Why I Stopped Keeping Gifts Out of Guilt

It truly is the thought that counts.
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It truly is the thought that counts.

Ah, Christmas. A time for family, friends, comfort food, boozy winter cocktails—and hopefully, some spiritual renewal and good stories.

Oh! And gifts. It’s also the time for all . . . those . . . gifts.

“This really reminded me of you!” the card read. “Really?!” I thought as I unwrapped a handbag that was the opposite of my style. “This is how you interpret my taste?!” While I certainly appreciated the kind gesture—forcing a smile as I enthusiastically thanked the giver—I had already predicted this gift’s fate. Indeed, this purse would collect dust in my closet for years to come.

It followed me even as I moved around the country. From closet to closet, it took its place in the back, tag still intact. Anytime I looked at it, guilt and sadness crept over me. I even started personifying the bag, imagining that it had feelings. “The poor orphaned handbag. Neglected and alone—with a selfish and vain owner.

You’re so ungrateful,” it would sometimes tell me. Occasionally, I’d take it out and consider using it for the day. But no, it just didn’t suit me. Back to the dark, dusty corner it went. I loved the person who gave it to me. And you don’t just toss out well-meaning gifts, right?

As the years passed, the handbag started collecting other outcast friends. Kooky scarves from kind distant relatives, questionable jewelry from ex-boyfriends. I just couldn’t bring myself to part with them.

That was, of course, until The Great Purge (detailed in this article).

“Don’t keep gifts out of guilt. After the joy of the gift-giving moment is through, you can donate the gift without guilt. It has served its purpose.” When I came across this insight from the world’s most popular minimalist, Marie Kondo, it was like she had read my mind. Despite my distaste for those presents, I clung to the material items thinking that they embodied the memories, generosity, and kindness of the giver.

Unfortunately, “gift guilt” is a common side effect of the holiday season. Do we have to keep it? Can we throw it out? Should we regift it? Guilt is a complex emotion. But simply keeping a gift around out of obligation isn’t a fix-all for a troubled conscience.

So as I KonMari-ed my closet and rid myself of clothes and accessories I never wore, I realized that my guilt, and consequent hoarding, came from simply wanting to please people. In a Verily article, writer Emily Mitchell interviews Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It—and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. Newman shares, “Saying yes does not make you a nicer person. It simply adds to your own overload.” I think the exact same thing can be said about keeping bad gifts. They add to your load—materially and emotionally.

Julia Hogan, LPC, says to begin letting go by examining why we feel guilty. She shares that people usually feel guilty about not liking a gift because they think that isn’t what they should be feeling. “They might be thinking that if they were a better person, this weird gift wouldn’t bother [them],” Hogan says. “[They’d] be able to transcend the weirdness and love it.” Instead, she suggests focusing on the intention behind the gift and the love that the gesture, not the object, represents.

Guilt isn’t the only thing holding people back from giving away unwanted or unnecessary gifts though. According to Hogan, people also struggle because they may associate memories and feelings with an item. By letting go of the gift, they’re afraid they’d lose the object’s associated meaning—even if, in reality, the memories and feelings are so much larger than the objects themselves.

Freeing ourselves from the burden of so much stuff is a worthwhile pursuit. Whether they’re gifts you just got and haven’t put away yet or things you’ve needlessly held on to for years, realize that you can honor the gift-giving gesture in other ways—ways that won’t bog down your closets and your mind with clutter. And in the meantime, here are some ideas about what to do with the unwanted gifts.

01. USE IT ONCE, THEN DONATE

This first tip comes with a warning because it could perpetuate the cycle of receiving even more terrible gifts. “Oh, you liked that handbag? Well, maybe next year I could give you a wallet to match . . .” However, it all depends on who is giving you that gift. Is it a younger relative who’s still figuring out the art of gift giving? Or is it from an elderly friend whose tastes and gifting habits aren’t changing anytime soon? Does the gift hold some value beyond the mere fact it was from them? Perhaps some sentiment or that it was lovingly handmade. If this is the case, consider wearing or demonstrate using the gift at least once to show your heartfelt appreciation for their gesture.

So your grandmother-in-law gave you Earth’s brightest scarf that she painstakingly knit—and you’re seeing her tomorrow. Never mind that you only wear black. How hard would it be to wear it and convey to her that you really appreciate the thought? Or what about that mismatched bead bracelet your 12-year-old niece gave you? Consider sending her a Snapchat of you sporting it. She’d love that!

Be careful not to embellish your enjoyment, however. Keep the compliments about their gift giving or the thought they put in to the gift. Gracious sincerity is the best policy.

02. REGIFT

Wait a second. Isn’t that considered tacky? Well, according to Consumer Reports, the answer is a resounding no.

Consumer Reports suggests regifting only brand-new items that match the recipient’s tastes. But before you do, search for telltale signs of regifting before you wrap. Most of all, make sure that it didn’t have any personalized monograms on it—or any notes enclosed. Imagine if my friend Sarah received a regifted book tailored to her interests, signed, “To Maria.” Awkward.

Remember who gave you the gift, and make sure the giver and receiver won’t cross paths. If the chances of your cousin from North Carolina crossing paths with your college friend from Dallas are slim to none, you can feel comfortable passing it along. But regift the scarf your aunt gave you to your sister? Not a good idea.

When in doubt, remind yourself that you’re reducing waste. If all of the above line up—and you really think that the other person will genuinely love this gift, feel no remorse. Just feel thrifty and resourceful.

03. SELL UNWANTED GIFTS ONLINE

Chances are, if the giver thought you’d love the gift, someone else out there actually will. Hop on eBay or Craigslist, and get that treasure in the right hands. The bonus is that you’ll receive a little something for giving it away while providing someone else a fair, discounted price.

04. TRADE GIFT CARDS

While gift cards to the right places can make anyone’s day, gift cards to franchises that don’t exist in your area or simply aren’t your style might be more useful traded. Fortunately, there’s more than just eBay and Craigslist to take care of this common problem. Try swapagift.com or monstergiftcard.com to trade gift cards or exchange them for another retailer at the same value. A win-win swap can easily happen within your own circle. Ask around to see what your friends got. One woman’s Target is another woman’s Macy’s.

05. GIVE TO THE LESS FORTUNATE

’Tis the season for selfless giving. Consider donating the gifts that you don’t need or want to local charities. Goodwill or Salvation Army are easy options, and you can look around your town for local charities or churches collecting for those who don’t have the luxury of having too many scarves or handbags. Or check out Verily’s guide on how to give these items a second life.

While gift giving and receiving can be a fantastic part of Christmas, remember that they’re not the reason we share the joy of the holidays. As the saying goes, “It’s the thought that counts”—even if their thought (or yours) was way, way off.

Photo Credit: Flickr