This Is Why You're Such a Terrible Gift Giver

Bad Gifts
Photo: Decue Wu

I am easily the best gift giver in my immediate family. Last year, I sent my father out of the room sobbing, emotionally overcome by the framed photo I gave him that depicted myself and each of my siblings with our ailing grandmother. Once, I got my mom a custom cheese board cut from limestone — she still pulls it out on every special occasion. When I was living abroad for the better half of my twenties, I sent my entire family a bound coffee table book full of photos of me in various locations in Seoul, holding a gigantic sign that said "Merry Christmas" — I even hand-painted the sign myself. I don't plan for months in advance, I don't budget, and I don't stress — but somehow the exact right gift always comes to mind, right when I need it to.

I'm not good at much, but I am good at gifting.

I can't say the same for everyone in my family. For my younger sister, Meredith, selecting gifts is a major source of anxiety, a flashpoint from which all of her worst fears about herself are affirmed.

"I always try to start early," Meredith tells me. "Because I know I'll get anxious. Then, somehow, it's two weeks before Christmas, and I have nothing. Then, I panic. I'll get something that's the wrong size because I feel like I don't have time to guess the size and I'm too embarrassed to ask so soon before Christmas. Every year, I get dad a shirt that doesn't fit. Every year. And then, sometimes, I see boring gifts, but I end up trying to justify them. Like, for example; I'll see some candles. 'Candles are good,' I tell myself. 'Everyone loves candles. Amanda loves candles, probably. Let's just get Amanda some candles.'"

For the record, candles are fine — I don't love them. I do, however, love my sister. We all do, and that's why her anxiety and subsequent bad gift ideas have become the stuff of family legend.

"Meredith got me the original X-Men series box set on VHS," my brother Brian reminds me. "I hadn't watched X-Men, or expressed an interest in X-Men — like, ever. I was also in college. This was like, five years ago."

He didn't even own a VCR.

I asked my sister if she remembered that particular decision.

"Yes," she says somberly. "I also think the box set was lightly used. I don't know how it happened."

Bad Gifts
Decue Wu

Curious if my sister's overwhelming anxiety surrounding gift-giving was something that others experienced, I decided to reach out to different women — including friends, colleagues, and strangers — and ask if they'd ever felt the same. The answer? Well, let's just say that Meredith is hardly the only one to enter into the holiday season mildly concerned, only to emerge in the new year in a dissociative fugue, unclear on how the hell any of it happened. As it turns out, gift-giving anxiety plagues women quite regularly.

"First, I stress out that December is coming," says Sydney, an account clerk living in Connecticut. "Then I mentally shut down and request forcefully that we do not exchange gifts so as to save my poor, sad brain. When this fails, I go to stores and want to hurt myself and then remember the invention of online shopping. Then, I take a nap, and suddenly it's too late to have anything shipped in time."

Marie Southard Ospina, a writer-editor living in the UK, can relate. "I think my biggest problem with gift-giving is that I end up panicking over not being able to find something 'special' enough, so I'll just go the generic route instead. My gifts end up being more boring than anything else," she says.

Sometimes, her attempts at being thoughtful even go overboard.

"When I didn't know what to get my sister for Christmas one year. I got myself into such a state that I couldn't even remember her interests, apart from vaguely recalling that she maybe, sort of, liked leopard print. So I got this enormous tote bag I found at a market that had a kitschy ass leopard printed onto it, and a big, angry leopard face. There were random furry patches and rhinestones on it as well. My sister was a complete minimalist dresser at the time, and she only really liked subtle leopard print — say, a belt, or maybe a shoe. Suffice it to say, I don't think she ever used it."

"I over think it way too much," says New York City-based model Lex Henry. "Generally, I associate nostalgia with gifts because it brings back memories and happiness, but then I'm also a procrastinator and the nostalgic gift ends up being a gift card to Applebee's."

I started to see a pattern, one that I recognized from observing my sister hem, haw, and eventually go haywire. You begin the gift-giving process with good intentions — plenty of time, a bit of a budget, the hope of an excellent outcome. Suddenly, doubt begins to settle over your brain like a thick fog. You start to wonder if you're capable of getting it right, and from there, you become so riddled with anxiety that you end up doing the exact opposite of what you intended. You self-sabotage, and someone ends up with a lightly used collection of VHS tapes. It's pressure to perform to other people's expectations, yes — but more often than not, it's crumbling under the weight of your own.

Eric Patterson, a licensed professional counselor from the Pittsburgh area, backed me up on that theory.

"I think gift-giving anxiety is stressful because of the pressure the giver puts on themselves to find and present the 'perfect' gift to the recipient," Patterson says. "This is usually a self-inflicted anxiety, meaning the stress has an internal rather than external source. The giver might imagine an outlandish scenario where the 'wrong' gift ruins the relationship. At the same time, there is an opposite belief that the 'right' gift can strengthen or solidify a relationship. Here, the gift and the idea of gift giving holds too much power."

Shawn M. Burn, Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic State University and author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Co-dependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving, says that gift-giving anxiety can also be exacerbated by our personalities."

For example, "Fearing embarrassment or judgment, self-conscious people worried about what others think may spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to make the right impression and gain others' approval with their gift giving," Burn explains. "For empathic people, gift-giving can engender all kinds of time-consuming thought and effort as they anticipate what their gifts may mean to others."

If you fall into either of those categories, Burn says you may recognize such night-sweats-inducing thoughts as: "Will our gifts make us look like we're thoughtful or thoughtless? Like spendthrifts or cheapskates? Will they fit with the norms regarding how much effort or money to expend? Will our gifts look paltry or generous in comparison to others' gifts? Will we be embarrassed that our gift is smaller than the one received?

Empathy and thoughtfulness were two things that came up time and time again in conversations about gift-giving anxiety. At the core of every meltdown, there were two fundamental questions everyone was asking themselves: Do I care enough, and am I really thinking this through?

And sometimes, you get so stuck asking yourself those questions that you never really land on an answer.

"I gave my best friend in middle school a surprise roller skating party right after she recovered from a wrist sprain from roller skating," says Marie Koury, a video editor at InStyle. "I gave my high school boyfriend a terribly curated mix CD with 42 songs, half of them from an unknown rap group called Funkdoobiest. If we're being honest, I think I'm a bad gift-giver because I fear I lack empathy, and empathy is the core tenant of gift-giving." She says that perceived lack of empathy blocks her from being able to pull out a great gift idea. "I get myself in this anxious rut being like, 'Oh my god, you're a bad friend — why can't you remember what they like or need?' Then I just give up and give them, like, lotion."

Bad Gifts
Decue Wu

Then, of course, there's the matter of expectations. Sometimes, even close friends and relatives don't define "good" gifts the same way you do, and that can ratchet up the stress. One person's "best gift ever" could be another's "can you believe they got me that?"

"From my perspective, gifts seem to fall in two categories: practical and thoughtful, says Charlotte Whitney, a Denver-based communications manager. I appreciate practical gifts, so I give practical gifts sometimes thinking the other person will appreciate it as much as I do. Unfortunately, a lot of the time I think people expect thoughtful gifts."

As frustrating and awkward as being a historically "bad" gift-giver might feel, there are ways to take some of the pressure off of yourself and throw a wrench into the cycle of anxiety.

"The best intervention for this kind of stress is to set realistic expectations for yourself and the gift you are giving," Patterson says. "The gift does not possess magical powers to substantially improve or harm a relationship. Set sensible budgets for time and money for each gift or each person you're buying for. When you run out of money or you have committed too much time to the gift, move on. Another key to the process is honesty. No one expects you to read the mind of the recipient to arrive on the perfect present. If you are stumped, start a conversation about your struggles and look for suitable suggestions."

Burn says that "'we need to accept that we only have so much control over how other people experience and respond to our gifts. We need to find comfort in our own good intentions."

Of course, you also have to accept that good intentions don't always make a good gift — and that's okay, too.

"One time, I was super proud of a gift I bought," Henry tells me. "I gifted a coworker a new dog collar and doggie shirt — just too cute, right? I thought I had done well, because [the dog shirt and collar] was a sports team my coworker was infatuated with. Not one coworker, or even my boss, thought to call me before the party to let me know that her dog died last Friday."

And sometimes, even the bad gifts turn out okay.

"I got dad an inflatable bull last year," my sister tells me with a shrug. "I don't know what the fuck I was thinking, but he seemed to enjoy it."

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