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The truth behind “gift guilt” and what to do about it


Meal planning, travel, and gift shopping are widely understood holiday stressors for many people, but receiving gifts can also bring up uncomfortable feelings — what’s known as “gift guilt.”

Some may gasp at the idea, but it is a real phenomenon. You may think you should feel lucky and grateful when someone gives you a gift, but instead you feel pangs of guilt.

“Telling yourself not to have a feeling doesn’t suppress the feeling,” said Dr. Andrea Bonior, a board-certified clinical psychologist at Georgetown University and host of the mental health podcast “Dig the Baggage.”

For many people, receiving gifts can be just as stressful, if not more so, than giving them, Bonior said.

First, some do not feel worthy of a gift. “We can feel guilty when someone spends time or money on us,” Bonior said, “because deep down, in some situations, we might not think we’re worth it, or that we somehow don’t measure up to what we should be. »

These people may also struggle to receive compliments or attention, she added. They feel uncomfortable that someone has gone out of their way to do something nice for them and struggle with their self-esteem.

Others feel guilty because they think they didn’t give as well or as dearly. a gift they received, or they were caught off guard and have nothing to give back.

“Human nature has that kind of reciprocal value,” said Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast. “We want to reciprocate based on what we get, and gifts can activate a lot of feelings and, in some places, the shame we have of our position. »

A A Baylor University study published in the journal Social Science Research in 2013 explored how humans sometimes punish others for their generosity because that kindness has led to their own sense of inadequacy.

“The generous donor may have made them look or feel bad,” said Dr Kyle Irwin, a co-investigator for the study, Daily Science at the time. “Or they may feel jealous or feel like they’re not doing enough. »

Gifts can also induce feelings of indebtedness, leading some to feel they owe others for doing something good. You may feel like strings are tied or there is an expectation of closeness or intimacy.

“If you grew up in a situation where you didn’t get a lot of attention or affection,” Bonior said, “it’s really weird to suddenly be in a situation where your friends give you these nice things. , and it’s really weird. You may feel like you have to make up for it somehow.

Whatever the reasons for gift guilt, you can turn those feelings into something positive with these expert tips.

Be intentional when entering the vacation. If you feel guilty about receiving gifts, ask yourself why in advance and try to reconcile those feelings. “A lot of these people (feeling guilty) are actually really good at taking care of other people,” Bonior said. “They just don’t think they’re worth caring about. »

A useful exercise is to think about the joy you feel when you give someone a gift – and know that others share that same feeling.

However, if you constantly think you’re unworthy, Bonior suggests understanding the reasons why. “Think back to your childhood, think back to the messages you tell yourself, think back to the pattern that developed around your self-esteem,” she said. “For some people, it will be helpful to speak with a professional. »

Try to get away from the guilt and realize that you can be a good gift-recipient, Santos said. There’s so much emphasis on being a good gift giver and not enough on being a good receiver, she said, but making others feel good can be a gift in itself.

“One way to do that is to be really obvious in your gratitude, maybe even specific in your gratitude,” she said. “When you actually use the gift, check with the person and tell them you are using it and be grateful, even years later. »

Santos said she continues to thank her father and mother-in-law for a Dutch oven they gave her a few years ago, for example, by taking a picture when she uses it and sending it to them. as a sign of appreciation.

“Maybe someone spent a little more on you or you didn’t give anything back, but the fact that you can show your gratitude is incredibly powerful,” she added. “It makes the donor feel like they’ve done something right. Their gift to you becomes a gift you can return.

Many people are going through tough financial times right now and cannot reciprocate as they would have liked or have done in the past.

“We’re not going to be perfect gifts every time,” Santos said, “and it’s nice to give each other a little grace if (a gift) doesn’t feel at the level we would have liked under certain circumstances. . .”

You may not have time either. The holidays can overwhelm you and you can feel overwhelmed. The key is to remember that people give gifts “because they really care about you,” she said.

Let go of the superficial aspects of giving and remembering why you are doing it. “Ultimately, gift giving is about honoring the connection. It’s about giving joy. It’s about being able to nurture our relationships,” Bonior said. “The more efficient it becomes, the less it makes sense. »

Gift giving is all about building relationships and strengthening your bonds with loved ones.

Focusing too much on reciprocal gifts can be limiting, she added. “No relationship should always be perfectly symmetrically balanced all the time,” Bonior said. “Understand that this holiday gift is only a small part of your friendship. It doesn’t have to be your entire friendship.

The commercial nature of the holidays can make us focus more on material things or try to buy the “perfect” gift. But they should be a time of kindness, compassion and gratitude, so make a conscious decision to focus on the good things and enjoy them, experts said.

“The key is to remember that while we can’t control the gifts we receive, we can control how we react this holiday season,” Santos said. “We can take the time to regulate any negative emotions during the holidays and be intentional about what we really want to get out of gifts and all of our interactions – a sense of connection and joy. »

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