Social connection is essential to humans. But what happens if you neglect it?
In the next series of blogs we will focus on my SHIFT approach to organizing. SHIFT is an acronym for the method I’ve created to organize your environment as well as organize your life. SHIFT stands for [S]ocial [H]ealth [I] am important [F]inancial [T]ime Management---all the areas that are most effected by chronic disorganization. This month we are exploring the importance of Social Connection, this first letter of the acronym, SHIFT.
[S]ocial connection: the feeling of belonging to a group and feeling close to other people (1).
As humans, feeling connected to others is as essential as water and food. From the moment we are born, we are met with the tender touch of a hand, words from our family, and warm hugs. We want to belong, share our stories, and live life with others. We need social connections to not only thrive but to survive. After all, humans are social creatures. The consequences of not feeling connected are worse than you may think.
How Loneliness Affects Our Mental & Physical Health
Of course, we feel sad and isolated from others. These feelings can show up in forms of mental and physical health issues, which include (2):
Thoughts of suicide
Increase in alcohol or drug use
Now with the COVID pandemic, people are feeling lonelier than ever. An increase in all of those effects is seen during this time. (5). Before COVID, the 35 million Americans (6) who live alone could go out and interact with others freely. Due to COVID restrictions, many are forced to isolate at home to protect their physical health. However, their mental health has taken a toll due to the lack of companionship and physical contact with others (7).
How Are People Coping With Loneliness?
Loneliness is a feeling that no one wants to feel. As social animals, we try to alleviate this discomfort and emptiness as much as possible. Some people consume alcohol or do drugs. Some deal with loneliness by buying things.
Shopping or “collecting” provides a quick moment of fulfillment and happiness. But the feeling doesn’t last long, so you continue to buy more things. With the availability of online shopping, this process is easier than ever. But letting go feels wrong, so you keep buying, keeping, and eventually hoarding.
As a professional organizer specializing in hoarding and chronic disorganization, I have worked with clients who have felt alone and devalued. Here are two of their stories:
“He tried to substitute human connection.”
One of my clients, who has a hoarding disorder, told me that he had low self-esteem when he was young. He wasn’t into sports like his father wanted, and he didn’t really fit in. He liked to knit, not play football. To feel liked by his peers, he bought things to become more noticed and maybe even popular.
Well, it worked—he felt worthy and accepted by his peers. The things he bought filled a hole in his heart---a feeling of belonging that wasn’t met by his family. As he got older and earned more money, he fed his growing loneliness with more stuff.
For him, loneliness plays a significant role in intensifying his hoarding behavior. Buying more stuff has become his “drug” of choice—an ”addiction” of sorts that he is aware of, but the nasty side of this disorder has taken control of his actions. Understandably, when he feels devalued or unloved, buying more stuff served as a substitute for human connection. But the illusion of acquiring more stuff is a poor substitute for real human connection. Thus, the vicious cycle sees no end.
“She started collecting more things for comfort.”
My other client, “Martha”, who has a hoarding disorder, revealed that she had difficulty connecting and fitting in with others while growing up and attending college. She felt alone and out of place even when she joined a sorority.
In her early twenties, she started her own family and had a daughter. However, her husband cheated on her, and they divorced. While she was single, she hoped to meet another man to marry again. But most men didn’t seem interested in her. More often than not, they wouldn’t call her back. She’d tell me that they never really understood her. She gave up and adopted dogs for companionship and started keeping more things for comfort.
She isolated herself more and more, and her home became a “coffin” - dark, dingy, and unsanitary. She didn’t want to reach her daughter and ask her for help. She would say,” She’s so busy.” But what I heard was, “I’m not worth it.”
What People Assume About Hoarders
Many assumptions are going around about hoarders and why people hoard. Many assume people who hoard are social hermits and don’t want to talk to anyone. Some believe that hoarders are unwilling to change.
In Martha’s case, it wasn’t that she didn’t want help. She didn’t believe she was worthy of it. It's hard to think you are worth it when you have never felt like you mattered or belonged to anything.
In the other client’s case, he bought things to impress others and feel validated. He talked to people and had a career, but he didn’t allow himself to fill the emptiness with human connections.
Is There Hope for Hoarders?
According to the International Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Foundation states, “Loneliness is one of the main factors that causes hoarding to occur” (8). Both clients continuously bought and kept things to ease their unmet needs to feel connected - even if it's for a fleeting moment. They wanted to connect, but they didn’t have an opportunity to.
The first step to helping people who hoard is to establish a meaningful connection with them.
I witnessed this first hand with my clients who hoard, especially in my two and a half years working side-by-side with Martha. Each day I had a session with Martha, she would say she felt achy, didn’t sleep well the night before, and did not want to organize.
Her body language said it all—shoulders rolled forward, head hanging down, and a low tone of voice. Admittedly, Martha was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, so she does suffer from chronic pain, but I noticed after being in her presence for only a half-hour, Martha was a whole new woman! We had lively conversations, laughed---I showed interest in her hobbies, and I asked lots of curious questions. I could tell from her body language, now walking upright, looking into my eyes, and sharing engaging stories, something had drastically changed.
Sometimes we didn’t even organize; we just talked. Initially, I felt guilty that I wasn’t organizing, but later I realized she needed that human contact. Our healthy conversations were making her feel alive. You would never know she had fibromyalgia or that there was anything wrong with her. She’s now smiling, talkative, and her achy body didn’t seem to bother her anymore—well, at least, she never mentions it. She shows up and is present—and is making progress, albeit baby steps.
Hoarding can be one of the many side effects of loneliness. It takes time and patience to help those who hoard realize what they are truly missing. So, how would you stop loneliness? By having meaningful connections and conversations.
How to Create Meaningful Connections During COVID-19 Pandemic
Loneliness is at an all-time high. With COVID-19, it seems nearly impossible to connect with people the same way again.
Although in-person interactions are more difficult than ever, social interaction via the internet is certainly possible. Here are some ways you can connect with people:
Call family members or friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Some people don’t reach out first. Take the initiative and ask if they are free to chat and catch up. You will be surprised at how much is happening even if people don’t go out.
Find a Penpal. For people who like snail mail, there are pen pal services online that connect you with people all over the world. You can write to them and learn more about their lives while you share yours.
Join online groups that have similar interests. There is something in common with you and the other people in the group already. This makes it so easy to bond and connect over your similar interests.
Have meaningful conversations with a few people. Having many small talk like conversations won’t help you feel connected. It may even make you feel worse. Focus on quality conversations with a few people you care about and feel comfortable talking to.
Loneliness has been an epidemic that has affected people for years. It is not something many people realized until the COVID-19 pandemic forced us in. From feeling depressed, using drugs, or even hoarding, the effects of loneliness are severe. Although COVID-19 has increased feelings of loneliness and its impact on mental and physical health, there is hope.
We can actively choose to connect with people every day and reach out to those you think may need it. We can slow down the spread of loneliness - together.