All cultures have their own unique customs regarding the winter holidays, most include giving gifts. The general function is the same: to strengthen bonds between the giver and receiver. That may sound simple, but giving gifts is surprisingly complex, especially between the people who mean the most to us.
Giving and receiving from each other is supposed to reinforce our positive feelings and make us feel loving and effective.
If you’ve ever tried to give someone “the perfect gift,” you know that it is a gamble.
If you get it right, you’re a superstar.
If you get it wrong, you risk hurt feelings and even total rejection.
We evaluate gifts using 2 scales: sentiment and substance. Substance refers to the size of the gift (usually in terms of cost). Sentiment is the thoughts or feelings we are trying to express.
We say it is the thought that counts but that’s not quite accurate, especially when we use gift exchange as a test to prove how attuned we are in the relationship. When that’s the case, you have to think the right thought for the gift to be a success.
Here is an example that, while totally cliché, actually happened in session last week:
Jackie and David have been married for 5 years and have one child.
Last year, David thought he had gotten Jackie the perfect gift: a Vitamix blender.
Though he knew that buying your wife a household appliance was risky, he felt buying this blender would show how thoughtful he actually was.
The Vitamix was perfect on both scales. At about $500, the investment was substantial. He believed he had gotten the sentiment right too. He knew Jackie had been researching blenders for a long time. She told him that her sister recently got one and loved it. He noticed that she specifically connected the Vitamix with her health and well-being, what could be more important than that? He wasn’t sure why she was holding back, but assumed it was the price.
David bought the blender and felt great about it. He truly believed he was he was buying a type of high-end self-care for her, like a spa treatment. He was really excited to give it to Jackie.
Jackie was not overjoyed and David was crushed.
He felt that no matter what he did, he couldn’t get it right. He completely withdrew from Jackie for the rest of the evening. Then Jackie got angry because he was distant during this special moment.
If gift giving has become a source of stress for your or a source of conflict in your relationships, it is time to rethink things.
It’s not that we need to continue striving to be better givers.
We need to be more gracious receivers.
When we judge what we receive, we lose out on the real prize: the love that motivated the gift.