November has been huge. Restrictions eased. My son left the nest. And I downsized to an apartment at “Willsmere”, aka The Old Kew Asylum. I have wanted to join the Willsmere community for a long time. Built in the late 1880’s, it is a wonderful historic building set in beautifully landscaped grounds with magnificent views of Melbourne. On the downside the apartments are tiny.
I had two options:
- Use my professional organising skills and knowledge of clever storage solutions to shoehorn all my stuff into my new home (this was my mother’s preferred option) OR
- Let go of some of my stuff
My vision for my new place was for it to be comfortable and cosy but not cluttered. Many of my clients have similar visions for their homes. The problem comes when there is a disconnect between the vision and the hundreds of individual decisions that have to be made to make that vision a reality. That is ambivalence.
When I’m training service providers to work with people who hoard, I warn them that just because people are open to change, and they have a vision of a less cluttered home, the process won’t necessarily be easy. One of the key features of Hoarding Disorder is the inability to discard things that most people would find useless. No matter how strong the desire to change, that discomfort can be paralysing. It can stop progress in its tracks and frustrate even the most patient helpers.
As a society, we are used to avoiding uncomfortable feelings at all costs. Ironically, avoiding discomfort can lead us to a world of hurt. For that reason, I never promise clients that our work together will be easy. But I don’t throw them in the deep end either. If you were new to the gym, you wouldn’t expect to bench press 50kg. You would start small and build up your muscles. Similarly, I like to help my clients build their decision-making muscle and tolerance for discomfort.
You can do this by helping people learn to sit with discomfort in a safe environment. Imagine a client who is very distressed at the thought of letting go of a pile of old magazines. One way I like to help is by suggesting I put the magazines in my car with the promise of returning them at our next session. Initially, when the magazines go into the boot, most clients report their anxiety to be very high, but they know they are safe because they trust me to keep the magazines for them. I am careful to never breach that trust! Typically, each time I check in through the week, their anxiety has lessened. When I see them at our next session and ask if they want the magazines back, they are usually ready to let them go. They have been able to sit with the discomfort and learn that not only did it not kill them, but it passed.
As helping professionals, we often want to find solutions that allow our clients to avoid discomfort. Ultimately, we better serve people when we acknowledge their ambivalence and then support them as they make uncomfortable decisions.
In my own case, I chose to let go of some of my stuff. At times that was a little difficult but the burden of trying to manage too much stuff would have been more uncomfortable in the long run. I am fine and now I can enjoy my new, little home in the way I imagined.
Written by Wendy Hanes