Separate Trash From Treasure
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.
Advice from life coach Martha Beck