When Gift-Giving is Toxic

Gift that feels badAs we skid headlong into “that time of year,” when giving gifts is more of an obligation than anything else, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the toxic aspect of gift-giving, and how it negatively impacts a relationship.

To be clear, I just want to state that there is nothing inherently wrong with giving or receiving gifts. If you are giving from your heart, out of the pure desire to give to another, then God bless you. Please do so. That is what giving gifts should look like:  given from the heart, without any attachment or expectation bound up with it. In a way, that is sort of the function of Santa Claus, and perhaps his appeal, as well. The gifts are freely and miraculously given, and the jolly old elf doesn’t even expect (nor does he get) a thank you in return. According to the legend we have created, Santa does it for the pure joy of giving, and nothing else. No wonder he is so well loved.

But then there are the other kinds of gifts, the kind of gift that feels bad, the kind that aren’t really gifts at all, and some of them are, quite frankly, massive burdens. You know what I’m talking about. They are passive aggression wrapped in bows, hateful commentary provided “because they love you,” or an imposition of someone else’s preferences for you. Or, maybe it’s just a lavish opportunity to “outdo” you with all the money “they” have. Whatever the reason, the end result is that the gift makes you feel bad. And that is toxic.

No matter what dynamic is occurring in the push-me/pull-you of the relationship, it is important to understand that it is probably largely unconscious on the part of the giver (or the receiver, which I’ll get to in a minute). The person who gives hurtful gifts probably didn’t do any plotting with the ultimate goal of hurting you; unconsciously, they are just trying to “win” a power struggle that has been going on between you, and “gifts” are a perfect weapon.

If a person gives you a gift that has an expectation attached, then it is a toxic gift. For example, giving you a gift membership to a gym that you don’t want and have no intention of using is toxic. This “gift” may keep on giving when the expectation that you go to the gym and work out regularly becomes a frequent topic of conversation. The gift-giver feels, because they spent money on you, that they are entitled to badger you about a choice they wish you would make. As a result, you may feel bad about yourself, and you may (rightfully) resent this person’s intrusion into your life and personal decisions. Gifts of this nature may require extreme boundary setting on your part. And if gifts like this regularly come from the same person, it is entirely within your right to start refusing them—kindly, if possible.

Some gifts, like in the previous example, may be calculated to hit you where it hurts. People who have personality disorders, or traits of disorders, often use gifts to try to control other people. In the gym example, the gift-giver may think, “She’s too fat. She needs to exercise more.” This may or may not be true, but if the person believes it to be true, then their “gift” is actually an attempt to make you do what they want you to do.

My mother was a classic toxic gift-giver. One year, she bought me a set of cutlery, but apparently she made the mistake of letting me choose my own style—which she didn’t like. The next year, I received a set of dishes that she had chosen—and which I didn’t like. The greatest Battle of the Gifts was waged with her mother-in-law, however. My mother found many things to dislike in my grandmother’s home, and her method of dealing with it was to give my grandmother something new to replace her old things. For example, cutlery. One year, my mother gave my grandmother a new set to replace “her old, ugly set.” My grandmother was wily and passive-aggressive herself, and that set of cutlery quickly disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen again, but her “old, ugly set” continued to appear at the dinner table. My mother complained bitterly about this on a regular basis and actually had the chutzpah to ask my grandma to give back the set if she wasn’t going to use it.

Of course, gift-giving is a two-way street, and the motives of the gift-giver may be quite pure and innocent—until the receiver gets hold of it. I read a column in Ask Amy once that described a daughter-in-law who dutifully attempted to buy a gift for her mother-in-law each Christmas. One year, the mother-in-law began to give the woman a “do not buy” list, so the daughter-in-law took care to avoid the items on the list. The next Christmas, however, her gift from the previous year appeared on her mother-in-law’s “do not buy” list. This is textbook passive-aggressive behavior, and you can’t win that war.

I had a rough time buying gifts for my mother as an adult. I tried buying her clothing (she loves clothes). But they “didn’t fit right,” “were scratchy,” the “wrong color,” or a bad choice in some other way. There was always something wrong with everything I bought her. I began to ask her what she did want, specifically. One year, she handed me a catalog and pointed out a pair of diamond earrings. Fine! Easy. I ordered them; I wrapped them; she opened them—and promptly found a “flaw” in them. I heard about that “flaw” for months. And then I started giving her gift cards…

No one can control you through their gifts without your consent, of course. If you are the giver, have no—and I mean zero—expectations. Don’t expect gratitude. Don’t expect joy. If you get them, then yay! But if you don’t, know that their inability to be happy or to receive has nothing to do with you. As long as you gave from your heart, then you’re good.

Likewise, work on being a good receiver. Even if you don’t like the gift and would never choose it, a simple and heartfelt “Thank you” will suffice. Even if the gift feels thoughtless or hurtful, give the giver the benefit of the doubt. If the gift feels toxic and you have previous experience of toxic gifts from this person, then you can be gracious and set your boundaries at the same time. If the relationship is valuable to you, it may be time for a heartfelt discussion.

But really, when it comes down to it, the most important gifts in the world are the gifts of Love, Time, and Presence. They don’t need gift-wrap, and they never go out of style. No one looks back on their life and thinks fondly of what they received for their 25th Christmas. But people do look back on their lives and remember the good times spent with loved ones, the times that people shared together, the times that loved ones were engaged and present with them.

I’ll leave you with Fab Wisdom…

I may not have a lot to give
But what I got I’ll give to you
I said, I don’t care too much for money
‘Cause money can’t buy me love


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