When Giving and Receiving Gifts Bring You Nothing but Shame


Holidays of any kind are hard on people buried in shame. Holidays calling for an exchange of gifts are even worse.

The shame people like me experience around receiving is obvious: we feel unworthy. If I’m an irredeemable piece of shit, I certainly don’t deserve a gift, whatever it is. Your even thinking to give me one splashes battery acid on my heart. “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” I mutter. And I mean it.

Giving is equally fraught. Buried in shame, I believe I have nothing of value to offer in and of myself. Instead, I must obtain the perfect gift.

In “Daring Greatly,” Brené Brown calls perfectionism “a form of shame.” Setting impossibly high standards for the gifts we give is an excellent way to bury ourselves for the holidays.

When it comes to gifts, perfect often means expensive. We buried folk are suckers for ads proclaiming “the very best” and “because she’s worth it.” We know she’s worth it – and we are not. We seethe in envy at the TV commercial with the hubby who leads his wife to the brand-new luxury sedan parked in the driveway. His buying into the “relentless pursuit of perfection” seems to have paid off handsomely.

For now.

At best, my gift is an attempt to compensate you for putting up with me. At worst, it’s a lame attempt to convince you that maybe I’m not so bad in the first place. After all. I’ve fooled you before. You’re still around to receive my gift in the first place. Maybe – just maybe – I can fake it for another year.

But the problem with the “perfect” gift is it doesn’t last. It’s only a momentary diversion from the fact that I believe I suck the whole year ‘round. Gift aside, I believe I’m no good, and I’m beginning to suspect you do, too. So I have to keep up a steady stream of increasingly perfect gifts for every occasion that might call for one, all in the vain hope that I can fool you forever.

Or I can reverse course and take the giving of gifts as an opportunity to prove I’m no good, finally putting an end to this charade. This involves a gift so obviously last-minute, so utterly insensitive that it’s basically an insult. A sample-sized vial of some generic fragrance or a bag of “fun-sized” candies from the sale bin at the nearest convenience store will work beautifully. For added effect, I might offer it in the bag the cashier put it in. When I include the receipt, time-stamped just 20 minutes ago, I’ve achieved a different kind of perfection altogether.

Shame perfection.

Of course, the best very evidence that I’m awful, evil, and toxic is when I give nothing at all. I forgot. It slipped my mind. I got caught up in something else. Any excuse I make is but icing on the cake of my shame. I suck, and now there’s no denying it.

I just proved it.

I was raised in a family where every gift exchanged was an adventure in shame. There is no easy cure for this. It’s taken me years to learn that when you give me something, you’re not trying to score points or hurt me. Instead, I try to affirm your idea that I deserve a gift in the first place. And I remind myself that, whatever I give you, the fact that I give at all is what matters most. Gifts are rarely perfect, but
intentions can be pure. The thought really does count, even when I’m the one who is thinking it.

If you are buried in shame of your own, I challenge you to see the exchange of gifts this holiday season as an opportunity to start digging out. Instead of seeking the “perfect” gift, try giving something simple, modest, and from the heart. Try to both give and receive with no other agenda than love. Remember the connection between you is far more important than whatever is actually exchanged. Doing this practice – humbly, sincerely, and imperfectly – is the nicest gift you could give yourself.

And remember: you really are worth it.

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Thinkstock photo by kirsty okeeffe


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