Can We Give and Get Gifts Without Hating Ourselves (or Anyone Else)?

Can We Give and Get Gifts Without Hating Ourselves (or Anyone Else)?


My mother's birthday was last week. Because she's left ths world, I couldn't send her a gift.

This was a bittersweet relief.

Opening gifts almost always made Mom cry—not with joy, but because she saw gifts as gauges of how much their givers valued her. A cheeseball seemed generic, e.g. "you mean almost nothing to me." Exquisite candlesticks, by contrast, evinced that their giver bore a false, inflated image of Mom to which, she believed, she could never live up.

Pretty clothes and cosmetics she saw as suggestions that she stank and had no fashion sense.

When I gave Mom something that made her cry, or that she set aside expressionlessly, I felt like a failure.

For people with low self-esteem, giving and getting gifts are trigger-fests.

Gift-giving was long dominated by old-school etiquette—crystal for the third wedding anniversary; orchids for the 28th. Such quaint provisos served a crucial purpose: lessening the free-choice factor.

Free choice can be sheer hell for people with low self-esteem.

Thanks to a psychological phenomenon known as "choice overload," most people suffer anxiety when faced with a wide range of options. Because we with low self-esteem think every decision we make will backfire, even two or three options topple us into choice overload. This makes selecting gifts for others a grueling ordeal.

We can help ourselves by answering a few questions and consulting our answers whenever gift-giving occasions arise:

Which events merit material gifts—instead of, say, cards or texts? Do birthdays, for instance, rank higher on my gift-scale than graduations?

Among my circles, whose milestones "count" most? How much could I comfortably spend on whom?

That's the easy part.

Giving gifts can raise our self-esteem. As in: Yay me! I overcame choice overload to demonstrate how nice, loving and generous I am! This compensates for my inadequacy! I've brought someone joy!

Or it can lower our self-esteem. As in: My gift was insufficient and/or inappropriate.

Our gifts might raise their recipients' self-esteem, making them feel valued and loved.

Or, if the recipients are anything like my mother, our gifts might make them hate themselves and us.

I've felt unworthy of gifts I've received: a turquoise bracelet from a friend whose sorrows I could never stanch, who soon thereafter took her own life. Lovely flowers from an ex-boyfriend.

People who hate themselves can't accept verbal praise. They think kind words could only be egregious errors or cruel jokes. And what are gifts but tangible versions of praise?

For people with low self-esteem, giving and receiving gifts without panicking or turning them into sinister oracles is a matter of trust.

Objects are merely objects. Don't read too much into them. Ponder alternatives to standard gift-giving: for instance, swaps. Or musical chairs-ish games to which each participant brings a gift; these are passed in a circle; when the music stops, keep whatever you're holding. This depersonalizes the exchange, but makes it fun—and everyone gets something.

DIY gifts speak our hearts. Even generic ones—cookies, say—bear a warmth and authenticity that show recipients they're worth our time and effort.

And just as this era is arguably post-etiquette, it might also be post-tangible gifts. In the spirit of consensual minimalism, ponder giving gifts of time—talking. Dog-walking. Dinner with phones turned off.

The year's main gifting season is five months away. That's plenty of time for us to rethink and maybe revolutionize the ways in which we say "I care" and "Thanks, I realize that."

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