Several years ago, Callie MacBeth’s boyfriend at the time gave her a pair of diamond earrings. “I flat out refused to accept them,” she told me in an interview this month. “Receiving gifts completely undoes me as a human,” especially if it is something big or expensive. “Do I owe them? Am I in their debt because they've given me a gift? There’s a lot of trauma and anxiety around it,” said the 36-year-old mother in Chicago. “I honestly don't think we recovered from that.” The couple later broke up.
MacBeth suspects that her gift-receiving anxiety has to do with her upbringing. Gifts from her father, who MacBeth said was “not around,” came with “strings attached.” “If I got something from him, he always expected me to either see him or to go out and do something, and that's not what I wanted … An apology from him [instead of a gift] would have been a really great start, but that never came.” This fear of gifts still follows her today. Reflecting back on the diamond earrings, she said, “There was no manipulation. He just wanted to say, ‘I love the bananas out of you; you deserve this, and I want to give this to you,’ and I couldn't see that.”
Unlike people who may feel excited by all the shopping that accompanies the holiday season, which retailers expect will bring in more than $942.6 billion this year, there are some people for whom the practice of giving or receiving gifts stirs deeper questions about feeling loved, worthy, burdened, or indebted. According to a survey by the American Psychiatric Association last month, 31% of adults expect to feel more stressed this holiday season compared to last year and finding and affording gifts and meals were among the top concerns.
Jameca Cooper, a psychologist in St. Louis, said the driving force of anxiety in gift exchange is the fear of disappointment. “When you buy a gift for someone, it indicates your feelings about that person and you expose your character, what you're thinking about that person, and your evaluation of them,” she said. As the recipient of a gift, “the pressure to express gratitude for receiving a gift whether you like it or not — and everyone's not that great at faking — there's a fear of disappointment there as well.”
Psychologist Pauline Wallin told me that in most cases of gift-giving anxiety, the giver is making the gift too much about themself. “It's a performance, as if you have to impress the other person,” she said — when you view giving or receiving a gift as a test, it can result in real stress.
Paige T., a 27-year-old in North Carolina who asked not to use her last name to protect her privacy, said, “I had several panic attacks leading up to and the day of my bridal shower because I knew I’d be getting gifts and not giving people things in return.” Her friends had included a link to her wedding registry on the bridal shower invitations without her knowledge, and she started getting packages with items adding up to more than $100 in them, which she felt was a lot. “I really did not want to sit down and open gifts in front of everyone, but they made me,” she said.
For Paige, a school social worker, these feelings are the result of “money stuff.” Growing up middle-class, she was “always hyperaware of money.” “I’ve always felt really bad, especially if someone doesn’t have a lot of money, or if it takes five hours out of their hourly wage to pay for what they’ve given me and I know that they needed that money for something else,” she said. “I make my own money and I can provide for myself.”
One of Paige’s best friends, who tries to work around her aversion to gifts, once tried to compromise by shipping homemade cookies instead of buying a present. “I called her and I was like, ‘You know these are my favorite, but do you know how much mail costs? It was so expensive to ship here!’ And she just said, ‘Paige, please just accept these. I love doing this.’” The friend later gave her a used koozie for her birthday. “That makes me feel better because you were cleaning things out and it's used,” Paige said.
Mandi Johnson, a 42-year-old in Florida who was raised by a single mother without much money and who now works as a director at an IT firm, said income disparity in her family creates anxiety around gifts. “I am probably the highest paid person in my immediate family, and it definitely creates a sense of guilt when I see my mother — who worked really, really hard, but struggled to make ends meet — never show up empty-handed. She wants to be that generous grandmother,” she said. In an effort to control these costs, “I’ll ask for something personal and very inexpensive,” even if her mother might not follow the suggestion.
The wealth gap creates issues for her as a gift giver too. Johnson said she once splurged on a Louis Vuitton purse for her mother during the COVID-19 pandemic. “She was just glaring at me,” Johnson recalled. “She said, ‘I feel terrible. I can’t afford to give you something like this. And I don’t have the nicest car, how do I look getting out with an expensive purse?’” Johnson said she was disappointed by the reaction, but she also became more mindful that her gifts could make someone else feel uncomfortable too.
Now, Johnson’s grown children are working and can splurge on her, beginning another complicated intergenerational exchange. “I am prepping myself to just be happy and excited and grateful that my kids want to spend their hard-earned money on me. I’m just gonna have to suck it up and smile … and not look shocked or upset if they spent money on something expensive,” she said. “Just know that it came with the best intentions and they’re just as proud to buy me something as I am to buy something for my mother.”
The truth is there are tons of gifts that won’t hit the mark — retailers expect about 18% of goods sold during the holiday season to be returned, reported CNBC, citing data from the National Retail Federation. The harder thing for many people to accept is that giving a less-than-perfect gift is OK; you aren’t doing any favors by setting unrealistic expectations of other people or of yourself.
“So many people, especially younger people, seek validation externally,” in this case either from the gifts they receive or the reactions to the gifts they give, “because lots of people are not getting the validation internally,” Cooper said. If a gifting situation is causing you to struggle, take a moment to journal, or reflect on what makes you great, she suggests. “There are ways to be more forgiving of yourself, but it really starts with changing people from within.”
Amanda, a 29-year-old in Wilmington, Delaware, said growing up, Christmas and her mother’s birthday were always extremely stressful because “the majority of the time, whatever we would get her was not good enough or not what she wanted. She would get passive-aggressive, like, ‘Oh, this is fine,’ but then just be rude and dismissive to everybody and bring down the mood.” While Amanda said she is no longer in contact with her mother, she still worries her gifts to other people “are not good enough.” She also said because giving gifts is so “anxiety-inducing, overwhelming, and stressful” for her, “the idea that someone else may have gone through that to get a gift for me makes me feel anxious and guilty.”
Most of the time, a good gift is really a shot in the dark. It can be helpful to remember that gifts are not a perfect vehicle for expressing love or care — even if they are customary or a result of the pressure of commercialism — and they do not reflect the entirety of your relationship with someone.
“At the core of it, a lot of the anxiety has to do with uncertainty — the uncertainty of how to graciously receive, and the uncertainty around being the perfect gift giver,” said Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of the office of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association. “It becomes problematic when we start to equate this perfectionism, this perfect gift exchange, with our sense of worth … Perfection doesn't exist.”
Kristy S., a 36-year-old in the Philadelphia area, said her perfectionism leads to “analysis paralysis” with gift-giving. Her neighbors, for instance, made her a meal when her son was born, and she wanted to return the favor when they had a child. “But I started worrying that I didn’t know if they had allergies, or maybe they don’t like certain ingredients,” she said. “I didn’t want to gift a meal that would be thrown out, especially with my budget being tight. I also felt like nothing I made would compare to the excellent cooking they are used to. I wanted to gift a meal that would freeze well because maybe they had a meal plan for their week already.”
After researching dozens of recipes, calling several caterers and restaurants about prices, and discussing it with her husband several times, Kristy gave up. “I was exhausted from thinking so much about it and never finding an option that I felt good about,” she said. “So, I didn’t send them a meal, and I still feel ashamed about it. I avoided them for about six months.” Instead of shopping, Kristy now opts for gift cards or cash instead, but that has its own uncertainties. “I stress about the amount,” she said.
Consumer research might provide some relief for the anxious. Most recipients care little about whether a gift is expensive than givers think, “as long as you’re kind of showing me that you care about me,” said Julian Givi, a marketing professor at West Virginia University who studies gift giving. His research also found gift-givers “try to do too much.” If someone has a wish list, use it. “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel … just give them what they want,” he said. Also keep in mind that surprising someone with a gift on an occasion where there’s typically reciprocity (like Valentine’s Day or Christmas) when they haven’t prepared something in return will likely make them feel very uncomfortable. “Givers opt to give gifts a lot more often than recipients would prefer,” Givi said.
Those who hate receiving gifts can try to focus on the positive aspects of a present and “reflect on the importance of the relationship before opening the gift, which could predispose them to value the receiver over the gift,” said Ines Branco-Illodo, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
The end of the year is a stressful time for the gift-averse, but Wright said people can think about how to show people in their lives how much they care throughout the year instead of concentrating on one occasion. It’s not a bad idea: Givi’s research shows it’s actually a lot easier to make a gift recipient happy if you give them a gift on a random day rather than on a special occasion — there simply won’t be any expectations. ●