So here you are again: It’s a week before Christmas, and you’ve either barely begun shopping for gifts, or you’re staring at a pile of mediocrity dressed in colorful paper.
You promised that this year would be different. This year, I can do better, you thought roughly 11 months ago, after receiving a string of half-hearted thank-yous and a raised eyebrow from your significant other. Or maybe things boiled over into a yelling match and you blurted something like, “Who even cares about stupid-ass presents?” Or maybe you just… forgot to get stuff for people.
It happens to everyone. That stress you feel while walking through the mall with a list of loved ones isn’t just you. Turns out, gift-giving during the holidays is simultaneously more emotionally loaded and less fun than we think. As a 2002 study concluded: “Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy.”
Whoof. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important — on the contrary, your crappy present says something about not just what you value, but whether those values and similarities align with the person you’re gifting. No wonder it can feel so shitty to realize you’ve missed the mark, even when you thought you were trying.
“There is pressure to get it right, which is why many people take the easy way out and go with a gift card instead of highly personalizing a gift,” says Reef Karim, a therapist and human behavior expert. “To make it worse, gifts are often opened in a public setting, which carries with it the risk of potential embarrassment and side-eye stares if you didn’t plan your gift carefully.”
I spoke to Karim and two other mental-health experts to get a better handle on what our gifting habits say about us. Like with most things, the process starts with acknowledging there’s a problem at all.
What’s the Problem, Exactly?
A good first step is to acknowledge what kind of gift-giver you are. Karim sees six main types:
- Thoughtful: They investigate, research and know their recipient.
- Safe: Tend to be unsure and go with a universal choice, like a gift card or something trendy.
- Clueless: Have no clue what to get, but want to get it right; they usually miss the mark.
- Careless: No time and effort given to the current needs and interests of a recipient.
- Last-Minute: People who put off the task and then scramble to get something that’s close enough to the ideal gift they imagine.
- Creative: Those who want to pick something that helps the recipient learn or grow.
These aren’t hard-and-fast categories, but figuring out tendencies gives you a blueprint for how to get better. One thing to note is that the men who struggle most tend to see themselves more as “do-ers” than “feel-ers,” therapist Andrew Smiler tells me.
“They see themselves as responsible for creating a home life that’s safe and supports their partners and kids. But when they don’t get a gift list, they often get stuck, and because they think in practical terms, they tend to buy things that are related to doing household tasks, such as an iron or a new dishwasher,” Smiler says. “For them, a gift list is practical, manageable and eliminates the guesswork related to feelings or desires. But their partners often want something that’s more personal.”
“Personal” is important because many people express their core values through gifting, and a misstep on your part can read more like obvious carelessness than cluelessness (like, say, when you give your partner a gift card). Yes, sometimes picky people come into play — that’s always hard, no matter how “good” you are at gifting. And sometimes personalized gifts can fall flat if they’re just not useful to the recipient.
Confusing, I know, but just make a list of the stuff you’ve bought for people, consider how close to ideal you got and reference the six types of people above.
What Am I Supposed to Do About This?
The good and bad news: It just takes time and answering some questions to get better. Smiler’s advice keeps it simple: “I typically encourage guys to think about the things that make the recipient happy, and the activities the recipient chooses to do when they have free time,” he says, noting that going to experiential events and creating a keepsake (say, a framed picture) is a classic one-two punch.
Karim, meanwhile, has a five-question list to answer, either by asking a recipient directly (over time, not all at once like a psycho) or by consulting the people closest to them:
- What are they currently interested in doing with their free time?
- What do they currently do for work?
- What are they passionate about?
- What is their life purpose?
- What do they immediately need?
Remember, people change, even over the course of the year. If you’re afraid of giving a crappy gift, a little legwork and conversation to get you caught up can do wonders. Oh, and don’t be passive-aggressive, even if you think it’s kind of funny — it’s a weird way to potentially send very mixed signals. At the end of the day, gift-giving makes us feel best when we take the opportunity to spend money and time with people, as Berkeley researchers found in a 2013 study.
Why Is This A Big Deal, Anyway?
It’s not — not really, anyway. Most people still readily buy into the fact that “it’s the thought that counts,” after all. As with any other aspect of our lives, however, a little self-improvement and reflection never hurt. Even if gifts don’t matter to you, they often represent something essential about your character, even if it’s just subconscious.
“For one thing, being confident in the gift you’re buying helps a guy feel good about himself and that he’s doing a good thing for his relationship,” Smiler notes. “For another, anything that strengthens important relationships, whether with our partner, our siblings, adult family members, our kids, etc., is likely to improve the quality of our lives and help stabilize, or improve, our mental health.”
Men and women also react differently to presents, and it’s here that we see clearly how gifts symbolize that two people are similar — and therefore, compatible. In a study, men were found to be significantly more likely to envision a long-term future with a partner if they knew said partner had picked out a “desirable” gift for them. Women responded positively to good gifts too, but they also showed a tendency to downplay how bad a gift they received was. In other words, women were more likely to minimize their disappointment in order to protect the compatibility of the relationship.
Realizing those differences in dynamic, not just in gender but between individuals, is a big step toward honing our senses when it comes to romance and friendships. But let’s say you just can’t seem to get it right. That’s a perfect opportunity to open up and be vulnerable with a best friend or a loved one about why this gift-buying process is a little harder than it should be for you.
“Having a discussion with our loved ones about any distress caused by gift-giving is a good way to not only process feelings and increase understanding, but to set healthy expectations of what type of gifts are appropriate to give and receive,” says Jin Kim, a therapist based in L.A. “Any issue that causes emotional distress is reason enough to engage in a discussion. It’s better to talk things out than to keep things weighing in your mind.”