Messie syndrome: signs and therapy

Messie syndrome: signs and therapy

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Messie syndrome: when collecting becomes a disease

Messies have big problems tidying up their homes and their everyday lives get out of control. Mental disorders are often hidden behind the supposed disorder. The British speak of compulsive hoarding: whether animals, vintage magazines, tea cans, empty flower pots or children's toys, a messie can't throw anything away - on the contrary, he is getting more and more objects.

As an anorexic loses the differentiated view of her body, the Horter lose priorities as to which items are important and which are unimportant. Some sufferers collect a certain kind of thing, others randomly collect everything they can get their hands on. We colloquially refer to littered apartments as “messie stalls”. But that's not entirely true: neglect can be part of the disorder, but it doesn't have to be. Some of those affected collect meticulously and orderly; Phonebooks from the past 20 years have been neatly lined up in their two-room apartment.

Although disorder usually goes hand in hand with the syndrome, the main characteristic is not to distinguish between the usability and the uselessness of the objects that have been hoarded. They compulsively collect because they think they may need "this" at some point. This collecting can also be transferred to people, some of those affected have thousands of "friends" on Facebook with whom they have not exchanged a single email.

Patients often feel paralyzed in everyday life, they hardly manage to appear on time for appointments and structure their time; They tend to put an end to everyday social activities, be it not opening letters, transferring bills, or canceling subscriptions while the newspapers are stacked in the basement; important documents disappear in a post mountain between advertising and television programs.

Given the mountains of their collected items, they feel powerless when they have to act: the landlord's account number is, they suspect, at least under a pile of files with school notebooks, or with grandmother's jam jars. They don't like jam, but throwing them away would be a waste.

Those affected often categorize their heaps according to new criteria: in this corner the bags with the carved figures of the third-last ex-girlfriend, in the red plastic box an ensemble of dried superglue, Spanish felt dolls and edding pens.

The Christmas angel lacks the wings, but they can certainly be glued at some point, the handle of the flea market vase has broken off, but you could use it, for example, as a pen box, the empty packs of dry cat food could serve as fuel for the fireplace, because maybe it will work Messie someday.

The person restricted by the disorder blocks his energy, which he binds to useless things. Although he is overwhelmed by his hodgepodge and it would hardly be possible for non-messies to bring a sensible order into these mountains, he is afraid to throw something away. It feels like he's throwing away part of himself.

The museum potential

Many sufferers experience fear of loss. They are afraid to leave their childhood, adolescence or parents. So they hoard their children's toys as well as the legacies of past relationships, in order to maintain imaginary real life phases that have disappeared. By grasping the objects, they brave their imagination against the flow of life, which means constant change.

They often struggle to make a decision because each decision means choosing against a variety of alternatives. The collected things represent a potential of supposed possibilities that can be used.

Worth and worthless

Messies can hardly estimate the real value of things, they often understand how senseless it is to hoard, but they fail to implement this insight.

In extreme cases, those affected can hardly move through their home; a single footpath leads past newspaper piles, cable reels and piles of clothes. The windows are closed, so they cannot ventilate, and dust and dirt collect in the hundred niches. The apartment is neglected, and sometimes the landlord gives notice of termination.

Many sufferers are enthusiastic about starting new projects without ending them. Fragments of novels, travel guides or unfilled tax assessments testify to these ideas, and the chaos continues to grow.

They are often aware of the disorder and feel ashamed. They no longer invite anyone into their apartment, and when old friends ring the bell, they come up with excuses. They isolate themselves and therefore find it difficult to get in touch with other victims.

In the outside world, those affected appear inconspicuous, ambitious and creative. They are often involved in various clubs, are always “on the run” and even seem perfectionist.
Meanwhile, disorder is not the main characteristic of the syndrome. Some people live in extremely messy homes without suffering from the disturbance, either because they're too lazy to clean up, or because they love the dirt.

Some of those affected, on the other hand, collect very neatly: cardboard is stacked on cardboard, canning jars from twenty years are neatly labeled and every great-grandmother's lace blanket has its place. However, they too are unable to throw anything away and suffer from it.
Messies merge with things in their personal surroundings, and things replace relationships with people. In an almost magical way of thinking, they charge objects emotionally.

Messie causes

The causes of the syndrome are as individual as they are different. However, some key conflicts often occur:

  • The Fear of being abandoned: All people associate memories with things that they bought, received or found. A person who feels unloved, be it in his current situation or in his entire life, clings to objects that trigger positive feelings in him. If he throws something away now, he fears losing the pleasant feelings associated with the memory.
  • Unsuccessful mourning: People who do not process a death or separation can develop the disorder. Like in a museum, they hoard the ex-girlfriend's things or the father's personal belongings. In doing so, they block themselves from their own lives. They freeze life as it was at the time of loss, as if they could magically preserve it. Psychology calls this an adaptation disorder. It does not have to be the loss of a person. A move to a foreign city, in which those affected carry the household items in their children's room, is an attempt to preserve these memories.
  • Some are affected stingy. They think they could use everything they have again. The bucket with the hole could still serve as a flowerpot, the broken cassette recorder could be repaired, and the socks with the holes could still serve as wiping rags. So they hoard everything as "treasures" and watch over them jealously, even though no one else wants to have the garbage. If someone clears the boat in their absence, they hate him like a thief who loots their account. Such people are usually very possessive in relationships.

Trauma and attachment

Messies often suffered from their parents not turning to them, now they are building emotional relationships with objects to compensate for this lack of basic trust, which has the advantage of not being able to run away.

But sometimes the opposite is also true: some sufferers have a very strong and loving bond with their parents and are unable to cope with building their own lives. When they live in their own apartment as young adults, they surround themselves with objects that promise to hold them in an unsafe world.

Affected people feel blocked for a long time. They persist in behavioral patterns and thoughts they have learned, even though they know that this is wrong, that the current situation requires different behavior, and they have no beginning and no end to what they do.

There is therefore no energy left for everyday activities, and those affected always feel that they have too little time - for everything. Therefore, they generally avoid situations that require their own action.

They find it extremely difficult to translate thoughts into actions, and they are not short of ideas. On the contrary: They often bubble up with ideas and pursue them vigorously, then the number increases and they don't know how to implement them. They postpone it until later, and that means: Not at all.

Every tenth person knows feelings like: I forget important things, I neglect to transfer the rent or to tackle the long overdue examination at the dentist. The difference to those affected is the permanent condition, which makes everyday life almost impossible. This affects about 2% of Germans. They stand out because they forget what they just said. Though otherwise known to be good-natured, they want to dominate conversations and repeat what they have said a hundred times, as if no one was listening to them.

They suffer from fear of having forgotten something and therefore often make spontaneous decisions, that is, prematurely, or they remain passive and do not make a decision at all.

Affected people react very sensitively when their everyday life, which they put together with difficulty, is disturbed. When others expect them to have done something at a certain time, they feel paralyzed.

Messies cannot delimit themselves, so their unconscious is flooded and they feel like they can never calm down.

They postpone important work, even on topics that are close to their hearts. This is not because of laziness, but because of the helplessness, reacting flexibly to challenges. A person affected, for example, is sitting at a homework in the university and then his computer hangs up. Instead of calling someone with whom he may have had nothing to do for a while but who knows his way around, he leaves it at that and the work remains unfinished.

They start new jobs with enthusiasm and then leave them there - the “garbage” not only testifies to their commitment, patients also cannot stand it if someone touches it. For example, a woman who suffered from Messie syndrome left her allotment garden to a friend. He laboriously searched for boards, plastic tarpaulins and old buckets and piled the rubbish in a big pile to bring it to the landfill. When he came into the garden the next day, the previous owner, who could not separate from the garden, had done a great job. Things were scattered across the lawn in six smaller piles.

Sufferers have problems saying what they want and how they feel. Unconscious fears often play a role and growing up in a family in which unspoken secrets were as formative as blurred boundaries between individual areas.

Those affected block their memories under stress and “expose themselves mentally.” They can then no longer concentrate on the simplest tasks of everyday life, get lost in the car, fill up with the wrong gasoline or miscalculate at the bakery. The more you think, the more your thoughts wander. If you are relaxed, you have no problems with the same situations.

Patients even forget the immediate past, forget names, and forget appointments. That goes as far as disorientation; they don't find the way home, they forget why they went to the supermarket, and they forget promises.

Affected people often ward off responsibility. As children, they did not learn to determine and take responsibility for their actions - they remained passive. As adults, they keep this behavior, and deciding to throw something away means responsibility. Others are afraid of failing socially. So they don't even try and avoid situations where they could fail.

Still others lack self-confidence and collect objects from a phase of life from which they have long outgrown physically.

A disordered self-image can also inspire the syndrome. Some sufferers collect outfits in bulk and put on different masks because they have not found their own way. Messies generally have problems organizing information and organizing things under stress. The hectic world outside unconsciously scares them, and that's why they block themselves, the immovable things create a fictional fortress in front of the world in the river.

They are perfectionists who want everything to be harmonious. They often have the image of an ideal world in mind and try to behave in an exemplary manner in the outside world. In doing so, they hide unpleasant thoughts that disturb this imagined ideal world.

Messie types

Those affected are individuals. However, a few examples illustrate how this disorder can develop.

The garbage collector
Frauke took care of her classmates' worries as a child, and after high school she became a geriatric nurse, because that apparently corresponded to her "golden hand". In relationships, she always ended up with men with mental health problems. Her first friend was an alcoholic; she listened to his monologues when he was slouching, bought him schnapps at the kiosk, denied him to friends when he again did not meet appointments when drunk.

She kept trying to part with him, but feared he would hurt himself if she was no longer there. Then he left her.

Your next friends could have come from a therapist's office. Borderline syndrome, paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, everything was there. And the partners dragged their friends into the apartment Frauke paid for from the money she earned on her night shifts. When she came home weary, there would be heroin addicts crying out with her, or young men who had flown out of their flat and were now looking for a place to stay.

Frauke never said no. Your partners eventually disappeared. One ended up in prison for drug dealing, another attempted suicide and then had to change his social environment by official instruction.

Frauke was considered the good soul of the district, and whoever thought they had problems (and wanted to save on therapy fees) came to her. A polytoxic friend placed his bicycles under her, which he "wanted to pick up immediately" if he found an apartment, a "friend" unloaded her PC from Frauke. Frauke never said no.

The stragglers left their mark on Frauke's unconscious as well as in her apartment. Her ex-boyfriend's self-painted pictures with the alcohol problem were stored in her closet and next to this suitcase with winter coats from the Borderliner. He had left her overnight, but who knows, maybe he would come back one day and she knew how he would react when someone went to his things.

So most of her apartment became a museum for the legacies of her mentally problematic partners, and Frauke no longer knew whether the hatred, fears and nightmares that were rampant in her came from her or as transmissions from all of them who dumped their mental and material garbage on her.

But she also had a psychological problem herself. She was unable to draw boundaries because she feared that she would no longer be loved. Deep down, she hoped that one of the "rescued" people would show gratitude. But that never happened.

If Frauke had thrown away the legacies of all those who had built up with her and who were so strengthened and had moved from there, she would have admitted that her help found no recognition that she had given more than she got back.

So she suffocated in the illusions she had made. Moreover, the more often she was left, the more she attracted people who had problems - because taking care of others' problems, she could.

She only became aware of her own problem when she met a completely different man. He was not carrying any ballast with himself, but was shocked when he saw her apartment and said to her: "You are a messie."

The blocked gifted
In the third grade, the doctors diagnosed Achim with a talent. However, that did not mean that his testimony consisted of all ones. The teachers bored him and he spent the hours reading his favorite books or drawing caricatures under the table.

He found no relation to his classmates. They thought he was arrogant, he thought they were mentally restricted. While playing football, he read Shakespeare - at 13 and 16 in English. He concentrated on his niches, and he wanted to know everything there. The others listened to hip hop, he listened to Tchaikovsky, at 15 he built Leonardo da Vinci machines and tried the painting techniques of the Renaissance. He was particularly fond of 18th-century English, and at 16 he wrote notebooks full of sonnets that no one else ever read.
He despised the bogus world around him and saw the school only as a slide to make up stories. At university, he thought he was in his element, but he couldn't make up his mind. He started with classical archeology, but thought that he neglected his musical ambitions and also studied music sociology. He broke off both in order to indulge his medical interests, but he did not last long to study medicine, because literary studies were even closer to him. Even as a child, he had stayed away from his classmates and was considered a nerd, and that didn't change.

He also found no connection at the university. He hedgehog in his two-room apartment, developed his own language based on Old French, wrote essays on misinterpretations of Goethe's Faust, and considered most of what he heard about his topics in lectures to be so superficial that at some point he would not went more.

Everyday life had always been a useless ordeal, and things of this everyday life were jammed between the collections of his intellectual occupation: old video recorders dusted next to piles of paper over early modern parks, the collected works of Goethe, which were no longer legible after he'd left them on the windowsill in the rain, and banana peels withered alongside manuscripts.

Achim developed an enormous creativity in always finding new corners in which he could stow more books, first on the window sills, then under the toilet bowl, and finally even over the shower cubicle.

His parents never came to his apartment. "Not until you've cleaned up," said his mother.
But where should he begin, he asked, looking into his filthy mirror, which was just a large piece of shard hanging from a plastic cable over the splashed washbasin?

Now Achim was 34, and “to garbage” would have meant admitting that he had not become a professor, but had officially started four courses, but had no training or job. Admitting this would have freed him of fantasies about his grandiosity, but the road to reality would be difficult.

The princess
Miriam was the only child in the family and her mother pampered her. Miriam had the most barbie dolls in her class, always the latest bike and smartphone - before she made a wish, the mother had already fulfilled it. Plastic horses, toy kitchens and talking dolls were stowed in her room so that there was no more space on the shelves.

Her mother had received little attention herself, the daughter should not be like that.

Miriam became increasingly aggressive when she didn't get something, and she wasn't popular in her class. Other girls came to play with her, but they were primarily interested in Miriam's toys - not her.

Miriam was sitting alone on a mountain of everything that girls see in advertising, her parents served her, but she had no real friends of the same age.

Her parents tired her later when she had her own apartment, and Miriam had learned to buy "her luck". When she felt lonely, and that happened often, she went shopping. In her hallway she stumbled over dozens of shoes, some of which were still in the boxes because the woman had never taken them off, costume hung on costume in her closet, and perfume bottles piled up on the floor in the bathroom.

Miriam's apartment looked like a clothing store, but if she had given away one of the clothes she never wore, she would have felt smaller - more normal. Miriam was now in her late 30s, but her mother came over every weekend, as always, and cleaned up the apartment for her daughter.

Miriam had long since stopped inviting. She was afraid that someone might discover how lonely she was.

Messies versus collectors

Messies collect items, but collectors are not automatically messies, even if they affect their fellow human beings like someone with a whimsy.

The key difference between eccentric collectors and messies is that collectors know the value of the items they collect, regardless of whether others consider them valuable.
For example, anyone who has elephant sculptures in every possible or impossible place, who searches for them at flea markets and long-distance trips, and who gives them absolute priority over "unimportant things" such as coffee machines or houseplants, separates between value and unworthiness - whether others share the standards irrelevant.

Messies in relationships

It is difficult for those affected to enter into relationships; they do not necessarily live like in a monastery. A young woman suffering from the syndrome acted promiscuously for several years before her wedding, sometimes she had intercourse with two different men in one night - she collected her sexual partners as randomly as objects.

However, she never let any of her bed companions into her apartment; her parents didn't see the mess until she had to move, and her mother said, "What should I do? Your nursery looked exactly like that. "

In a serious relationship, the hidden problem becomes clear. The messie did everything before to hide his disturbance: he closed the curtains, received no visitors, and made excuses when a new acquaintance came to visit him. He met in the café or in the pub.

Whether and how a relationship with a person develops depends on the partner and the degree of the disorder. If the problem is weak, the patient is insightful, and the partner is willing to help, both can work out a plan together. The partner supports the Messie in what it cannot do: organize things and throw them away.

At best, trust in the relationship covers the emotional attachment to things, and it's easier for those affected to throw them away. The partner could also insist on separate spheres and limit the littering by clearing the smorgasbord from the kitchen, bathroom and shared bedroom - the space of the messie is thus limited to its most private area.

There are problems with children. Often without wanting to do so, the messie mother / messie father closes the children's room so that the children no longer have any space to develop, yes, often there is no space for elementary tasks: the children's desk is full of grandfather's photo albums, gathered in the closet old towels. The children cannot get to their toys and they cannot invite playmates because the parents are ashamed. Such experiences are traumatic; Therapy is urgently needed and the youth welfare office has to help.

Sick people behave very differently from their relatives when it comes to the garbage in the apartment: This ranges from the father, who takes up most of the apartment, and threatens his son, if he draws his attention to it, to the daughter who gently but successfully pushed the old parents into the bedroom and the mother who cries out every time the father and children tell her that things cannot go on like this.


Behavioral therapy helps to get the disorder under control. With the outer chaos, the inner does not disappear, but the causes of compulsive collecting become clearer. In behavioral therapy, for example, the person concerned learns to create daily plans and to adhere to them. It is more important, however, to go to the apartment with the Messie, to allow the fear, then throw things away with him and then talk to him about how he feels now.

If the messie manages to sort, sort, and throw things away, he is far from cured.

Under no circumstances should the therapist admonish the patient morally. Those affected are ashamed of their behavior and are often very grateful when a witness appreciates them for doing things. Even the smallest successes need to be recognized. As with any behavioral therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, the first step is to recognize and endure the compulsive, for example by changing the perspective so that the person concerned sees himself from a distance.

To put it bluntly: therapist and patient walk past a pile of bulky waste, and the messie recognizes his urge to take things that “can still be needed” with him. Or a friend of the sick person makes a flea market with him without coming back with more things than they sold. The fears are not suppressed, but allowed.

Trust and respect are important, especially for these patients, and a pinch of humor. They are often good-natured, do not use violence against others and rarely hate the therapist. But they are ashamed. It is therefore important to show them that they have a weakness but are also valuable people.

For most of those affected, it is also essential to promote their self-confidence and self-worth. Even naked in the desert, without any possessions, they are still themselves and have the right to a good life - that is the motto.

If the therapist has the necessary trust, both can try to leave the comfort zone, for example by camping in the nature for a weekend without the collections within reach, so that the messie learns to find support in himself.

Sorting is far more important than throwing things away; It is not possible to sort material objects without also arranging them mentally. The person concerned develops a feeling for why which things are important to him.

However, it is fundamental not to discriminate against those affected. He is neither lazy nor anti-social, as the pictures of trashed apartments suggest, but has problems to distinguish himself. It is about integrating it and not about excluding it. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Alfred Pritz, Elisabeth Vykoukal, Katharina Reboly, Nassim Agdari-Moghadam: The Messie Syndrome: Phenomenon, Diagnostics, Therapy and Cultural History of Pathological Collecting, Springer Verlag, 2009
  • Katharine A. Phillips, MD, Weill Cornell Medical College; Dan J. Stein, MD, PhD, University of Cape Town: Messie Syndrome, MSD Manual, June 2014, msdmanuals.com
  • Veronika Schröter: Messie Worlds - Understand and treat the complex disorder, Verlag Klett-Cotta, von V. Schröter 2017, klett-cotta.de
  • American Psychiatric Association: What Is Hoarding Disorder? Hoarding Fact Sheet (accessed: August 23, 2019), psychiatry.org
  • International OCD Foundation (IOCDF): Hoarding Fact Sheet, as of: 2009, iocdf.org
  • National Health Service UK: Hoarding disorder (accessed 23.08.2019), nhs.uk
  • Professional associations and specialist societies for psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychosomatics, neurology and neurology from Germany and Switzerland: Messie syndrome: help in the household not useful for those affected (access: 23.08.2019), neurologists-and-psychiatrists- im-netz.org

ICD codes for this disease: currently no separate ICD code ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find yourself e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.

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