Like my mom, I’ve always been a collector. What I collect changes from time to time – seashells, Zelda figures, Pokemon cards, Sonny Angel dolls, pocketknives, ABBA records, cat knick-knacks, TRON merch – but the impulse is always the same. Anyone who’s ever collected anything knows what I mean: it’s some weird combination of the excitement of searching for something and the need to complete the incomplete. (“Gotta catch em all,” right?)

But for most of my life, one thing dominated my collection landscape: stuffed polar bears. More specifically, the multitude of plush polars made by Coca-Cola. It all started with my favorite childhood toy, which was a small Coca-Cola plush bear that was released in the early 1990s as a fast food toy. I took that bear with me almost everywhere, and whenever he left the house he wore a little pink cat collar with my address and phone number on the ID tag just in case he got lost. And yes, I still have him; he lives wherever I’m living.

You can pry this bear from my cold, dead hands.

The only problem was, the polar bear collection snowballed to the point that it filled an entire room. Again, this is a common feature of collections – one or two things can multiply into dozens or hundreds very quickly, especially once your friends find out you collect something and get you more as gifts. It’s all fun and games until you’re neck-deep in polar bears.

Why are collections so hard to let go of?

Many, many people who write about decluttering will tell you how hard it is to handle collections. Probably one reason for this is that it can be hard to see collections as clutter, even when we’re specifically looking for clutter. Even if the collection has absorbed more space than a mutant sci-fi fungus, you still say “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s just my mutant fungus collection.” You don’t think of the collection as taking up too much space any more than you’d think of your couch as taking up too much space; it’s just a part of your home.

Another reason that collections are probably hard to deal with (as my partner once pointed out) is because they feed into the saving-it-because-I’ve-saved-it loop. Generally speaking, the longer you’ve had something, the harder it is to let go of it. Some people might say this is just sentimentality, but I think it’s also because people start to view the time they’ve saved something as an investment in that thing. If you had a vase you didn’t particularly like for twenty years, you’d still be hesitant to let go of it, thinking: “I can’t get rid of that, I’ve had it for twenty years!”

But here’s the thing: whether you keep the thing or not, you’re not going to get a return on that investment. Sure, some things get more valuable as time goes by, but that doesn’t mean you can hold onto everything in the hopes that someday it might be worth something. And honestly, this saving loop happens just as often (if not more often) with things that won’t have much value to anybody but ourselves. And nobody’s going to hand you a prize at the end of your life for saving something for decades for no reason.

How to pare down a collection

Which brings me back to the polar bears. When I finally took my collector goggles off and looked around that room, I suddenly realized how out-of-control that collection was. So I decided to go through them, promising myself I’d keep any bear I felt attached to.

Once again – like every stage of this decluttering quest so far – I was shocked by the results. Even though I’d sorted through just half of the collection, a large pile of bears that I was willing to let go of had already accumulated on the floor. It wasn’t that they were suddenly meaningless to me or something, it’s just that I’m not the same person that first collected them. And that’s okay.

I hope that soon those bears (like the other plushies I’ve decided to let go of during this process) will go to people who can enjoy them, or maybe even find joy in them. Really, that’s my hope for all the things I’m giving away as part of this process – but I’ll go into that in more detail later.

For now, I’ll just pass on the same advice my partner gave me for dealing with collections: if you have a set (or collection) of things that you must save, ask yourself, “Can I just save a few representative members of this set and have all that I need?” If the honest answer is “no,” then go ahead and keep them all. But if the answer is “yes,” then keep the one(s) you need and let the rest go. Sell or give them to someone who would really appreciate them; knowing that they’re going to a good home makes it a lot easier to let go of them. Decluttering doesn’t have to be boring and draining; it can be a way of spreading happiness, too.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library