Are Hoarders Actually Narcissists?
What Is Hoarding?
Television programming is awash with reality TV shows, and none have been more popular than shows about the disorder known as hoarding. Hoarding is defined as a compulsive need to keep things, even if the things they want to keep are broken, unusable, or unsanitary. Hoarders feel compelled to keep these things for a number of reasons, and when faced with the loss of hoarded objects, many hoarders feel intense anxiety and distress. They may explode with anger or even grief at the loss of control they feel when they are losing their precious objects.
Why do hoarders keep things? Hoarding disorder affects emotions, thoughts, and behavior. They may keep things because:
- They believe these items will be needed or have value in the future.
- The items have important emotional significance — serving as a reminder of happier times or representing beloved people or pets.
- They feel safer when surrounded by the things they save.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Persistent inability to part with any possession, regardless of its value
- Excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow them or distress at the idea of letting an item go
- Cluttered living spaces, making areas of the home unusable for the intended purpose, such as not being able to cook in the kitchen or use the bathroom to bathe
- Keeping stacks of newspapers, magazines or junk mail
- Letting food or trash build up to unusually excessive, unsanitary levels
- Acquiring unneeded or seemingly useless items, such as trash or napkins from a restaurant
- Difficulty managing daily activities because of procrastination and trouble making decisions
- Moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything
- Difficulty organizing items, sometimes losing important items in the clutter
- Shame or embarrassment
- Limited or no social interactions
According to the new DSM guidelines, DSM-5, hoarding will be listed as a distinct disorder rather than under the umbrella of obsessive-compulsive disorder because many severe cases of hoarding are not accompanied by any other obsessive or compulsive behaviors.
Hoarding ranges from more mild disorganization to severe compulsive hoarding—to the point that people can no longer function or live in their homes. These homes may be extremely unsanitary, even filthy, and may be filled with rotten food, feces, molded items, or things that are broken.
There seem to be at least two different types of hoarders.
- Those who use item acquisition to cope with anxiety. Some have a shopping compulsion; the act of acquiring things makes them feel better. Compulsive shopping is a very damaging disorder. When combined with hoarding, individuals coping with stress this way can go through savings and fill a home very quickly. Alternately, hoarders of this type may find items in the garbage that they feel are still usable or valuable. While this may be easier on the checkbook, it is no less damaging to the living space or the family.
- Older and elderly people (mostly) who have just given up on life. This is perhaps the saddest type. Their homes and living spaces are mostly filled with garbage and trash. There may be items in the hoard that have sentimental value, but because of their inability or unwillingness to clean up, these items have been ruined. This type of hoarder generally doesn't display any true anxiety or rage when their things are removed. They are often very passive and don't seem to really care about anything at all, including themselves. This type of hoarder seems to be suffering more from depression and hopelessness than any true hoarding disorder. They don't seem to think they deserve better living conditions, or that it matters.
What Is Narcissism?
Pathological narcissism is defined by the DSM-IV as:
A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
- has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
- is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
- believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
- requires excessive admiration
- has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
- is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
- lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
- is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
- shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
The DSM-V listing of criteria for narcissistic personality disorder expands on these criteria quite a bit as the older criteria—though accurate—were criticised for failing to describe the range and complexity of the disorder.
Sterile criteria from a diagnostic manual cannot describe what living with a pathological narcissist is like, however. Narcissists are unable and unwilling to care about the needs of other people. They believe their own needs are the only ones that matter, regardless of whether they are hurting or upsetting other people. It's all about them—literally. This is why trying to appeal to a narcissist by telling them how much they are hurting other people is ineffective: they don't care. They are incapable of caring. They will simply continue to insist that if they cannot have what they want, they are being mistreated. It doesn't matter how unfairly they are behaving toward others. All that matters to them is what they want.
Do you think hoarders could also be narcissists?
How Are Hoarders and Narcissists Similar?
If the criteria for pathological narcissism is examined, many parallels between pathological narcissism and hoarding behavior emerge.
- Lack of empathy. Paramount among them is the fact that hoarders seem unable to recognize or understand the feelings of the other people in their family. They simply just don't think it matters as much as how they feel. Even when facing the loss of their home, pets, marriage, or even their children, hoarders are unwilling to recognize that their behavior is destructive and hurtful to others—or to themselves. They blatantly refuse to "go without" (narcissistic entitlement) and perceive any insinuation that they should do so as a personal attack and a threat of losing control. The actual removal of the hoarded objects often provokes hoarders into full-blown rage. This angry reaction presents itself very much like classic narcissistic rage and stands in stark contrast to how they usually react to the loss of their families, homes, or children.
- Control is key with hoarding—and narcissism. Hoarders are attempting to exercise control over their environment and the people in it. Many are also attempting to express anger by making the living conditions in their home unbearable. Many, many hoarders talk about the hoard as a passive-aggressive attempt to hurt or get back at other people in the family. Hoarders are generally attempting to stave off anxiety by surrounding themselves with mountains of things they own - and therefore control. It makes them feel better. This is the same behavior we see with pathological narcissists, except they are attempting to manipulate and control other people. Perhaps then, hoarders are narcissists who feel unable to manipulate or control people, so they control objects and their environment. It is often the case that hoarding will begin or worsen after a loss of some kind. This could indicate that the loss of control over a person or situation caused the hoarder to resort to controlling inanimate objects. As is usually the case with pathological narcissists, it is often revealed that hoarders had a support system at one time but their overwhelming selfishness eventually pushed everyone away.
- Attachment of excessive importance to objects. The objects they own are theirs; they are an extension of the narcissist—and the hoarder reacts much the same way. To narcissists, the objects they own are just as important and just as deserving of special treatment as themselves. The objects themselves don't matter and are often treated very badly; they are allowed to rust, become dirty, or fall into disrepair. This is the same behavior seen with hoarders. The objects only matter as far as how they make the hoarder feel. This is parallel to the way narcissists treat people, and upon examination of the hoarder's life, it is often found that hoarders treat their families the same way.
- The sense of entitlement that hoarders always display is classic narcissism, and so is playing the role of the victim. Narcissists are unable to be grateful because to a narcissist, they are either owed whatever they are given (entitlement), or they are being hurt by it somehow (victimization). This is the same behavior we see with hoarders. Hoarders often do not say thank you to the people who attempt to help them, and many times, they do not help with any cleanup or organization. This is indicative of narcissistic entitlement behavior.
- Poor impulse control, poor decision-making skills, and emotional dysregulation. Everything is geared toward making themselves feel better, regardless of how it makes others feel. The needs and feelings of other people are totally ignored or minimized in the pursuit of filling the void they have inside of them.
- People who hoard animals are a very good example of the narcissistic aspects of compulsive hoarding. Animals are the perfect companions for narcissistic hoarders because animals make no emotional demands. They are not like people who will become angry or even leave if their needs are ignored or if they are treated unfairly. Animal hoarders claim that they are "helping" the animals they collect, but no real effort is made to see to the animals' well-being at all. The animals exist in the home solely to make the hoarder feel better; they fulfill the hoarder's needs while their own needs are totally ignored. This is made obvious by the fact that animal hoarders are usually completely blind to how badly their animals are suffering. They never even notice. It's more important to an animal hoarder to believe they are helping the animals than it is to actually help them. In order to actually help the animals they've collected, the hoarder would have to relinquish control over the animals, and they cannot do that; they would rather the animals continue to suffer than go to another home. The hoarder is putting their own emotional needs above the animal's health and physical well-being. The hoarder often treats their family the same way. This is not love, regardless of what the hoarder thinks. It's selfish and it's abuse. In a word, it's narcissism.
Are Hoarders Narcissists?
Upon careful examination of both disorders, we see that there are, indeed, many similarities and overlapping qualities between hoarding and pathological narcissism. There are some key differences as well, and not all hoarders are the same. However, the argument can be made that in many instances, compulsive hoarding is an attempt to alleviate the specific anxiety that is experienced by a person who places on the narcissistic spectrum.
This conclusion makes sense because borderline personality disorder (BPD) falls on the narcissistic spectrum, and there are some elements of BPD evident in hoarding as well; some hoarders may feel they have been abandoned and choose to surround themselves with objects because they know objects can never leave them.
Compulsive hoarding, pathological narcissism, and borderline personality disorder are all debilitating disorders. If someone you know is suffering from any of these disorders, please seek professional help.