Separate trash from home treasures.
Credits: Illustration by Juliette Borda
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.