What Our Gift-Giving Habits Really Say About Us

For some of us, Christmas brings feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and one-upmanship that started in childhood.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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For some of us, Christmas brings feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and one-upmanship that started in childhood.

The holiday season, at its core, is a time of love and giving. Yet somehow commercialism seems to creep in and sometimes gets in the way of the very meaning of Christmas.

For many, this comes in the form of overspending on presents. One recent survey revealed that one in four participants expected to incur debt this holiday. Another survey revealed that women expect to spend an average of $615 this season on gifts, much of it on credit cards—their share in the estimated $103 billion in personal debt Americans will bring on themselves this year.

Going into debt for gift giving? That sounds more like an unhealthy obsession than joyful appreciation. But is it?

To get some answers on this, I spoke with psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do. In Morin’s work helping patients grow their mental strength, she has found that one thing that discourages is a nagging sense of inadequacy—that we’re not enough. This sense of inadequacy is often behind overspending. We need the latest gadget or the “it girl” bag or else we’re not worthy. This concept, which for many feeds the commercialism we see year-round, can reach new heights at Christmas as people think about the gifts they want for themselves or that they want to buy for others.

To what extent are our gifts of time, self, or presents during the holidays fueled out of an unhealthy desire to reach an arbitrary standard of worthiness, and to what extent do they reflect true generosity? I went to the expert to find out.

Mary Rose Somarriba: How do you see feelings of inadequacy manifesting in how people act during the holidays?

Amy Morin, LCSW: I think definitely for a lot of people, holidays are really their opportunity to try to impress somebody or to try to gain something from other people. So even if you’re giving a gift, the thought might not be how much it might bring joy to the other person but instead how much it might make another person like you more. People might show this by overspending, or blowing their budget, or aiming to make their gift bigger than others’ gifts, or going store to store, or spending lots of time shopping online trying to find the perfect gift—not necessarily for the other person’s sake but more about that person's self perception, how they’ll feel about me.

Thankfully gift giving is not this way all the time, but when it's out of the desire to be people-pleasing, then it is more self-serving than other-serving.

MRS: Do you see differences in how this manifests in women versus men?

AM: I definitely see this more with women than with men—this desire to be liked or the trouble saying no because they’re worried about how it might be perceived.

Of the people I see in my therapy office who are women, for a lot of them, that’s where their self-worth has come from over the years: saying yes. Or they were given the message as kids to be nice all the time, never say no, to be “selfless.” It’s about meeting others’ expectations to make them like you.

It’s definitely a message we tend to give to girls, to be nice and for boys it's to be tough. And I think that develops into this core belief that “I have to do things for other people and that makes me a better person.”

MRS: What are some other common ways unhealthy people pleasing manifests itself over the holidays?

AM: The way people decorate their house for the holidays, spend exorbitant amounts of money and time so that their house looks really festive, to the point where it’s not as much about enjoying decorating but making things look perfect. If I somehow don’t have a Martha Stewart-worthy home, I have failed.

And I see it with holiday parties as well too; people are worried not as much about having fun at the party but that they have expensive dinnerware and that the food is perfect. Those are the two big ways in addition to gift giving that people pleasing can get in the way of healthy enjoyment of the season.

MRS: In what ways can gift giving be compensating for mistakes or failing to play a role, such as a parent who hasn’t spent much time around their kids?

AM: Guilt or self-punishment can play a role, thinking, “I didn’t do so well, but if I spend enough money at the holidays I’ll overcome it.” “If I can spend a lot of money, I can justify the fact I worked a lot of hours and didn’t see the kids as much”; or “they’ll be really happy and and they won't really notice I wasn’t around, or at least it’s worth it so we can afford these types of things.” For most people it’s not a conscious thing but an unconscious thing.

MRS: In what ways can gift giving, done rightly, actually make us feel good in the good-healthy way, as opposed to proving ourselves?

AM: I think healthier gift giving happens when people can set a budget and not feel like they need to have to go over the budget—when they can stop worrying about how much they’re spending but more about the other person. They should think, “I want the other person to have some joy,” rather than have an expectation of it being perfect or improving their opinion of me. Healthy gift giving should be out of the joy of giving and not about the pressure people put on themselves that they have to pay a certain amount and go in debt doing so, but by giving ourselves permission to take a step back and say I’m going to spend no more than this amount and have it be more genuinely about the other person.

We can ask ourselves, what’s my goal in giving this gift to this person—for them to have fun, bring them joy, enjoy something like I’ve enjoyed it? Or is it to imagine them opening it up and liking me more, or out of fear that if I don’t get something of that level, that they won’t like me or I won’t reach a certain status?

It’s better when it’s about bringing joy to someone else just because we enjoy that person—when it’s about gratitude for that person in your life. On these occasions, it’s a reminder that you are enough and are grateful for that person.

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