Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism: When Mental Illness Hijacks Your Decluttering Efforts

Is there a disorder that’s the opposite of hoarding?

Well, that’s crazy, you might think. Decluttering is a good thing, surely? Haven’t you read Marie Kondo? We should all be gifting more to the thrift store. The last thing we need in our consumerist, hyper-materialistic society is a nonsensical so-called ‘disorder’ about tidying up!

Good point. Unfortunately, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a royal pain in the backside precisely because it can twist healthy, normal behaviours into warped fixations. Having a good spring-cleaning session and getting rid of surplus belongings is indeed a positive thing…within reasonable limits. Like anything else in life, it can become harmful when done to excessive levels. When this happens, it can be part of a subtype of OCD known informally as Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism.

If you identify with any of this, you might like to consider the following list of questions:

  • Do you experience distressing levels of guilt or fear at the thought of how many things you own?
  • Does the act of throwing something out bring a disproportionate ‘rush’ of relief?
  • If someone tries to give you multiple items as a present, or returns things you threw away, do you feel abnormally extreme anxiety?
  • Are you experiencing serious financial problems through cycles of purging ‘wrong’ items and/or buying the ‘right’ ones?
  • Do you often feel an urge to get rid of categories of items because they’re somehow ‘contaminated’ or ‘wrong’ (i.e. dirty, immoral, the wrong brand, the wrong colour or shape, associated with something negative etc) Note: if you’ve just had the house fumigated due to a genuine chronic bedbug problem or the like, this one doesn’t count!
  • Are others commenting on the number of things you throw away?
  • Are images, thoughts or feelings about clutter constantly popping unwanted into your head?
  • Do you feel like you could finally relax if you could just get down to the ‘perfect’ selection of items…except you never seem to get there?
  • Do you often experience exaggerated thoughts about the negativity of owning ‘too much’ (i.e. ‘People will think I’m a terrible greedy person if I own x number of books!’ ‘My partner will leave me if my kitchenware isn’t properly minimalist!’)?
  • When something makes you anxious, is your immediate urge to throw something away to soothe yourself?
  • Do you spend excessive amounts of time on inventories, re-checking categories of items, or numbering possessions?
  • Do you habitually throw things away, only to regret it soon after (even to the point of re-purchasing the item you just dumped)?
  • Do you or a close family member already have a diagnosed issue with anxiety, depression, OCD or another mental health difficulty?

The last question is especially important. Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism often co-exists in OCD sufferers with their other OCD themes. You can see why, can’t you? It would be easy to feel that limiting the number of ornaments on your shelf would be a good idea if you were already experiencing obsessive fears about them all being covered in germs. Some have also suggested eating disorders linking to this form of OCD — the desire to ‘purge’ excess weight, food or belongings could be coming from the same place.

Obsessive Compulsive Spartanism is an under-researched area, at present, and we still have limited information on how severe it can get. There are anecdotal cases of OCD sufferers living in empty houses, having thrown away literally every belonging (sometimes including even things they need, like lamps and chairs). It’s not surprising. Other forms of OCD are already known to force sufferers to live in highly bizarre circumstances (sufferers with contamination fears, for example, have been known to end up gibbering in tents in their back garden because their entire house felt too ‘infected’ to live in, or even to avoid entering entire cities or countries, because the whole of Germany had become ‘contaminated’ to them).

Just to be clear, when we talk about problems with obsessively throwing possessions away, this is not to say ‘CLUTTER GOOD! MINIMALISM BAD!’. I have nothing against the good minimalist living ideas found at blogs like Two Less Things or Becoming Minimalist. The ideas there are a commendable stance against excessive consumption, and harmless to engage with. Sufferers of Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism are a tiny minority of the population — only 1–2% of the population has OCD, and probably only a tiny percentage of that will be sufferers with an unusual sub-type like this. It’s clear that the benefits of encouraging others to live simply outweigh the potential problems of OCD sufferers taking these messages to extremes. So I am by no means suggesting living a minimalist lifestyle is a mental disorder. Likewise, lifestyles which entail other forms of voluntary renunciation of material goods can be perfectly healthy. Certain forms of Buddhism or Zen philosophy, becoming a nun or monk, deliberately downsizing to a tiny home or living a nomadic lifestyle with just a caravan or backpack can all be healthy life decisions.

The thing about minimalist living is it’s supposed to stop you thinking excessively about possessions. If it’s making you do the opposite, something has gone wrong.

Likewise, minimalism is supposed to reduce stress. The fewer items you have to worry about cleaning, losing, tidying, dusting, arranging, keeping up-to-date or moving house with, the less stress you should have. Once again, something has gone badly wrong if it’s having entirely the opposite effect on you. The aim of the game is not to cause someone a screaming panic attack because their partner just gifted them a novelty mug. Panic attacks of any kind are really not part of the plan.

Sufferers of OCD should beware also of Spartanism sneaking in via spiritual, moral or ideological values. OCD likes to do this. It thrives in the grey areas of moral and religious questions, needling at you over things that don’t necessarily have black-and-white answers. Maybe you’re a keen environmentalist with a sincere feeling that over-consumption is wasting resources. Good! I agree. It is. Nothing wrong with feeling that way. Or maybe you’re a dedicated Christian who admires the anti-consumerist parts of the Gospels, and feel it would be more Christian to live simply. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. It’s OK to set high standards for yourself and it’s OK to live your values. Initiatives like Lauren Singer’s Zero Waste lifestyle are inspiring examples of how to live a healthy low-clutter life. The difference between this and OCD is Lauren is not (as far as we know…) being repeatedly panicked by constant thoughts that something catastrophic is going to happen if she forgets her re-usable fork for lunch. Her decision has a rational philosophical backing, even if it goes a little further than most people might, and comes naturally from her values. It’s a positive decision and it helps her live a meaningful life, rather than hindering it. So do be vigilant for OCD trying to weaponize these kinds of ideologies against you. Thoughts like:

‘God will barbeque you in hell for all eternity if you don’t throw away that pair of tennis shoes right now!’

Or:

‘Accepting that birthday present of a geeky poster of your favourite movie will make you personally responsible for all the deforestation in the world and it’s as if you single-handedly torched the entire Amazon basin!’

are not healthy to experience. Not only would they be considered unreasonable by the majority of other Christians and Environmentalists, they are also motivated by sticks rather than carrots (panic and fear rather than satisfaction and contentment). And they’re (arguably) demonstrably untrue. The entire Amazon basin does not fit into the amount of pulp it takes to make one poster (and swathes of it are also still standing, if you’d like to check). There is no mandate from Greenpeace telling environmentalists that movie posters are evil and there is no passage in the Bible stating that the road to hell is paved with surplus tennis shoes. As far as I know, anyway. Therefore, keep it in proportion. If you literally can’t keep it in proportion, it could be time to see a doctor.

If you’ve been reading this and wondering about mild signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism in yourself, what’s the best course? If it’s not severe and you don’t want to fix the problem, do you just label yourself ‘OCD’ and go about your business? We would rather you didn’t, to be brutally honest. For one, self-diagnosis can be inaccurate. And there is a known problem with people flippantly using the phrase ‘OCD’ where it doesn’t apply, which creates serious confusion and misdiagnosis problems for actual sufferers. Truthfully, if it’s not a problem requiring any kind of medical help, chances are it’s not a disorder. After all, it’s called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, not Obsessive-Compulsive-Slightly-Weird-Habit-That’s-Mildly-Irritating-But-Ultimately-Completely-Harmless-and-Controllable. If you’re not experiencing emotional distress, problems with other people, or inability to go about your business, it’s probably best to just call yourself a perfectionist or a minimalist. Thank your lucky stars it’s not full-blown OCD!

If, on the other hand, you recognize these symptoms and find they’re seriously affecting your wellbeing, the good news is there IS treatment. Be prepared to explain yourself to your doctor in detail, though. This is an uncommon form of OCD. Many doctors will not immediately know what you’re talking about. If you can, see a professional who specialises in hoarding or OCD, as they’re much more likely to understand your problem than a generalist (a directory of professionals can be found on the iOCDF website). Be aware also that ‘Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism’ is an informal label we just use within the OCD community. All labels for sub-types of OCD are informal like this — they are not official medical terms and you won’t see them in the DSM V. This is because all forms of OCD are treated the same way, and cause the same distorted patterns of thinking and behaviour at heart.

The treatment for all forms of OCD is ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention therapy). It means gradually facing your fears through a series of controlled exercises. Many sufferers work with a therapist to help them in this, though if you prefer, you can DIY with an OCD self-help workbook or app such as nOCD. In the case of Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism, your exercises will likely involve desensitizing yourself to ordinary levels of objects. You might need to deliberately place objects around your living space that you’d usually get rid of. Or practice not throwing away certain items. Maybe you’d need to buy a small item that seems ‘contaminated’, dis-organize some tidy possessions, or visit a super-cluttered friend’s house. Writing a narrative about your worst fears about excess possessions coming true, recording it onto tape and listening to it repeatedly, is called an ‘imaginal exposure’ and in some cases it can be very effective too. However you do it, the therapy should be personally tailored to your specific fears.

So, what’s it like to recover?

Well…speaking for myself, I know I’m over my Obsessive-Compulsive Spartanism because there’s been a gaggle of charity-shop-destined items clustered round my hall table for about two months. And I don’t care about getting rid of them. They can be delivered at a convenient time, and until then, they barely register in my consciousness. I merrily stroll past them en route to Marmite toast every morning, looking forward to another day of ignoring them in favour of more important tasks. It’s a small pile, to be sure. I still don’t buy much in the first place. But the pile’s there, it’s visible…and it’s totally not a problem.

There was a time when I would get so anxious about excess items I would hurry out to the recycling bin for just a few objects - even if it was nearly midnight. Neighbours would ask if I was off to a party. I’d have to undeceive them that no, erm, I was actually just taking my empty olive oil bottle and cardboard toilet-roll centre to the recycling bank, because I, um…couldn’t sleep with them still under my roof.

Nowadays? I’m still a tree-hugger, I still believe in keeping a low-clutter home, and I still try not to be wasteful. But I cherish and take care of the moderate number of special items I do own, and I no longer subject family members to tearful panic attacks on my doorstep just because they bought me a Christmas present.

It feels like a good place to be.