Planning meals, traveling and shopping for gifts are widely understood holiday stress factors for a lot of people, but receiving presents can also stir up uncomfortable feelings — what’s known as “gift guilt.”
Some may gasp at this notion, but it’s a real phenomenon. You may think you should feel lucky and grateful when given a gift but instead suffer pangs of guilt.
“Telling yourself not to have a feeling doesn’t remove the feeling,” said Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist on the faculty at Georgetown University and host of the mental health podcast “Baggage Check.”
For many people, receiving gifts can be just as stressful — if not more so — than giving them, Bonior said.
First, some don’t feel deserving of a gift. “We might feel guilty when somebody spends time or money on us,” Bonior said, “because deep down, in some situations, we might not think that we’re worthy of it, or like we’re not somehow measuring up to what we should be.”
These people may also struggle with receiving compliments or attention, she added. They feel uncomfortable that someone has gone out of their way to do something nice for them, and grapple with their sense of self-worth.
Others experience guilt because they don’t think they gave as good or as expensive a gift as they received, or they were caught off guard and have nothing to give in return.
“Human nature has this kind of value reciprocity,” said Dr. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast. “We want to reciprocate in kind based on what we get, and gifts can activate a lot of feelings and, in some places, shame that we have about our standing.”
A Baylor University study published in the journal Social Science Research in 2013 explored how humans sometimes punish others for generosity because that kindness led to their own feelings of inadequacy.
“It may be that the generous giver made them look or feel bad,” said Dr. Kyle Irwin, a coresearcher for the study, to Science Daily at the time. “Or they may feel jealous or like they’re not doing enough.”
Gifts can also stir feelings of indebtedness, causing some to think they owe others for doing something nice. You may feel strings are attached, or there’s an expectancy of closeness or intimacy.
“If you grew up in a situation where you weren’t given much attention or affection,” Bonior said, “it feels really strange to suddenly be in a situation where your friends are gifting you these nice things, and it feels really odd. You may feel like you have to make up for this in some way.”
Whatever the reasons behind gift guilt, you can turn those feelings into something positive with these tips from experts.
Be intentional as you go into the holidays. If you feel guilty about receiving gifts, ask yourself why ahead of time and try to reconcile these emotions. “A lot of these folks (feeling gift guilt) are actually very good at taking care of other people,” Bonior said. “They just don’t think that they deserve to be taken care of.”
A useful exercise is to think about the joy you feel when giving someone a gift — and know that others share that same feeling.
However, if you constantly think you’re unworthy, Bonior suggests getting insight into the reasons why. “Think back to your childhood, think back to the messages that you’re telling yourself, think back to the pattern that developed around your self-esteem,” she said. “For some folks, it’s going to be helpful to talk with a professional.”
Try to step away from guilt and realize you can be a good gift recipient, Santos said. So much emphasis is placed on being a good gift giver and not enough on being a good recipient, she said, but making others feel good can be a gift in itself.
“One way to do this is to be really obvious in your gratitude, maybe even specific in your gratitude,” she said. “When you actually use the gift, check in with the person and tell them you’re using it and to be thankful, even years later.”
Santos said she continues to thank her father and stepmother for a Dutch oven they gave her a few years ago, for example, snapping a picture when she uses it and sending it to them as a token of appreciation.
“Maybe somebody spent a little bit extra on you or you didn’t give something in return, but the fact that you can show your gratitude is incredibly powerful,” she added. “It makes the gift giver feel like they’ve done something good.” Their gift to you becomes one you can give back.
Many people are experiencing tough financial times now and can’t reciprocate the way they want to or have in the past.
“We’re not going to be the perfect gift givers every time,” Santos said, “and it’s OK to give ourselves some grace if (a present) doesn’t feel up to the level that we would have wished for given certain circumstances.”
You may not have the time either. The holidays can creep up on you, and you may feel overwhelmed. The key is to remember that people are giving gifts “out of the fact that they really care about you,” she said.
Let go of the superficial aspects around gift giving and remember why you’re doing it. “Ultimately, gift giving is about honoring connection. It’s about giving joy. It’s about being able to nourish our relationships,” Bonior said. “The more it gets to be performing, the less meaning it has.”
Focusing too much on reciprocal gift giving can be limiting, she added. “No relationship has to be always perfectly symmetrically balanced all the time,” Bonior said. “Understand that this holiday gift is just one little part of your friendship. It doesn’t have to represent your entire friendship.”
The commercialism of the holidays can pressure us into placing more emphasis on material things or trying to buy the “perfect” gift. But they should be a time of kindness, compassion and gratitude, so make a conscious decision to focus on good things and enjoy them, the experts said.
“The key is to remember that while we can’t control what gifts we get, we can control how we react this holiday season,” Santos said. “We can take time to regulate any negative emotions over the holiday and to be intentional about what we really want to get out of gift giving and all our interactions — a sense of connection and joy.”