The Curious Occurrence of Generational Hoarding

The Curious Occurrence of Generational Hoarding

Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.

Stephi Wagner

I am going to describe a series of scenes in a family that is so common that you might read it and assume I am exposing your loved ones in some embarrassing way.

At some point in the family life cycle, older parents often decide to downsize. Perhaps, the last child has “left the nest”. Perhaps, they are moving out of their current home to a smaller residence. Maybe, they are just de-cluttering or rearranging items because now they have more time and space…and want to CREATE more time and space in their current home.

This process is HARD. It is emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically taxing.

It brings up a slew of questions, thoughts, and considerations. Each item touched represents a host of memories…conversations, moments in times, relationships that have changed or disappeared altogether.

It is a process of evaluating one’s life.

That bread maker you never opened from your son.

Did I tell him how much I loved him when it mattered most? Did I say thank you enough? Did HE say thank you enough? Did he appreciate me and the sacrifices I made?

The old toys you kept for when the grandchildren would arrive.

Do I keep some of them? Do they even care? Why do I care if they don’t? Do they remember the times they sat on the floor next to me while I made supper, playing with these Barbies and that set of blocks?

The old dishes that are out of fashion.

How many meals did we eat on these things? How many cups of milk spilled over into the food for each child? How many conversations about school? How many sibling squabbles? How many arguments over “how many bites, dad?”

Working through all of the boxes…it is overwhelming. The items they kept from their own childhood. Boxes that have not been touched in years. The old clothes that are still in perfectly good shape, but no one seems to want them anymore.

That shirt I remember wearing when I brought home our oldest from the hospital. The dress I wore on our first date. Those shoes I wore when we trekked all over Europe for our anniversary. The suit I wore to our second child’s wedding.

It is so much. So, so much. I imagine these scenes each time I hear someone casually mention that they are “going through their things” after retirement or when they are downsizing to a smaller home.

I don’t think it has to be all overwhelmingly emotional. Even if it is, it can be cathartic, healthy and needed. There is a lot to celebrate, affirm and remember with fondness. The process of decluttering can be liberating and freeing. It can mark the transition to a new stage of life where the focus is less on others, less on the past…and more on the NOW.

Still. It is a LOT. The stuff-of-a-lifetime a lot. Literally.

Also, as is common, when there is a lot of something…a lot of things…a lot of thoughts…a lot of feelings…people often look around for others to help. Parents and grandparents will call on their children and grandchildren to help them carry the weight of it all. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Except sometimes what is being asked to be carried is complicated. It is that awkward table where the family had dinners for years and years, but isn’t really worth much and is just kind of …ugly.

Here’s the thing. The parent doesn’t want the table. They don’t have room for it. And? Deep down they are ready to let it go. Yet, they feel guilty for wanting to get rid of it. They want SOMEONE to want it, keep it and tend to it…the way they want someone else to want, keep, and tend to the memories it represents. So they try to pass it on to their child because SOMEONE needs to keep it. SOMEONE needs to be the holder of these awkward family items. SOMEONE needs to be the keeper of memories.

“Yeah, Dad, I don’t think I really want to keep the table.”

“Oh. I mean, if it doesn’t mean anything to you. I guess that’s fine. I guess I thought it would mean more to you…after all that happened around that table. I thought it would be meaningful for you to keep it.”

Awkward silence.

“Yeah, well, Katie says we don’t really have a place for it.”

“Oh. Well, I guess it doesn’t mean anything to HER. That makes sense.”

What happens next really can vary. Maybe the son takes it home and they figure out where to put it where it is the least painful. Maybe the son takes it and ends up getting rid of it on the sly. Maybe the son kind of ignores the dad and lets the whole thing blow over. How long it takes to blow over depends on a lot of factors, too…their relationship, personalities, etc.

Sometimes there is one child who gets asked to carry more than the others. For whatever reason it is set up for this one child to be easier to ask. Because of the familial patterns, it is often harder for this one child to say no.

I am a very sentimental person. I used to be pretty proud of that fact. Sentimentality often causes tears. I do value tears. I think tears are a form of communication. When my children or someone close to me cries or when a client’s eyes start to well up in session, I want to know what the tears mean. What is the story of these tears? What are they communicating right then in that moment? What are they saying to us that is difficult or cannot be expressed verbally?

Tears can be a lot of things. They can be slow, soft, hard, hot, angry, loving, frustrated, grief stricken…or all of those things all at once. Tears also can be manipulative, whether intended as so or not. As a form of communication, they can be used inappropriately in appropriate places at inappropriate times in inappropriate ways.

Mostly, I think tears are holy. Sacred. Each drop is a marker and holds a message wanting to be heard.

What I have learned is that while tears are mostly holy…. sentimentality mostly is not.

I have come to learn that my sentimentality needs boundaries.

I must learn to express sentimentality like a faucet…learning how to turn it on and let some out and then how to turn it off. I must learn how to allow it in my life in a way that helps me honor the past rather than keeping me… or anyone else… stuck there.

Sometimes we confuse sentimentality with honor, but I do not honor an event, a person, a thing or a belief by over-sentimentalizing it.

If anything, sentimentality has a way of dictating rather than honoring. It demands certain emotions for things, people, places, memories and beliefs in ways that can lead to the demise of our mental health.

Sentimentality causes us to hoard up things, people, places, memories, beliefs and emotions in ways that entangle and chain us. It imprisons us to a past that may or may not have existed at all.

It tells us that “this”, “then” and “that” was better…when maybe it wasn’t. It tells us to “hold on” when maybe we need to “let go”.

Sentimentality actually can be a way of denying reality. Psychologists know that sentimentality is correlated with lower levels of mental health. It is a defense reaction. It is used to protect against acknowledging more painful emotions like anger, shame and grief. When you aren’t well emotionally it is hard to tolerate negative emotions so you find ways to defend and deny reality in the face of the difficult feelings.

Sentimentality tends to oversimplify a person and the past in order to make things feel safer in the face of threatening emotions. Sentimentality is associated with narcissism. Narcissists actually have a really difficult time with painful emotions. Do you know who was known to be sentimental? Hitler.

We hoard up things, beliefs, and emotions like fear when we feel a need to control our environment. This need for control can overrun our homes, our relationships, and our lives until sometimes the only way to stop the vicious cycle is a hard lined intervention by some brave and desperate person in the system.

Ok, ok, ok. Sentimentality isn’t a monster. It isn’t a thing to cause shame, but I do want to temper any kind of pride we place on it. It can ensnare you.

And, so can other people’s stuff.

Listen, friend. Listen very, very closely. Just because your parent owns something does NOT mean you have to own it, too.

Just because your parent chose to carry something for years and years and years does NOT mean you have to relieve her or him of the burden. It is NOT your turn. There is no turn.

It can stop. Here.

You can be the one to lay it down.

And, if you think that maybe I’m not talking about old kitchen tables or dishes anymore, you would be right.

I don’t say this lightly, friend. There are consequences to saying…to choosing…not to carry the stuff from previous generations anymore.

Social conditioning is REAL. And, so is belonging. Our groups and our families want to tell us what to eat, what to wear…and also what to love and what to fear. There are repercussions to changing power structures…to stopping and then to getting a train going in the other direction. It takes hard, hard work. It often takes a toll on your spiritual, emotional, and physical health…which, will be interpreted as a sign that you are in the wrong. If you would just carry what they want you to carry all of this would be ok. We can all just go back to what is comfortable…whether it is healthy or not.

Here is such an important truth, friend. Someone else’s “should” does not have to be your “have to”.

As a marriage and family therapist and as a professor who teaches marriage and family therapy I have a lot of conversations about healthy relationships. One of the trademarks of a healthy personhood, a healthy environment and healthy relationships is the ability to be yourself even while close to someone else. You can disagree and still be ok. You can be different and still be loved and accepted.

Relationships where there is more enmeshment or disengagement, there is less tolerance for difference.

The message is: you must be and think like me to be loved. You must be THIS to get THAT. You must fit THIS thing in order to fit in THIS family.

Enmeshment and disengagement are really just two sides of the same coin…an inability to be close in the midst of hard things. When we are not able to be ourselves and remain close (for whatever reason) we tend to do one of two things: lose ourselves completely in the group or family OR disengage and don’t relate at all. People often do both…back and forth…across their lifetime…enmesh, disengage, enmesh, disengage.

Here’s the thing, SOMETIMES in these situations when it is hard to stay close AND be honest…when you go through a period of being shunned for being real … what you are losing…what you are grieving…is what was never there in the first place. That is often the most painful grief of all. The grief over what never was.

Sentimentality can protect us from that grief at times. Sentimentality can keep us from being honest and sometimes it is being honest…acknowledging the good AND the bad, the easy AND the hard, the healthy AND the sick and the dysfunctional…that helps us heal and let go.

And, THAT is honoring…finding the healing.

Being honest…finding healing…IS honoring of a journey, of a memory, of a relationship.

Also? You can be honoring, kind, and firm. You can acknowledge how hard all of this is without accepting responsibility for the emotions of other people.

You can be honest about how hard this is for everyone…how hard it is for you to say no and how hard it is for the other person to hear it.

You can accept and acknowledge your own limits, too…what you can and cannot, will and will not, carry.

You can say: “Mom, I love you and I have loved everything that has happened around this table, but I don’t want the actual table in my home. Let’s figure out some other way to tend to and honor all of the memories it represents.”

Your freedom is directly tied to the freedom of others. Not taking the table means making more room for everyone whether it feels that way or not.



It is up to us to change generational narratives. When they say ‘it runs in the family’ we must say ‘this is where it runs out”.

Renée Sher-McMeans, Marriage and Family Therapist


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