It is with great joy that I share this wise, poetic, and helpful article by Sarah Love, MA, LPC on the deeper underpinnings of gift giving and receiving. Many of you know Sarah from her time as moderator on the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course forum, and you will remember the gentle wisdom that she consistently shared there. As I read this article, I found myself nodding and also taking mental notes to journal on the questions that she suggests. Thank you, Sarah, for being a guide for so many, and for guiding me around the often anxiety-provoking world of gifts.
Recently, I went to a baby shower for a family member. In the card I wrote, “If I could package up patience, love, and support, I would.” These intangibles are the things all new parents really need. And they’re the gifts I wish I could give them. But since I couldn’t package the things that can’t be bought, I played along and wrapped up a new swaddle blanket and some baby toys, hoping the patience, love, and support are woven into the fabric and molded into the silicone so that they’ll find it all on their journey as new parents.
As I sat down to write this article about gift anxiety as it relates to holiday gift giving and receiving, something along these lines bubbled to the surface: how much are we trying to package up love or forgiveness or even time? How much are we tying bows on “I’m sorry” or “I love you, do you love me?”? How much are we wrapping up things because we can’t (or don’t know how to, or are scared to) give what we’re really wanting to give? (Not to mention the world blasting messages that we have to buy buy buy.) And what happens when we have the present on our lap with the expectant eyes on our faces waiting for us to beam only our biggest smile, when what we’re really feeling is something so different on the inside?
When we’re anxious, a big part of the reason why is because we’re afraid. And it’s harder when we think we shouldn’t be. “What could I possibly be afraid of when it comes to giving and receiving presents?,” you might be saying. “What’s wrong with me for feeling this way?” Nothing, my dear. Nothing at all.
As I was writing this article, I asked my husband if he felt anxious about giving or getting presents. “Yes,” he said. “Why? Do you feel anxious in general or with certain people?,” I asked. He said he feels most anxious with me because he’s scared that I won’t like what he gets me. He’s scared, as the recipient, that he won’t react the way I might want him to, somehow letting me down. He’s afraid that he actually won’t like what I’ve given him. His dilemma: he wants to please me AND be honest. “Do I be honest and say I don’t like it? Do I push down what I’m feeling so you don’t feel disappointed?” I share this dilemma fully, and I now know more about why.
You see, I can see the love swirling inside both of us as we exchange presents. He wants to make me happy, I want to make him happy. Our gift exchange is rooted in love. And that’s what I was getting to in my point earlier about all the intangibles getting wrapped up with the stuff; there’s more than the concrete gift we’re either giving or receiving. When he gives me a present, he’s also wrapping it in paper made of longing. He’s handing me a piece of his heart and tying it with a bow made of hugs. And same for me. So, the fear of not liking the thing has more to do with a fear of rejection than the actual, physical present. Make sense? Said differently, I know my husband is giving me his love in the form of a present. Can I, if I don’t like it, separate the love from the physical item? Can I say I don’t like it yet still receive the love he’s given me? And can I, if he doesn’t like what I’ve gotten, still stay open-hearted (even if disappointed) and know that my love and vulnerability haven’t been smacked away from him?
This isn’t easy, this staying open when we’re vulnerable. But it’s probably the best and fastest way to cut through the anxiety as it relates to giving and receiving. Ask yourself: what else is contained within this present? Connect with that. That’s where the love lies, even if you’re at odds with whomever gifts are being exchanged.
With that, here are some concrete ways to work through some of the other layers possibly contributing to the anxiety you might be experiencing this time of year. The first step in exploring each one is to do this: SLOW DOWN and GET CURIOUS. Listen for the current of your life and allow the answer for each to bubble up from below. Don’t go digging; instead, let rise.
1. Expectations and Shoulds:
Take an inventory of your expectations. Make a list of anything and everything that pops in your mind around giving and receiving. The reason I start here is that, before we can change anything, we must first know what lives inside. (I think it’s better to replace beliefs than it is to layer the “good stuff” on top of the “bad.”)
- So, what are you expecting of yourself and others? What are others expecting of you (whether they’d agree or not)? What is your family culture around giving and receiving? Do you feel anxiety with everyone or only with certain people or in certain settings? Why?
- If this is hard, complete these sentences: When it comes to giving gifts, I should (act, feel, etc.)____________. When it comes to receiving gifts, I should ____________. You could also do this around specific people: When it comes to buying gifts for my [mom, partner, brother, etc.], I should _________.
Get clear on what you’re telling yourself ABOUT YOURSELF AND OTHERS when it comes to giving and receiving. Our anxiety can be signaling that we’re believing a false message and it’s agitating us. Write out your stories, find the lies, replace them with the truth.
- Example: People will think I’m ungrateful if I don’t act super excited when opening a present from them.
- Truth: There are many ways to show gratitude. Super excited isn’t my way. I can express gratitude in my way.
Exploring your values in this context will help you connect with your core self. When our choices and behavior are out of alignment with our values, this can also create anxiety. Example: spending when we’re trying to pay off debt.
- When it comes to giving and receiving gifts, what is important to you? If there were no “rules” what would that mean to you? Notice any fear and judgment that come up as you name what’s best for you. Believing those voices are part of what’s creating the anxiety (see Steps 1 and 2).
Anxiety can also be an indicator that we likely have unmet needs. This is a chance to explore your needs and find strategies to sufficiently meet those needs within the context of giving and receiving presents. Exploring your needs beforehand will allow you to create the strategies and systems for your needs to get met, thus reducing your anxiety.
- Make a list of your needs when it comes to giving and receiving presents. Some possible needs in this area: connection, space, creativity, appreciation, to know and be known, etc. Think of 2-3 strategies to meet each need.
- For example: I feel overwhelmed opening presents in front of others and need more space. I could either ask to open my gift later when I feel more comfortable, imagine a bubble around me (a boundary) to help me feel safer, tell myself, “It’s going to be ok. Keep breathing.”
There is no right or wrong way to navigate what you’re feeling right now. Perhaps the most important truth to hold on to is that your anxiety is not an indicator that something is wrong with you in any shape or form. The whole process, from start to finish, can be overstimulating and laden with shame, shoulds, expectations, and wounds from childhood. It’s a lot to hold. Our culture doesn’t make space to process any of it. We just keep buying, keep wrapping, keep exchanging, many on autopilot because that’s just “easier.” But this anxiety is your opportunity to wake up, to choose a different path (even if that only means traveling inward and not changing a thing in your outer world), and to connect to something much, much deeper.
Sarah Love, MA, LPC is a feminist counselor providing individual support to those navigating life’s transitions, with a specific interest in the parenthood transition. She offers individual, couple, and group coaching to help people emotionally prepare for parenthood. She has experience working alongside Sheryl as a co-moderator of Sheryl’s Trust Yourself and Open Your Heart Courses and has served as moderator of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety forum. Sarah lives in Ann Arbor, Mi, with her husband, daughter, and cat-child. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her site at www.greenblueskies.com.