This Is When Gift-Giving Becomes Toxic For Families

Why does buying holiday presents make us feel so pressured and anxious?

One-upmanship should never factor into holiday gift-giving, but for far too many families, it does.

Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California, sees this toxic dynamic play out every holiday season with his clients.

“Many people turn gift-giving into a measurement of their success and value, rather than what it’s supposed to be which is an expression of love and gratitude,” he said. “When this happens, gift-giving becomes a recipe for disaster.”

It doesn’t help that people sometimes believe that you can show someone how much you love them by buying a pricey present.

“It makes me think of an episode of ‘The Office’ where Michael Scott defines gift-giving as ‘I love you this many dollars worth,’” Smith said. “It’s funny, but also sadly true for far too many of us.”

How do you know if competition has become a problem in your family ― or learn to control your inner Michael Scott if you’re the problem? Here’s what Smith and other family therapists said.

Signs that gift-giving has become toxic:

You buy presents based on how Instagram-worthy they are.

In the age of Oprah’s Favorite Things and ungodly priced presents from Goop’s annual gift guide, showy gifts have become almost the norm in some families. And social media can encourage bad choices: You don’t want to buy just any gift; you want to buy a gift that’s worthy of being posted on the ’gram (or at least someone’s Instagram story).

“That’s definitely an influence,” said Kristin Davin, a psychologist in New York City. “People think, ‘How can I do better than the person I see on social media with all the great and creative gifts?’ Someone will post something and then people start to feel ‘less than’ or that they can’t give great gifts. But honestly, if you think like this, how can you keep up? It’s impossible.”

If your relative is taken aback by how generous your gift is, you might have a problem.
If your relative is taken aback by how generous your gift is, you might have a problem.

You get anxious when you think about holiday shopping.

How do you feel when December rolls around and you consider all the shopping you still need to do? A little flustered but confident that you’ll find something for everyone online or at the mall? Or super worried that you’re going to fall short with your gifts or not be able to afford what really you want to buy?

If it’s the latter case, you’re taking gift-giving much too seriously, said Samantha Rodman, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland.

“When you’re extremely worried about giving a gift or obsessed with giving the perfect gift, it suggests that too much of your self-image is tied up in gift-giving,” she said.

Your relatives are taken aback by your gifts or embarrassed they didn’t get you something as pricey.

You’re always excited to watch your relatives open your gift ― or gifts, plural. But when the moment arrives, they often feel guilty that they didn’t purchase something for you at a similarly high price point. You might have good intentions, but you’re the toxic gift-giver in this case, said Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist in New York City.

“When the receiver feels like it’s too expensive or even intensifies the relationship, and you have feelings of regret either because you now set the bar too high ― or are feeling the burn in your purse ― you’ve gone too far,” she said.

Someone in your family has experienced a financial setback, but your gift-giving plans remain the same.

Consider your family members’ financial realities. If someone is having trouble paying the bills ― maybe they lost their job a few months ago or they’re facing hefty medical expenses ― this should be a year when the whole family scales back on presents. If you’re still spending a ton, you’re in toxic territory, said Marie Land, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.

“If someone is struggling financially, they may not have the luxury of giving certain types of gifts,” she said. “Instead of spending the same amount this year, you should be discussing gift-giving. You could simply ask a question before the holidays like, ‘Do you think that we could pair up on gifts or have a cap on the amount we spend this year?’”

Setting a cap on how much you spend is a smart idea, therapists say.
Setting a cap on how much you spend is a smart idea, therapists say.

What to do if gift-giving has become toxic:

Set hard rules on how much you can spend.

Before the holidays, decide on a price cap and get everyone to agree to stick to it. Or try a budget-friendly game by going the White Elephant route.

“With a White Elephant gift exchange, there’s usually a maximum spending limit so everyone’s gifts are in a similar price range,” Smith said.

Consider other ways of gifting, like giving experiences or donating to charity.

After all, most of us don’t need more “stuff.” So instead, treat your relatives to an experience gift ― like a cooking class, for instance, or a national park annual pass ― or donate to a charity or cause they support.

“There is much to be said for giving back in this way and looking at it more as a family experience you can adopt as a holiday tradition,” Davin said. “Plus, often as the years go on, there’s not really anything left to buy, especially for parents and their older children.”

Remind yourself that the holidays are about so much more than presents.

Gifts should be only a small part of the celebration. This year, focus on quality time, Rodman said. Your niece in college may not remember that you got her Allbirds shoes, Apple AirPods or an Amazon gift card, but she will remember how it made her feel when you actually paid attention to her stories about freshman year.

“Remember that the holiday is more about seeing loved ones than exchanging gifts,” Rodman said.

And lastly, remember the bills that will arrive in January.

It’s easy to get swept up in the purchasing culture, but when you’re maxing out your budget to buy holiday gifts for everyone, you probably need to scale back.

“Every year I hear about the repercussions of spending, especially when the credit card bills come in January,” Smith said. “Spending beyond your means in order to make yourself feel good or to please others is unhealthy and comes back around to bite you when the bills are due. When you think you might be overspending, think of January.”

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