accumulates things. Collectors get things because they take pleasure in having them, while hoarders may keep things because they’re afraid of not having them. While a collector might loathe to part with a few prized possessions, it’s because he’ll miss them, not because he thinks something horrible might happen because he gets rid of them.
Hoarding is an obsessive compulsive disorder, and it’s not something that a person comes by voluntarily. Collectors collect because they want to; hoarders hoard because they have no choice.
Hoarding also often has an element of danger involved as well. The behavior is associated with fire hazards in the home, health problems, sanitation problems, and, in the cases where a hoard spills outside the home, there can be issues with town and city regulatory agencies. And when animals are involved, that can escalate the situation to a whole other level.
Perhaps most importantly, collectors and hoarders don’t respond the same to interference from concerned loved ones. Hoarders often need intervention to help keep things from getting completely out of control, and require respect, understanding, help, and usually therapy to get over their hoarding tendencies.
Show Me The Proof
International OCD Foundation: Hoarding Fact Sheet (pdf)
ADAA: What is hoarding?
Psych Central: 10 Things You Should Know About Compulsive Hoarding