The Psychology of Gift Giving

It’s the time of year when many people consider buying and receiving gifts.  Shops and online ads lure us to consider what present we might purchase for loved ones at Christmas.   Many of us find ourselves invited into Secret Santa gift exchanges with family and friends and, whilst not a festival traditionally associated with gift giving, the December Jewish celebration of Hannukah sometimes also includes the exchange of presents.  Sure, gift giving and present receiving can feel heart-warming. And, it can also stir up difficult feelings and tensions both within and between people – often prompting people to consider counselling as a way to make meaning of these complex feelings.  Here we consider some of the psychological factors at play with gifting.

The Benefits of Gift Giving

Gift giving is one of many ways we communicate our care, interest, love and connection with others.   Gift giving can be an expression of our thoughtfulness and kindness – we are likely to have invested either time, thought, creativity and / or money into the gift we give.  That can serve the purpose of strengthening relationships and the bonds of connection between people.   

Gift giving is a way we can express our own empathy and attunement towards important people in our lives.  When it comes to choosing a gift, most people aim to match the gift to the recipients’ interests, preferences and lifestyle.  In doing so – they communicate that they are making efforts to understand the other person and have noticed and paid attention to them.  Giving and receiving such empathic understanding, when the gift is good match, can feel positive for both the gift giver and the receiver.  

Gift giving has also been shown to be a boost to physical wellbeing and overall health.  Research from by Random Acts of Kindness Foundation shows that acts of giving (of time, money or care) can result in an increase in energy and can even help relieve pain and lower blood pressure.  

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Gift Giving as a Source of Pain

Whilst there can be plenty of benefits to giving gifts, presenting or receiving a present from someone can also be a source of pain and difficulty.  There are many different emotions and responses that you may feel when it comes to giving and receiving gifts, that mean gift exchanges feel complicated and confusing.  Let’s consider some of the messy feelings that can emerge in response to the thought or the reality of gift giving at Christmas, or indeed at any time of the year. 

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Expectations around Gift Giving

The exchanging of gifts at Christmas can come with a whole host of expectations.  For example, one way of understanding gift giving is that the present is gifted without any expectation of return.  However, there may well be a firm expectation that if you prepare and present a present to someone, you do expect a gift in return.  There may also be expectations around the financial cost of gifts, and what would be classed at “too much” or “too little” to spend on a gift.  Sometimes such expectations are acknowledged communicated clearly and openly between people, other times these remain unvoiced, sitting silently and unexpressed between people.  Either way, when expectations exist – so does the possibility of disappointment.  That can take the form of present disappointments, or memories from pasts disappointments which surface at this time of year.  Having felt the edge of disappointment – for those of us who’ve been raised in families where we were expected to show gratitude and hide any disappointment, it may feel difficult and even shameful to experience feelings around unmet expectations.   

Different Love Languages

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Perhaps you’ve heard of the idea of “love languages”, made popular through Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages books?   Chapman makes the case for different ways and preferences around communicating love and affection within relationships, which include the giving of gifts. He identifies the 5 Love Languages as:

They are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch
  • Acts of service
  • Receiving gifts

Chapman argues that we tend to have one or two primary ways we prefer to receive love – ways that we can most easily understand another’s communication towards us.  And, the ways that we prefer to receive love are often the same ways we tend to show and communicate our affection, fondness and love for others.  So – for example, for people whose primary love language is acts of service, a homemade meal prepared and served for them may mean far more than an expensive gift.  Whereas, if someone has a primary love language of receiving gifts, an offer or help or a greetings card with carefully chosen words may feel paltry and measly in comparison to the investment in a gift of value. 

Love Languages are inevitably involved when it comes to Christmas gift lists and present exchanges.  And that also means there is the possibility of misunderstanding and complicated feelings.  Of languages getting lost in translation.  A person may feel rejected or let down by others who speak different love languages to them.  Perhaps they may have the awareness to notice and name these feelings of rejection or feeling let down.  Sadly, for many people, such feelings can be a trigger to old wounds relating to rejection and abandonment, meaning that past emotional hurts now mingle alongside current feelings.  This can lead to feelings of shame, anger, resentment amongst others.  Each person’s response to feeling misunderstood around love languages connected to gift exchanges will be unique and very much informed by past experiences.  

Gift giving also impinges on feelings of grief and loss. Death does not erase memories. For those of us imapcted by grief (as we all are in our lives) seasonal and festive gift giving can remind us of feelings of loss and bereftness as we recall gifts we exchanged with loved ones no longer here with us.

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Pressure to Gift

It’s important to also acknowledge the pressure people can feel under when it comes to gift buying and giving.  Tight budgets may mean little in the way of money to spend of gifts.  Yet, advertising continues, relentlessly, aiming to encourage us to part with money.  Feeling under pressure from family and friends to enter shared gift exchanges can leave people worried and anxious and taking on debt.  Difficulties in communication boundaries about what we do and don’t want to do, and can and can’t commit, can feel difficult.  It’s not uncommon for people to blame themselves and experience shame and self-loathing in response to gift giving pressure.

Receiving Gifts

One final psychological area related to gifting can be the difficulty some people experience in receiving gifts.  An outward sign of someone else’s gratitude, or care and love for us can feel at odds if we view ourselves as being less than or unworthy or such care and thought.  Negative views of self and finding it hard to accept who we are can make the act of receiving a gift feel excruciatingly difficult.  We may find ourselves telling other people they “really shouldn’t have” or that they’ve “wasted their money” in getting you a gift. This can, inevitably feel difficult to hear for the person giving the gift.

And, sadly, some people know from experience how gifts can be used to manipulate or abuse another.  Gifts can be used as a way of grooming others.  Sometimes referred to as a form of “love bombing”, the extravagant lavishing of gifts in the early stages of a romantic relationship by someone intent on abusing another as a can feel destabilizing and disorientating for the person on the receiving end of such gifts. 

Yet, as a culture, we are often expected to receive a gift graciously.  There can be a lot of “shoulds” around gift giving and receiving that might feel at odds with how we actually feel or what we really want or need. It is noticing this incongruence and disconnect between inner feelings and outer expectations that prompts some people to seek out counselling or psychotherapy to talk through feelings and thoughts that emerge in relation to receiving gifts.    

This blog has, hopefully, helped to explore some of the complexity around the psychological processes involved in gift giving.  If you are aware of emotional and relational difficulty connected to gift giving and gift receiving, then speaking about this with a counsellor or psychotherapy could be a helpful gift you can give to yourself. 

Published by Claire Law

Qualified and BACP Accredited Preston-based Counsellor and Psychotherapist offering space for you to find freedom from what holds you back.

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