The most wonderful time of the year isn’t all that wonderful for those of us who hate opening presents in front of other people.
Imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sitting in your aunt’s living room with your extended family, all eyes glued on you because it’s now your turn to open a present. As you tear off the wrapping paper, your cheeks get redder and your mouth dries up. You try to muster a reaction that will seem both grateful and genuine. Instead, it comes across as strained and awkward ― even when you really do like the present.
According to Boston University psychology professor Stefan Hofmann and Duke University professor of psychology and neuroscience Mark Leary, this is a manifestation of ordinary social anxiety ― or a concern with how we are being perceived and evaluated by others.
“The situation is not all that different from many others that we encounter in everyday life that involve intense social attention, ambiguity and the possibility of not managing the situation well,” Leary, who has studied social anxiety for nearly 40 years, told HuffPost. “Like when we have to introduce ourselves and say something about ourselves to a new group of people, or sit there stupidly as waiters at a restaurant sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to us.”
So let’s break down some of the reasons opening presents in front of family and friends can make the gift opener so anxious ― whether it’s during the holidays, a birthday party, a baby shower or any other social gathering.
Some people just don’t like being the center of attention
“The onlookers are highly attuned to your reactions,” Leary told HuffPost. “Being the focus of everyone’s attention always raises the interpersonal stakes.”
He continued: “This may be more unsettling for introverts, who tend to like attention less, but everyone is more on their guard when lots of other people are watching.”
Then there’s the element of surprise
“Opening gifts is often a very ambiguous situation,” Leary said. “People can never be certain how things are going to unfold or whether they will react appropriately to whatever they get.”
And it feels like your reaction is being judged by the other people in the room
“It is not only the act of unwrapping a present, but also the emotional response that other people are carefully evaluating to determine whether the person receiving the gift likes it,” Hofmann, the director of BU’s Social Anxiety Program, told HuffPost.
“This person is in the spotlight,” he added. “They’re expected to be joyful and surprised.”
Which can be uncomfortable, regardless of whether you like the gift
“People want to be seen as appreciative, but one always runs the risk of not conveying the appropriate level of appreciation,” Leary said. “Or, worse, not being being able to conceal one’s confusion, consternation, or lack of enthusiasm if a gift turns out to be strange, inexplicable or just plain lame.”
“People may worry that they won’t respond as the gift-giver hopes and might even hurt someone’s feelings,” Leary added.
Both experts assured us that feeling anxious in this type of social situation is totally normal. In fact, it’s part of what makes us human.
“If we never experienced social anxiety, we’d blunder through many social encounters in ways that violate social norms, make bad impressions on others, and annoy and hurt other people,” Leary explained.
“In fact, it’s a sign that we care about what other people think and, in the context of getting gifts and conveying impressions, that’s not a bad thing,” he added.
You should only be concerned if the social anxiety is interfering with your life in a significant way that might warrant a clinical diagnosis, Hofmann said.
“Just because you’re uncomfortable unwrapping a present once a year will not make you a person meeting criteria for social anxiety disorder,” he told HuffPost.
So what’s the best way to manage these anxious feelings?
“Try to be in the present moment and enjoy the occasion,” Hofmann recommended. “Receiving and giving gifts is an ancient human tradition that shows kindness and caring. Worrying about what other people think or what impression I make on others detracts from this experience. So my recommendation is: Stay in the moment and feel the love.”