Do you get anxious over gift giving — or receiving? You’re not alone, says expert. Here’s why.

·4 min read
Female's hands in pullover holding Christmas gift box decorated with evergreen branch on red background. Christmas and New Year concept.
What is gift-giving anxiety, and why do some people experience it? (Getty Creative)

You know those people who give amazing gifts — the kind that you would never have picked out for yourself but are so very you it’s almost like they knew what you wanted before you did? Yeah, that’s not me.

Whether it’s birthdays or Secret Santa gift exchanges, the idea of giving someone a gift riddles me with anxiety. I consider myself a creative person, and yet when it comes to coming up with something clever or sweetly personal for a loved one, my mind typically draws a complete blank. I always sheepishly smile when friends unwrap yet another Starbucks gift card or Bath & Body Works set, which, while extremely useful (who doesn’t need coffee and delicious-smelling hand soaps in these trying times?!) aren’t exactly the most personal gifts.

Yet when I do think of something that seems ideal for the recipient, it almost makes the situation worse by putting even more pressure on the reaction. After all, what if I think of something I assume is a genuine, thoughtful gift, and they hate it? What if I can tell they don’t like it, but the fake it so that they don’t hurt my feelings?!? Now we’re just lying to each other?!?

Somehow all my friends are amazing gift givers, which, honestly, makes the whole thing worse. Receiving presents isn’t easy for me either: I’m always worried that no matter how much I like a gift, my reaction won’t seem big or sincere enough to make my loved ones happy.

If you couldn’t sense it, for me, gift-giving opens a serious emotional can of worms, no matter how loving the practice generally is.

I know that many of you — especially those who look forward to your annual holiday gift exchange — think I’m insane. Gifts are supposed to be fun and create that warm-fuzzy feeling, given that it’s a totally altruistic way to show someone that you care about them.

Apparently, however, I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable about the whole gift-exchange process. According to psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Scott Brown, there’s a very normal reason why some people feel anxious about the practice of exchanging gifts.

“Altruism, or selfless actions that benefit someone else, may have positive mental health benefits, including providing a sense of reward,” he explains to Yahoo Life over email. “However, in some cases — particularly with regard to gift giving — you may see the opposite effect. When gift-giving produces increased anxiety, some research indicates that it's really an expectations game that's causing this. It can be stressful trying our best to make someone else feel good by giving them a gift, thoughts like, What if they don't like it? can cross our mind.”

So . . . I’m normal? Apparently, yes.

“While we're giving the gift, we're on high alert and looking for any cues that may indicate whether or not the recipient was satisfied,” he adds. “If we don't get the response we expected, like a smile and an ecstatic ‘thank you,’ we may feel let down. Similarly, there may be pressure by the recipient to display their satisfaction — even if it's actually a gift they don't want.”

Fortunately, I’m not doomed to feel uncomfortable forever. Brown — who says that the holidays are his busiest time of the year — says there are some ways to reframe gift giving so that it’s a better experience.

“Approaching gift giving as an exercise in altruism means shifting focus from the outcome to the action itself,” he notes. “This approach removes some of the pressure to perform, and can make gift giving a much more rewarding experience. When it comes to receiving gifts, focus on the gift as a gesture that connects the giver and receiver in the moment. I think about it in terms of two people going out for lunch at a restaurant where one person happened not to like what they ordered. That doesn't take away from the fact that it's the lunch that brought them together, and there's still the potential for conversation and connection with that experience.”

While gift giving is a big part of many holiday celebrations, Brown shares that his family has made the process a bit simpler.

“My family hasn't totally ditched gift giving, but for the past few years we've transitioned to a tradition of White Elephant,” he explains. “It works well for us.”

White Elephant is a holiday gift-swapping game where each person brings one gift that can be suitable for pretty much anyone — taking a lot of the pressure off people who, like me, get anxious about failing to pick out exactly the right thing.

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