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Family Dynamics

The Psychology Behind Choosing a Perfect Gift

Both giving and receiving is often not about the present itself

Ali* wanted to find the perfect gift for her sister’s baby shower. “It’s her first baby—my first niece or nephew. I want to give her something special.” But Ali was not sure what that could be. “I keep wandering around baby stores and internet sites. There are all kinds of adorable things, but nothing seems like that special something.”

Bobby* was looking for a gift for his girlfriend. “We’re not ready to get married yet, so I don’t want to give her a ring…but I want something that will tell her that I love her…” He had looked at jewelry, but, he said, “She’s very particular. I don’t want to get her something that she won’t like.” And money was also an issue. “We’re trying to save up for a nice vacation. Money’s tight, so anything I spend on her gift will take away from that trip.”

Erin* and her sisters were trying to decide what to give their parents for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. “We can’t agree on something. We all have different ideas about what they’d like. And we don’t have the same amount of money to spend. My older sister and her husband have just had their second child and can’t afford a big gift. My brother isn’t married, is making lots of money, and says he’d be happy to pay for a bigger share than the rest of us. But that doesn’t feel right either…”

Here’s the thing. Gift giving seems like it should be simple, but actually, it’s pretty complicated. A number of psychological factors can interfere with finding not just a perfect gift, but even one that communicates how much we care about someone. But once these dynamics become clear, they can actually help us defeat the gift-choosing monster. Here are three common issues, and suggestions for overcoming them:

  • It’s harder than we might imagine to get inside another person’s brain, to see things through their eyes, and therefore to figure out what they really want or would like. Although empathy and attunement have been shown to be extremely important to healthy psychological development, even the most attuned person does not always have the ability to know what another person wants. Sometimes, as I have talked about in some of my other posts , this inability to get inside someone else’s head can be interpreted as a sign of not caring—or not caring enough.

Ali, for instance, loved her sister very much, and had always been very close to her. “But we have different tastes,” she said. “I’m afraid that whatever I buy will be in my taste, not hers. When I see something that I think is in her taste, I think it’s ugly, so I don’t want to get it!”

  • The second psychological factor that creates gift-giving crises has to do with family traditions. We all bring the customs of our own families to any search for a gift. Frequently ours are not exactly like those of our intended recipient. Sometimes those differences can make for excitement and fun in gift exchanges; and sometimes they can be upsetting and lead to hurt feelings on both sides.

Bobby’s family, for example, was highly practical in their gift-giving. “If it was someone in my family, I’d find a sexy picture of a couple sipping tall, cool drinks on a beach, and I’d glue it to a big jar, with the words ‘vacation fund.’ And I’d put all the cash I would have spent on a gift into the jar.” But he knew that his girlfriend had grown up with the tradition of giving and getting surprises. “She’s going to want something special, something I bought especially for her, and something she’s not expecting.”

  • Third, when we do choose a present, we are almost always doing it for more than one psychological reason, some of which may not be clear or even available to our conscious minds. For example, gifts are often communications of love or caring about someone else. But they can also be a request to be loved or admired in return.

Erin and her siblings wanted to give their parents a special gift to say “thank you” for being such loving and good parents. But there were some unconscious factors at work as well. For instance, there was a fair amount of good natured sibling rivalry among the brothers and sisters, but there was also some underlying resentment that the parents seemed to favor their last-born child over the others. “Maybe we want him to pay extra since he gets extra attention from them,” Erin said. “Or maybe we all want Mom and Dad to finally say that they love us more than they do him!” And finally, she realized, “maybe we have some conflicts about giving them something really nice, because we feel like they’ve hurt our feelings…”

Understanding these dynamics does not mean giving up on the search for a great gift; but it does mean accepting the possibility that there is no such thing as a perfect one! Perfection, we are told by the sages, is not something human beings can actually achieve. British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott actually tells us that “good enough” parents create healthier and happier children than “perfect” ones would. Maybe the same is true of gift-giving.

For example, as Ali began to ponder the reality that her taste was different from her sister’s, she also realized that there was an important, unconscious motivator that was making things even harder. “I want to give her something that she’ll remember always; something that makes me the best aunt, and the best sister! But the irony is that I can’t do that alone!” The realization led her to seek help from one of her other sisters, whose taste was much more like their pregnant sibling. “She knew exactly what to get,” Ali said. “And together we had the money to pay for it! So my present will be perfect, even though it won’t make me the best sister…” I wondered. Maybe it made her even better, since she had figured out a way to put aside her wish to use the gift to stand out, and had turned it into a gift that would be appreciated and used.

The same was true in each of the other situations. Bobby, for example, decided that he could integrate his own tradition with his girlfriend’s. “I made two jars,” he told me. One was for vacation savings. The other was for a special gift that his girlfriend would choose on that trip. He put a lot of thought into the pictures he pasted on the jars. “I think one that is just about her will make her happy,” he said. “It is a present for her, after all.” And he was right. His girlfriend was both surprised and pleased with his offering.

And Erin and her siblings began to talk more openly about some of their conflicts about the present for their parents. “We figured out that we could all contribute different amounts and that would be alright. We also agreed that we love them and want to give them something special, but that the present isn’t going to make them love us any more or less.”

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy

Teaser Image Source: Time for Gifts — Techie She

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