Beyond Blame

Freeing yourself from toxic emotional bullsh*t

How to Simplify Gift-Giving

Be brave: abandon compulsory winter gift-wasting!

Dear Dr. Alasko: I recall reading a column of yours about giving gifts, and how you suggested that only children should receive them, not adults. I'd like to pull our extended family back from everyone (all fourteen of us) giving gifts to everyone else. Every year I feel bad about receiving silly gifts I have to pretend to "love," when I just end up giving them away. And if I forget anyone on the list they're offended. Advice?

Dear Reader: This is a tricky subject and typically inspires a lot of strong emotion.

Here's some background about gifts. An offering or gift is actually linked to human survival. In ancient times, whenever a stranger approached another tribe, carrying a gift expressed a peaceful intention and weakened the tribe’s impulse to kill him first and then ask questions.

Today, when we're invited into another person's home, bringing an offering is a universal custom that denotes respect and appreciation.

When the Three Wise Men followed the star, they brought gifts to honor a great event, a sign of high regard.

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We still use gifts to express those intentions.

Fast forward to Target, Walmart, Best Buy, etc. and the flood of advertising. Nowadays, it seems that there's an obligation to buy something for everyone. Hence the common question: "did you get all your shopping done?"

The unfortunate result is the one you mention: You feel obligated to buy something for any and everyone who might give you a gift, even though you don't really need or want what you receive.

Many years ago I reached a tipping point with all this, a point at which I was no longer willing to say, after I unwrapped a present, "Oh, I like it. How clever! (etc.) It's so thoughtful of you" – when to myself I'd be thinking, "What the heck is this for?"

So I made a unilateral declaration: no more gifts of any kind for any reason. For a year or two people persisted. But I firmly resisted their persistence.

Life is so much simpler now. I don't have to worry about buying gifts for other adults who have their own tastes and no one has to feign delight at useless gifts.

A less controversial version is to simply buy gift cards for a favorite store. The receiver spends the money as they please. Even better? Giving a check. Because it still feels a little silly for me to buy you a gift card and for you to buy me one.

The exception, of course, is with children, especially if they’re at the age when they still believe in Santa Claus. Kids get really excited about opening presents and loving adults want to create delight for their children. Children are wired to love surprises.

All that said, I doubt you'll be able to negotiate achanges in your family's gift giving. You'll just have to choose to opt-out of the process and then face the firestorm of reaction. Be ready to be called Super-Scrooge, and endless variations thereof. In the end, you might find that you suffer either way. How about going on a long trip over the holidays? Get creative.

It's your life, after all.

Carl Alasko, Ph.D. is the author of Beyond Blame (Tarcher Penguin), and like his first book Emotional Bullshit, it has been published in five languages.

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