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The Art Of Gifting

Recently, I worked through an early childhood traumatic experience that involved gift-giving. For the longest time, I couldn’t pinpoint why receiving gifts from my mother throughout my life felt off. Through my personal EMDR therapy, I realized that my response to gift-giving had been ingrained in me as a trauma response.

In the absence of emotional availability during a traumatic time in her life, my mom leaned into gift-giving in lieu of her emotional availability. I was processing this unmet need when this new insight about receiving gifts from her surfaced. I realized why it had always bothered me. It felt like buying my affection, and as a result, felt as if I owed something back.

Since processing this experience with EMDR, I had a deeper understanding into the reasons behind it. I finally knew exactly WHY. 

Gift-giving can feel good. But sometimes, it’s a trauma response.

When this happens, it takes away from how meaningful a gift can be and all the feel-good benefits that come with it. 

This season, we’re looking into moving away from excessive gift-giving as a trauma response and leaning into gift-giving as a tool for healing, authentic connection, and fostering healthy relationships that center generosity, gratitude, and empathy.

The Psychology of Gift Giving

What Does Trauma Have To Do With Gift-Giving?

Unresolved trauma impacts all facets of our lives. In this case, trauma can affect your gift-giving behaviors and, more importantly, your gift-giving intentions. You can use gift-giving as a way to manage triggers. 

For example, you can use gift-giving to manage the fear of rejection or exclusion. You might find yourself going beyond your ability and getting into debt to give gifts. This outcome happens when your gift-giving intention is focused on gaining something back, such as affection, validation, or feeling secure about yourself. In this case, generosity turns into people-pleasing.

Trauma triggers can also show up with what’s missing - not only with what’s present. For example, you might engage in excessive gift-giving if you’re missing intimacy, closeness, love, and security. 

We previously discussed how trauma re-enactment could show up in a triangle of patterns: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor. From this perspective, excessive gift-giving can be a trauma response when you’re the rescuer. The rescuer is the helper and over-giver. The one who wants everything to be good and for everyone to feel good. It makes sense then you would engage in gift-giving as a tool to accomplish this.

The Downside To Being An Over-Giver

The downside to this pattern is that it can lead to unwanted outcomes such as:

  • Your self-esteem relies on outside influences rather than being internally driven
  • Feeling good lasting only a short amount of time
  • Unnecessary guilt for not giving the perfect gift - especially if you didn’t get the reaction you were hoping for
  • The artificial closeness that relies on material things because you’re more likely to prioritize the monetary value/cost of the gift
  • Getting in debt because you’re spending unnecessarily in the hopes of getting affection and validation back

Long-term, excessive gift-giving driven by your trauma response leads to unfulfilling relationships that start to feel one-sided. There’s a good chance you’re doing so unintentionally. 

So, how can you start to change these patterns?

The Art Of Intentional Gift-Giving

Leaning into intentional gift-giving is one way you can do so. Start with identifying your patterns:

  • What’s your trigger for excessive gift-giving?
  • What’s the behavior?
  • What’s the outcome?

Here are some prompting questions you can start with to build your awareness about this:

The holiday season is on the horizon; what is it bringing up in you overall? If you don’t give gifts in the way you think you need to, what does this trigger in you? Are you afraid you won’t be liked or validated? Does shame come up? Are you afraid you’ll miss out on seeing the smiles of your loved ones? Are you avoiding sadness?

Check with yourself what your trigger is. Remember: a trigger can also be the absence of something. Your early life experiences can be an excellent place to start to identify the roots of these triggers - What do you associate gift-giving with?

Then, lean with curiosity into your behavior: Are you going into debt to buy gifts? Are you going against your values or jeopardizing them? Are you convincing yourself that this is a good thing when really it might not be?

When you understand your Why, you can start to change your behavior. 

The third step is to get real about the outcomes: Being honest with yourself can take you a long way. What is being an over-giver leading to? What is it taking away? Is it interfering with other areas in your life? How is it impacting you and your relationships? Are you unintentionally creating superficial, temporary connections that aren’t standing the test of time?

This awareness can empower you to change this pattern because you recognize the habits that are physically, emotionally, and financially draining you. It helps to be non-judgemental about it. Bring compassion to yourself when you’re building this awareness about your patterns.

You can start to prioritize the values most aligned with you and most important to you with gift-giving. So you can:

  • Curate your gift-giving ideas that hold meaning and power (not all gifts have to be costly)
  • Focus on gifts that build connection, closeness, and intimacy
  • Personalize thoughtful gifts that match the person (i.e., your intention aligns with the receiver of the gift)
  • Bring empathy, generosity, and gratitude into your gift-giving intentions and behaviors
  • Go beyond your immediate circle and extend gift-giving to your community through a variety of behaviors (e.g., contributing time and shopping local)

Intentional Gift Ideas

One framework you can use to help you with intentional gift-giving is Gary Chapman’s Love Languages. In his pioneering work, Gary identifies five love languages that show up in how people give and receive love:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Quality Time
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch
  • Receiving Gifts

At first glance, it might be confusing to see receiving gifts as its own category. Let’s take a closer look to see how each of these languages can lead you to be intentional.

For the person in your life whose cup is filled with words of affirmation, the perfect gift might be a handmade personalized card with words from the heart. In contrast, your loved one whose love language is quality time might be delighted with spending a meaningful afternoon with you engaging in an enjoyable shared activity. For the partner who loves acts of service, you might volunteer together in a community center or engage in a helping activity during the holiday season. And so on. You can see how your gifts don’t always have to involve money or be excessive for them to be valuable and rewarding.  

When you do this, you move away from getting your sense of self from pleasing others. You can use gift-giving more intentionally to strengthen your bonds, build deeper intimacy by showing up more authentically, and ultimately, give differently

Gift Ideas: The Team’s Recommendations

My team and I put our heads together to develop ideas that we hope inspire you this season. 

Words of Affirmation Gift Ideas

A handmade card with a genuine expression of your feelings: what makes you grateful to have this person in your life? What does the receiver need to hear from you?

Message in a bottle: Write a love letter to the receiver and put it in a bottle. You can get supplies from the dollar store, such as sand, a bottle, and the paper of your choice. You can get creative!

Quality Time Gift Ideas

Spend a meaningful time without distractions: If the recipient likes board games, you might engage in something like this together where you can share laughter and joy. Remember, it’s about the quality, not the quantity of the experience with this recipient. 

If art is something you might enjoy together, try an immersive theater experience.

Acts of Service Gift Ideas

Pick the receiver’s favorite charity or community service and volunteer together for a few hours.

Create gifts together for common loved ones or your home: For example, create a wreath together. The main point is that it’s meaningful for those involved and the receiver(s).

Pick a gift that gives back to the community/person that made it/produced it. If the recipient is passionate about the environment, then planting a tree in their name might be a gift they would highly appreciate. 

Physical Touch Gift Ideas

Give your loved one a home massage: You can set the stage in your own home and engage in this. OR treat them to a touch-based spa treatment (if it’s in your budget).

Hold hands or cozy up in blankets in front of the fireplace. Be intentional. Eliminate distractions.

Essential oils involve the sense of touch and smell. You can customize your gift based on scents the recipient would enjoy and what can support their well-being.

Receiving Gifts Gift Ideas

Think of what the recipient of your gift enjoys and tailor the gift idea to them. Gift recipients in this category benefit from the enjoyment of the gift, not necessarily if the gift fits their needs (i.e., practical gifts). Examples of this can be: buying tickets to their favorite artist, flowers for no reason “just because,” and giving a gift certificate to something they enjoy (restaurant, store, and so on).

We hope this list can plant the seed for you to move forward more intentionally and to have a more joyful, meaningful holiday season with the ones you care most about. 

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Hiba Khatkhat

Hiba is a holistic psychotherapist specializing in trauma, couples treatment, and culture. She's passionate about solving mental health crises by practicing prevention. She brings over 18 years of experience working with individuals, couples, & families in her private practice. She is known for her work on the transmission of trauma and its impact on relationships.

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