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Psych Your Mind: A few too many of my favourite things

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | January 14th, 2013

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
I recently took up a part-time role as the administrator for a business wherein I was replacing an elderly lady who had committed herself to said organization for 30-plus years. Now this is no insult to her or her abilities, but what I inherited in terms of office files, supplies and documents can only be described as frighteningly overwhelming. It's as though she NEVER — and I mean NEVER — threw out anything in the whole time period she worked there.

I understand it's one thing to hold onto important membership, financial or construction- related files as you never know when you may need to reference them again in the future — that part I understand. What I CANNOT come to terms with is why she felt it necessary to hold onto the scrap pieces of waste paper from which you peel off mailing labels, knitting patterns from the 1960s, instruction manuals for DOS discs and typewriters, out-ofdate volunteer schedules and mail-order catalogs, burnt-out light bulbs, used plastic food trays, and at least two decade-old sugar and other condiment packets that would no doubt cause serious illness upon ingestion… that is, unless she had an issue when it comes to letting things go.

With shows such as Buried Alive, the above described compulsive behaviour known as "hoarding" has seen a great deal of exposure in recent years. With any "TV land" depiction, however, the complexity of this psychological condition is typically only characterized in superficial terms leading the general public to believe that, in behaviour therapist Jason Elias' point of view, "these people are just slobs or lazy." In reality, this perception couldn't be further from the truth.

From an evolutionary stance, the impulse to amass goods can be traced to both our survivalist instincts and, believe it or not, our mating practices. As biologist Tom Waite explains, in the animal kingdom, many species will "hoard" an excessive amount of food in preparation for "survival" over the winter months or long journeys. In reference to the second point, male animals, in particular, also commonly "collect" and display their various accomplishments in order to attract desirable female mates. In summary, the amassment of food, carcasses and the like — in other words, "hoarding" — is effective in attracting mates because it demonstrates that the given animal is strong and smart, but more importantly, a good candidate for "providing" and/or "leading." Wouldn't you know it? Humans desire the same traits in their romantic partners!

Let's return to my administrative predecessor for a moment. One thing I'd specifically like to draw your attention to is her age. Now, obsessive-compulsive behaviours can affect any and all demographics, but something to keep in mind when it comes to older folks seemingly affected by this disorder is that many of them likely lived through extremely trying economic times, such as the Great Depression. Why is this important? Well, quite simply, if you experienced having NOTHING, EVERYTHING becomes essential and worth holding onto, especially if you develop a paranoia that circumstances could revert back to how they were.

The next point worth mentioning is that throughout my training with this woman, there was not a single moment where she made small-talk references to a husband, family or children. When someone occupies a space for that long a period of time, they typically have personal mementos on display; interestingly, there were NONE. While she may have just been a very private person, another convincing theory is that this career — her work — was literally all she had and the only way she was able to "define"/"express" her identity. Consequently, she took great pride in what she did and EVERYTHING, including the everyday minutia, became significant and was worth keeping.

Psychologists have noted that hoarding tends to coexist with a "profound inability to make decisions," according to Discover Magazine, and may even be linked to other afflictions such as depression, which is recognized as having debilitating effects on an individual's motivation. Why my predecessor couldn't throw anything out I'll never know for certain, but scientists agree that this behaviour in humans is "a natural and adaptive instinct gone amok," to put it lightly.

As Christmas has just passed and, no doubt, in line with the season's modern day practice, all of you were showered with more and more "stuff" as per the requests on your wish lists, I think it's important that you ask yourselves the following questions:

1. Why did I want these items?
2. What do these items mean to me?
3. How do these items define me?
4. Could I live without these items?

While I'm not making the insinuation that any of you suffer from the above discussed psychological dilemma, I believe it's important to understand and assess your desire for material things. While we're all allowed to splurge once in a while, the psychologically mature/psychologically balanced can effectively distinguish between their needs and wants as well as the significant and insignificant. In other words, just as the saying goes when it comes to true friends, you should be able count the most important items in your life on one hand.
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