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Gift-giving Anxiety

How to care about gifts' symbolic meanings without being obsessive.

For some of us, gift-giving is no simple matter. Not just because it’s challenging to find affordable, thoughtful gifts given our limited time or finances, but because we recognize that gifts are often wrapped in symbolic meaning and we obsess about it.

Especially in complicated or conflicted relationships, gifts are not just gifts. Holiday gifts may be peace-making gestures, or symbols of anger, hurt, indifference, or dislike (or interpreted as such regardless of our motives). Indeed, we have to accept that sometimes there is no right gift we may bestow. A recipient with low self-esteem or depression may have trouble interpreting the gift as the loving gesture intended. When someone has a negative stereotype of us, our gift may be wrong for no other reason than it came from us. Our thoughtful gift will be interpreted as thoughtless, our expensive gift as trying to buy love or show off.

Fearing embarrassment or judgment, self-conscious people worried about what others think may spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to make the right impression and gain others’ approval with their gift-giving. Will our gifts make us look like we’re thoughtful or thoughtless? Like spendthrifts or cheapskates? Will they fit with the group’s norms regarding how much effort or money to spend? Will our gifts look paltry or generous in comparison to others’ gifts? Will we be embarrassed that our gift is smaller than the one received?

For empathic people, gift-giving can engender all kinds of time-consuming thought and effort as they anticipate what their gifts may mean to others. Recognizing that some people will see their gifts as love yardsticks (“How do you love me? Let me count the gifts!”), they take great pains to choose the right gift. Knowing that some of their children (or friends) are like holiday hounds sniffing for scents of favoritism, they struggle to ensure gifts are of equal quantity and quality.

For those of us who need to reduce our holiday giving for financial or “energetic” reasons, the threat of disappointing recipients looms large, especially when our generous gift-giving is part of a long-standing tradition. The threat of disappointing others and messing with beloved traditions leads some of us to continue giving at levels that strain our finances or our health. Although it might feel like the end of a family era to cut back and adopt new family norms, it might be time for your family to adopt new gift-giving traditions to reduce the gift-giving burden. Consolation may found in the knowledge that even if that particular family tradition changes, other less materialistic traditions can remain intact, and new traditions quickly become old ones.

Not everybody experiences such anxiety around holiday gifting. To some, a gift is just a gift, a holiday token rather than a loaded relationship or public image symbol. To those rejecting materialism or rebelling against norms equating love with gifting, Gift-giving is a social obligation to be rejected or minimized. While these minimalist approaches to holiday gift-giving may be misconstrued as uncaring and may violate group norms, some of us can stand to take a page, or at least a few lines, out of this simpler holiday book.

Rather than worrying obsessively over choosing the right gift, we need to accept that we only have so much control over how other people experience and respond to our gifts. We need to find comfort in our own good intentions, even when they are twisted and twirled by others into something unfair and unrecognizable. And it’s good to remember that even if we fall short, the hit to our public image is usually smaller and shorter-lived than we imagine. And if it doesn't die quickly, we can scale down our relationships with such superficial and materialistic people (or the space we rent them in our heads), and scale up our relationships with people that get what the holidays are really about.

If you liked this, you might enjoy my book, Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving.


Beatty, S. E., Kahle, L. R., & Homer, P. (1991). Personal values and gift-giving behaviors: A study across cultures. Journal of Business Research, 22, 149-157.

Burn, S.M. (2015). Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, & Other Dysfunctional Giving (available for Kindle, Nook, Ibook, and Kobu.

Cheal, D. (1987). ‘Showing them you love them”: Gift giving and the dialectic of intimacy. The Sociological Review, 35, 150-169.

Sherry, J. F., McGrath, M. A., & Levy, S. J. (1993). The dark side of the gift. Journal of Business Research, 28, 225-244

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