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Am I addicted to my stuff? ...How we personify things to keep from feeling

A woman watched the waiter remove a half-eaten dessert.

Her instant response was a strong, emotional tug on her heartstrings. “It was as though I was losing a family member,’ She recalled.

“I can throw away clothes, shoes, and pictures. But I can’t throw away food....I have to eat it! I'm killed to see food tossed out,’ she shared.

Reflecting on our conversation, I realize (with a certain amount of horror) that I have the same personified feelings…not towards food…my refrigerator is usually empty…but towards things.

As a child, I would give human characteristics to my toys and objects around the room. The technical word is anthropomorphism. Setting the table was my daily chore. The knife was the Daddy, and he went on the right, next to the daughter. The fork was the Mommy and she laid down on a blanket (the napkin) on the other side of the big plate.

Now, I have a storage unit full of furniture, clothing, pictures and letters. In my closet hangs the dress my grandmother wore to her last Easter Sunday service. My shelves are decorated with flower vases and ceramic knick-knacks waiting for the deceased to return to claim them. After twenty years of burying two generations of family members, not one of them has returned for their stuff.

Children are in a rapid learning state most of the time. In this state, they identify things and people and give significance to what they observe by giving human traits to things. Children are constantly making meanings and creating beliefs about their world. To make sense of and predict the actions of those around them, children will commonly use the inanimate ‘toy’ to explain the actions of people. This bit of dramatization, builds the child's ability to relate to others and predict how people will respond. To anthropomorphize items is very common for children and is linked to the development of empathy for others. Through maturity, the personification of inanimate objects loses value.

It has been found that children will amplify anthropomorphism in situations of loneliness or to try to make sense of complex situations, such as domestic violence, neglect or sexual abuse. The phenomenon continues into adulthood.

I had a client with strong feelings toward the leftover food on her plate. Another client had similar feelings toward alcohol, "If I don't have alcohol, who will want me? Who will I be?"

It was not surprising to discover that these people had a childhoods filled with intense feelings of loneliness and abandonment. One woman said that, during her growing up years, her mother was around only when the situation was dire. It was as though her mother had a sticker on her chest that said, “In Case of Emergency, Break the Glass.” Another person described his father as physically present and emotionally unavailable, only noticing his kids when they did something wrong.

My own childhood was also one of loneliness. With divorced parents, my mother was incredibly self-absorbed and my father lived 1500 miles away. My older siblings went to school and I stayed with my very busy philanthropic grandmother. We visited a local nursing home daily. My best friend was a resident of the nursing her late nineties.

Could it be that one of the root causes of hoarding…whether it be food, clothing, or household items… is the childhood need for friends, love and connection? Is hoarding an attempt to make sense of a situation that is complex, unexplainable or worse, unforgivable? Are we trying to keep our loved ones alive by keeping their old dresses, empty flower vases, and last slice of birthday cake? Do we keep from feeling grief by holding onto the relics of the past?

Perhaps there is a subconscious part of us that believes we can control others and our situation by keeping things…whether it be food or inanimate objects… and making them our friends.

The good news is that understanding is power and when we understand how and why we created a habit, we know we have the power to change it.

Food and things are not people. They are things we are using to suppress feelings we do not want to experience.

As adults, it is okay to allow anger, grief and loneliness to flow through us. For some, this is best done in the presence of a professional therapist. With guidance, we can anthropomorphize the feelings for a moment. With patience and grace, we can dance with these feelings. It may be a gyrating salsa, a slow tango or a ballet duet. Once the dance is over, we can allow the feelings to move through us and onto the other side.

Then, we can upgrade the thoughts and feelings around the things that are left behind.

Through time, we can let go of the personified object and see the inanimate reality of the leftover food and the relics from the past. When the item no longer represents a person, the meaning of the item changes and the significance dissipates. These things are, after all, just stuff.

To talk with me about me at


Nancy Cramer



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