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Is Gift Giving a Bad Idea?

For some, gift giving can be stressful.

Key points

  • Gift giving can detract from the pleasure of togetherness during holidays.
  • Gift giving can be used unintentionally to create pressure and competition between givers and receivers.
  • Gift giving can cause disappointment and hurt feelings in either the giver or the receiver.

I am Jewish, yet one of my favorite days of the year is Christmas. Christmas is not officially my holiday, and I don’t formally celebrate it. This is exactly the reason I love it so. For me, there is absolutely no pressure or expectations on that day. On Christmas, I surround myself with my husband and kids and any other stray friends or family who are around. We cocoon, sleep late, lounge, eat, talk and watch movies. Not a gift is exchanged because, in theory, “ it’s not our holiday.” For us, gift giving happens on Hanukkah.

Gift Giving Can be Stressful

I don't know about you, but I find gift giving stressful, especially during the holidays. When I give a gift, I like to be inspired. That doesn’t happen on demand, yet the holidays require a gift at a designated time. I like to think about the person I am giving a gift to. I like to mull over who they are, what they like and value, their tastes, and what they might need. The holidays sneak up on you when you are unprepared, and they wait for no one. They come and go before you know it, and you better be prepared, or you’ll miss them altogether.

Good Gifts

The most valuable gifts are the ones that come from the heart and reflect the giver's knowledge of the receiver. What does the receiver like and value? What are his or her tastes, and what is she missing and wanting in her life? Most people, including my grown children, who no longer live with me, don’t always know the answers to these questions.

Have you ever had the experience of giving someone a gift of something that you know they don’t have? Logically you think they would want this gift, but somehow it doesn’t hit the spot for them? This can happen with a loved one just as easily as it can with someone you know less well.

Hurt Feelings

Often we don’t know why our present doesn’t hit the spot. It could be that the receiver already has the item, or it might not be the right type. A patient of mine bought an item that her cousin requested for Christmas only to discover that its dimensions did not please the cousin.

My patient, who put her energy and limited resources into purchasing the present, felt used and unappreciated. The receiver's reaction made him feel like the gift exchange was merely an opportunity for free shopping. Similarly, the receiver may have a notion of how expensive a gift should be. If it doesn’t live up to those expectations, she could be disappointed.

A gift inherently carries a message of valuation. If it doesn’t say, “I value you, I recognize and see you, I appreciate you,” it could instead send a message of devaluation. If it doesn’t live up to the standard of value that the receiver expects, the gift could be experienced as demeaning to the point where it might devalue the relationship.

A friend of mine was insulted when she received a barely wrapped gift from her mother-in-law that turned out to be a re-gift of the very same item that she, the daughter-in-law, had given to her mother-in-law two years earlier. She had been striving to earn her mother-in-law's approval, and the sloppy re-gift reinforced her sense of inferiority. It took a while to rebuild that relationship.

When giving becomes one-sided because the same person is doing all the giving – and receiving little to nothing in return – the giver can feel exploited and unappreciated. Such givers tend to give from the heart, and their presents are a way of saying, “I love you. I value you. I am grateful for you. I want to make you happy.” In these cases, the giver is often not looking for a return gift in kind but rather some form of recognition or appreciation that could come packaged as time spent together, attention, and consideration. The absence of such attention and appreciation can leave deep wounds to the hopeful giver.

Burdensome Gifts

It can sometimes be a burden to receive a gift, especially when the gift is expensive in terms of either money or time and effort. Have you ever gone to dinner at someone’s house and watched them work so hard and long on preparing the meal that it detracts from the enjoyment of it? Giving so much can create a sense of obligation, a sense that the receiver must reciprocate in kind with a gift of equal value. Such generosity can create pressure, especially if you, as the receiver, are just not the gift giving type.

Giving an expensive gift to someone who can’t afford it may feel like the ultimate gift to the giver, an example of the utmost generosity and consideration. In some cases, this might actually be true. On the other hand, a present of this kind may make the less wealthy receiver feel embarrassed, diminished, oh so conscious of what they do not have, and how they cannot reciprocate such a grand gift.

When I give a gift, I worry that the receiver might find it useless or unwanted. If the person doesn’t sincerely indicate his pleasure in the gift, I feel like a burden. The whole enterprise feels like a wasted opportunity, not to mention money.

When the Only Present Is Your Presence

These dynamics can generate an underlying aura of pressure or competition around gift giving, which is exactly the opposite of the spirit of Christmas, holidays in general, and the original intention of gift giving.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against gift giving in general. I am against the compulsory aspect of it during the winter holidays. Giving a gift can express some of the most generous, appreciative, loving, and expressive impulses a person can have with more impact than words convey. A gift might stand as a profound expression of forgiveness or remorse. A well-timed daisy plucked on a walk can express a longed-for romantic intention.

I advocate for experimenting with having one Christmas with no gift giving. See what happens when you focus only on the gift of togetherness with people you love. If your gift giving desire is still burning within you, try giving a gift when it is not expected, maybe in gratitude for something, so it lacks that sense of obligation that occurs during the holidays.


Komter, A. (2007). Gifts and social relations: the mechanisms of reciprocity. International

Sociology, 22(1), 93–107.