Natasha Sharma On Hoarding

by John A. Wilcox

Full disclosure : I dealt with hoarding issues for decades. That's another story for another day. I was recently watching an episode of Hoarders and was struck by the therapist in that episode - Natasha Sharma, Psy.D. Sharma was compassionate & understanding & looking to help the hoarder move forward while treating them with respect and dignity. I was truly impressed. I reached out & proposed this interview. She graciously agreed...

PS: Why did working with hoarders become part of your career path?

NS: I worked as a therapist for 15 years and in that time I saw various iterations, if you will, of behavior that would fall under the category of anxiety and compulsive behavior like problematic behavior. What I learned is that the depth and range of how they look and present in real life in people is extremely wide-ranging. And hoarding - it's very rare on the levels that you see it presented in the show. But the tendencies that are behind it like the root underlying the shoot are very common in people and their experience amongst people on a much broader level. So it may not look like hoarding but it's the underlying psychology behind it that I really came to understand as a therapist and that really drew me to working on the show.

PS: Have you found any commonality in the roots of the hoarders?

NS: Yes. Grief and loss were 2 of the major things that the individuals have experienced. Grief and loss were fairly common features, and again sometimes grief and loss - or loss and grief is the order - would not necessarily be the exact picture of what we figure would be an underlying cause. A loved one or a person or it could be a relationship or a marriage or it could be various things. So that's one.

The other thing, I think, is really overwhelming experiences in childhood that created a sense of instability or lack of control where hoarding behaviors became a form of control. Exercising control. So unstable upbringing is another common feature.

The third one is biology. Personal genetic make-up and biological make-up. Or chemical make-up even. That plays a big role because we have tendencies and dispositions and temperaments that are based on those sort of encoded with susceptibility to those problematic behaviors. One thing that I've learned as someone in mental health is that almost anybody can experience problematic behavior in the right environment. So if the environment is stressful enough or distressing enough and the person's not managing the stress or it's not well managed they can resort to some pretty outside behaviors. And that can apply to anyone of us I really think.

PS: When they're filming the show, do you feel that the TV cameras affect the hoarders?

NS: It depends on the individual. I think in some ways yes. It depends on the person. I've worked with some who were very much impacted by that. They played to the camera. And you can tell. But then there are others - I'm thinking of the 1 person I worked with most recently - who don't experience that. They just are in the moment with themselves and the situation. It depends on the person. Some do, some don't. Some are impacted by it in that they're in the spotlight and they're relishing that. Maybe even playing up to that. Others really don't react to the cameras at all.

PS: Are there people that are unreachable and just don't want your help?

NS: Yeah. In some ways all of them. On a fundamental level they do want help. Theydo want to change. Most hoarding individuals recognize that those behaviors are not helpful. That they're hurting people. Hurting the relationships that they value the most. They recognize that. But it can be hard for them to actualize the change that's required. Because it's one thing to have insight and want something. It's another to actually put it into action because sometimes things are so difficult to put into action. It's painful. The process of de-cluttering and de-hoarding is extremely painful for these people and their anxiety for these things so sometimes they're not thinking that far ahead when they are in their awareness of wanting to change. So, yeah, it will come down to the individual person and how important it is. And it's usually relationships. When a relationship that they have is being affected or destroyed by problematic behavior, if the relationship is important enough that they want to save it and keep it. That will up their chances that they change and make actual changes to the behavior itself instead of just wanting it.

PS: A lot of hoarders on the show do it to please or appease their children. Do they then carry with them that the children's' love is predicated on satisfying what they want?

NS: I don't know.

PS: Is that a fair observation?

NS: Yeah. But I think that's OK. I think that all of our relationships with people that we value are predicated on our behavior with them. We can't nurture and build relationships with bad behavior. With problematic behavior. It's a reminder that even children don't have unconditional love. There are conditions to that love. Modifying behavior and how we behave is the very foundation of those relationships. So I think it's a fair statement.

PS: When I hoarded I never thought I had too much stuff.

NS: Behavior can become out of control if we have that sort of compulsivity behind us, by nature some people are born - actually it's interesting. I see people - almost everybody I know. Not so much children, but almost every adult I know and even kids actually - now I'm thinking of my own kids - have compulsivity, right? But it's how we demonstrate it is really different. For 1 person it can look like chewing your nails. On another person it looks like drinking or overeating. Binge eating. For another person it's hoarding. It's interesting. But I do think there's a level of that present in a lot of people. It's really common, that underlying anxiety.

PS: How common is a clear path forward, or are there relapses?

NS: I think the clearest path forward is the one paved with reasonable obstacles. There's an expectation that you don't have a straight line. I don't think anything in life that's improving - anything that's genuinely improving in life really, if you're really doing improvement right, I just don't think it's a clear straight line. It's not linear. There's always going to be setbacks. There's always going to be relapse. There's going to be detours. We don't have control over that. We can chart the course and stick our oars in the water and try and turn the direction but ultimately it's part of that process.

PS: The TV show gives a hoarder 4 days to clean out their space. Is that par for the course or just a TV construct?

NS: Yeah. I think it is. Very much. The show is really geared more toward very intense. It's actually very good. The opportunity that they get as participants is incredible. That all day long 12 hour highly focused intensive intervention to help them really get started is really quite amazing for them in terms of opportunity. But it could never end there and that's why there's always a process of after-care. You'd have to go into behavioral therapy and psychotherapy to maintain that long after 4 days.

PS: What have you learned about yourself from the hoarders you've helped counsel that you can apply to your life?

NS: That's a really good question. I have learned that real change is very hard to make. It's much easier to stay in the patterns that we know. And sometimes we're not even consciously staying. Sometimes we're just not even aware. Hoarding is something that it's hard not to be aware of it. It's staring you right in the face. So if you're not aware of it, someone in your life is going to make you aware of it.

With other people they may be struggling with issues. Defense mechanisms; psychological problems that they're not aware of. It's not always easy to know what's driving us. What's creating problems in our lives. What are we doing to just help? It's never in a vacuum. There are always people around us. Sometimes we engage with people who are equally dysfunctional. Then it becomes even harder because we think it's their fault and we fail to look at us because we focus on their dysfunction. And then it's so much harder to just look at ourselves. When 2 dysfunctional or multiple dysfunctionals are interacting it can make it that much harder to look at yourself because you're focused on the other person.

What I've learned is that it's very hard to create huge changes to majorly problem behaviors. Very hard for everybody. Not just these individuals. It's every single one of us. We all carry our own set around. Every one of us. From upbringing. From life experiences. From whatever. And it takes a lot of courage to see yourself. To really see - "Oh, this is what I am. I'm still a good person. I have lots of areas that I'm very strong in. I'm great over here, but part of me is causing real damage to my happiness through whatever." Usually through relationships. And it takes a great deal of courage to be able to see that. And honestly, most of us won't see it until the shit hits the fan in our life. Until we behave in a way that surprises us. Or we lose a relationship. Or a relationship is sitting on the edge. Or some major catastrophe has happened. These can often be wake-up calls, sadly. Our your relationships are just about to disintegrate. Last call. Even in those moments not everybody will step into the moment of really reflecting on themselves and focusing on what they can control. Which is how they are showing up in life. Most people will ignore or look to everyone else and blame them.

So what I've learned myself is that very few people can do that. But when they do they're the ones who are poised for growth and change. But they also have to experience a lot of pain to do it. Not everyone is willing to move through that pain. Because growth and change is pain. Either temporarily or long-term changes.

PS: Do you think that many hoarders feel "No one else is going through what I'm going through"?

NS: Yes, I think so. I think when people are faced with really difficult aspects about who they are and how they're behaving and it's really profound and it's really outside. And they may have done something or created something or brought their house to a point where they feel so embarrassed or ashamed or regretful or remorse or guilty. I think it's natural to feel like in that guilt or shame or whatever the feelings that no one has ever experienced that. Like whatever it is that you went through to get to that point is nothing like anyone else. And the reality is that most of us in this world have gone through - of a certain generation and older - have gone through some very difficult experiences growing up. With parents and with upbringing. That is the reality. But in the moment it can feel like it is just in that moment of shame. It's really important for individuals and hoarding individuals as well in particular to be very kind to themselves. To not beat up on themselves. To not be deprecating to themselves. To not hurt themselves further through that.


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