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Expert Source: Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE, author of The Whole Cure: 52 Essential Prescriptions to Overcome Overwhelm, Reclaim Balance, and Reconnect With a Life You Love!

Getting gifts isn’t always fun. You or your kids might find yourselves so deluged by presents on a birthday or holiday that you feel overwhelmed. Or you may get a gift you don’t want or that feels inappropriate. Even an expensive present can be embarrassing — especially if your own offering to the giver seems cheap by comparison.

These situations can put you in an uncomfortable bind as you try to appear grateful while feeling genuinely conflicted. You might grit your teeth and do your best (“I’ve always wanted a Barry Manilow box set!”), but the counterfeit gratitude can make you feel inauthentic — and others can likely sense it, too.

Still, we’re not condemned to the discomfort of polite dishonesty, says Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE, a physician who specializes in lifestyle medicine. A few simple measures can transform awkward gift-giving situations into opportunities to exchange heartfelt sentiments. And it doesn’t matter what’s in the box.

Challenges Overcome

Concealed feelings. “There are many unwritten rules about gift giving that we may never have really considered,” Weinberg offers. We’re taught as children to be tactful when receiving a gift we don’t need or want, for instance. While this politeness is positive, she says, an ongoing focus on “suppressing negative emotions” can create stress.

Uncertainty. Gift anxiety can be heightened by the fact that presents are usually wrapped, she says. For people who don’t like surprises, the trouble starts right there.

Rules of reciprocation. Stress over exchanging gifts can develop “in part because of the relationship implications of gift giving. We may feel guilty if our gift doesn’t seem as big or expensive as what we received.”

Different giving styles. The social-justice activist whose gift of a charitable donation in the receiver’s name may seem stingy to a recipient who feels that only luxurious objects can convey how much he or she is loved and valued.

Strings-attached giving. Some people feel a deep need to be recognized and thanked immediately for their gifts. This expectation can be a burden on the receiver — and a threat to the relationship if the giver quickly becomes offended.

The audience. We’re often in a group of relatives or friends when we receive a gift, and having all those eyes on our reactions can increase the feeling that we need to play up our gratitude and cover up any other feelings.

Clutter. Too many gifts can create clutter, which “can make you feel anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed,” explains Weinberg. “If you feel pressure to keep each gift you receive, it can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, and stress every time you look at them.”

The myth of spontaneity. We’re conditioned to believe real gifts are spontaneous expressions on the part of the giver. Asking for things ruins the magic, so we may never tell loved ones what we would really appreciate receiving.

Strategies for Success

Ask for what you want. “Be upfront,” Weinberg stresses. “Have an open conversation well before the gift-giving occasion. Highlight your gratitude in a gracious way, and clearly communicate the kinds of gifts that are meaningful to you.”

Emphasize relationship. “Explain that the relationship is what you value most and want to focus on — not the gifts,” she says. While you can’t forbid someone from giving you a present, she adds, you can communicate why you might prefer not to give or receive one.

Ask for presence, instead of presents. Request the gift of time: a conversation, a walk, an afternoon at the museum. “By asking for time together as a gift, you show how much you value the giver as a person,” Weinberg explains.

Request a nonmaterial gift you truly need. If the giver has a talent or skill that you value, says Weinberg, “let him or her know you would love a cooking lesson, a chance to practice yoga together, some help with organizing your house.”

Create new traditions. Framing time as a gift can also help you create new, less materialistic rituals with your family or friends. You might emphasize celebrations that focus on shared activities, like cooking a meal or taking a hike. “This allows you to still have the sort of connection that your previous gift-giving ritual provided, but in a more peaceful, mindful way,” she says.

Be thankful for the intention. The thought really is what counts with an unwelcome gift, Weinberg says. “Even if you feel stressed by a gift, you can be thankful for the fact the person thought of you and cared enough to give you something. This is what you’re expressing when you say thank you.”

Practice mindfulness. To stay attuned to the intentions behind gift giving and to reduce the anxiety, Weinberg recommends practicing mindfulness. “Being mindful means paying attention to the present moment without judgment,” she says. “This will allow you to connect more deeply with your true values.” Practicing being less judgmental can also help you cope with the discomfort of feeling that your own gift was too small.

Let it go. No matter how expensive a gift might be, if you know you won’t use it or if it feels like clutter, donate it to an organization that will offer it to someone who needs it. If the giver asks about the gift later, tell her how much you appreciated her generosity, and explain that you decided to pass it along to someone who could use it or enjoy it more than you could. Such moments of honesty can deepen your connection more than any object ever could.

This originally appeared as “The Gift Machine” in the December 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Rick Peterson

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