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A More Hopeful Outcome For A Family Member’s Hoarding

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

“Look at this mess! Mom, how can you live this way?” The daughter was clearly upset, but her comments only upset her mom. “Be nice. You don’t have the right to talk to me that way. How I live is my business.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar interchange. The daughter was concerned about her mom’s safety and health, and she had hoped that expressing her concern would inspire her mom to take some positive action to diminish the clutter. But the manner in which the daughter expressed her concern resulted in the antithesis of what she wanted: her mom dug her heels in further in order to safeguard her autonomy. Sadly, both persons walked away feeling awful and with their relationship hurt.

Both the mom and the daughter started out with good intentions. But when confronting an emotional situation, the thinking part of the brain can shut down and leave us with just reacting emotionally with little regard with how our words with land with the other person. When we react emotionally we do not make wise choices. Step one is to calm down that reactive brain: take a deep breath. Seriously, focus on breathing in through your nose and down to your toes. Then focus on letting that breath out slowly and very thoroughly through your mouth. Exhaling like this will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will help you relax and regain control.

Once you are calmer, let go of anger and blame, they will not help you. Let go of any expectations for how the discussion will go so you can truly have an open conversation. Tompkins and Hartl* provide a model for how to discuss a loved one’s cluttered situation in a more positive and open manner. It is an approach that shifts the focus away from the stuff and puts it on the relationship. The model can be summarized by the acronym LEAP: Listen, Empathize, Agree, and Partner.

Listening involves not just hearing the other person’s words, but actively trying to understand what is behind those words. Ask questions to help you understand further (clarifying), paraphrase what you think you heard, and give non-judgmental and honest feedback regarding your own thoughts and feelings in a caring and supportive way.

Empathizing means understanding how someone feels from within their frame of reference. Ask open-ended questions that invite conversation. As long as there is conversation, there is the possibility for understanding. Summarize what you think you’ve heard and offer a guess into how your loved one is feeling based on what you are hearing. Offer thanks and praise for talking with you. Positive feedback is supportive and encouraging.  

Accept how your family member sees things. Arguing, debating, and “shoulding” (as in “you should do…”) will lead to conflict and further hurt. Acceptance does not mean condoning. Acceptance is the honest acknowledgement of the situation. You may – and probably will – disagree on some things and that’s OK. Find areas that you agree on. Common ground is where skillful negotiators start when looking for a way to reach a common goal.

Ask to partner with your family member to achieve the goal. Partnering, as opposed to directing, honors the autonomy of the family member and is an act of respect. Both you and your family member will need to reach an agreement in how you will work together and what to do when there are disagreements.

Listen, Empathize, Agree, and Partner are valuable tools for helping a family member who has a lot of clutter. However, LEAP is not a magic wand. It will take time to reach an understanding and to reach a goal. There will be missteps. Persevere with care so your family member can live safely and you can have that peace of mind.

*Michael A. Tompkins, Ph.D and Tamara L. Hartl, Ph.D are the authors of the book Digging Out, Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding and Compulsive Acquiring (2009)