Steven and Danielle still shudder when they recall the "Plague of Food-Shaped Decorations." It started at Danielle's bridal shower, when her future mother-in-law gave her a set of refrigerator magnets crafted to look like vegetables. "How...cute!" Danielle managed to gush. "I just love inedible food!" It was a throwaway comment, but Danielle's friends caught it like a tossed bouquet. The news of her supposed inedible-food fixation spread like wildfire. Among Steven and Danielle's wedding presents were turkey-shaped tureens, linens embroidered with apples, salt and pepper shakers that resembled pears, and a mousse platter that caricatured a live salmon.
In the spirit of gratitude, the couple displayed these items in their home—convincing all visitors that collecting food-shaped decorations was indeed Danielle and Steven's favorite avocation. Every holiday then brought a barrage of similar gifts that gradually pervaded their home, from the hamburger night-lights in the children's bedrooms to the strawberry shower curtains in the bathrooms. It wasn't until their tenth anniversary that Steven and Danielle finally became so sick of this unplanned collection that they issued a formal veto. "Please, no more inedible food!" read the invitation to their anniversary party. Still, it took a while for the momentum to shift; the couple had to mildly offend many former gift-givers by donating dozens of items to Goodwill before friends fully understood that Steven and Danielle didn't want any more muffin-shaped bath sponges or Cheesehead hats.
Admittedly, this is an extreme example—but my point is hardly limited to white-elephant presents. Most of us run a frighteningly high risk of surrounding ourselves with objects that don't reflect us—whether it's because we're scared to collect what we really love (what would everybody say about a shelf full of spring-loaded googly-eye glasses?), or because we've inherited someone else's collection (your grandmother's treasured bells from every state, perhaps?). In case you're ever a victim of collectionitis horribilis—by miscommunication or by your own internal conditioning—here are a few techniques to help ward off the epidemic. Say "I Love You!" Not "I Love It!" Danielle brought on the Plague of Food-Shaped Decorations by lying. That may sound blunt, but it's what "polite" inauthenticity is. Keep your thank-you's simple and focus on the giver you love rather than the gift you hate. For example, Danielle could have prevented the inedible-food infestation if she hadn't effusively praised the gift. Instead of gushing over vegetable magnets, she could have delivered a heartfelt expression of affection for her future mother-in-law. Try saying, "Thank you so much! I love you!" rather than, "This is so great—I've always wanted a toilet-shaped gum-ball machine!"
Stop Worrying About What "Everyone" Thinks
All humans have a vague sense of "what people think," usually based on a sample of only a few individuals. Psychologists refer to this as a "generalized other." I know a social worker who lives in a trailer because "everyone" would despise her if she inhabited more opulent housing. On the opposite extreme, a woman I call Dianne of the Many Diamonds told me "everybody" would look down on her if she were to move from a ridiculously huge mansion to a merely immense one. If your collecting impulses are driven by fear or hope about what "everyone" thinks, it's time to question your version of "everyone."
My life-coaching client Belinda, for example, used to amass autographed celebrity photos. "It doesn't really feel like me," she said, "but this way my friends can see that I'm connected with a lot of famous people—that I'm somebody." In other words, Belinda didn't collect because she loved to, but because she longed for other people's approval.
When she and I addressed the basic lack of self-esteem that drove this process, Belinda realized that she didn't really want to hang out with people who only liked her for her celebrity friends. I suggested she get direct feedback about her photo collection (first from me, then from close friends) by asking people if they liked her because of her connections. Of course, all her friends said no, and Belinda promptly stopped collecting ego-compensation objects and developed a passion for soapstone sculptures.
Don't Collect for an Introject
The most insidious unwanted collector in your life is you—well, not you precisely, but someone else you've learned to think of as yourself. Psychologists use the word introject to refer to ideas and preferences you absorb from other people and then mistake for your own. You may be under the influence of your "parental introjects" when your child misbehaves, and you hear your mother's voice coming from your own mouth, saying, "Young lady, this is not a gymnasium!" The same thing may happen when you steer away from collecting something you love (such as, say, hookah pipes) in favor of the angel figurines your beloved nana adored.
There are many ways to honor the people who have contributed to your smorgasbord of introjects, but collecting things you don't like shouldn't be one of them. Before starting a collection, check to see if you're being prompted by someone else's voice in your head. Collections, more than any other set of possessions, should reflect your innate interests, not your internalized anxieties. These three simple practices—praising givers instead of gifts, challenging your beliefs about your generalized other, and refusing to collect for your introjects—will help you assemble a collection that's really yours. And if you happen to find that this collection should require turkey-shaped tureens, get in touch with Danielle and Steven. They still have four to unload.