When I was a child I was taught that when you received a gift you said “thank you,” no matter what the gift was. Whether it was a pony, a toy, or a pair of hand me down socks; whether it was wanted, needed, liked, or hated you said “thank you.” I remember after Christmas once being told how proud my parents were of me because I received a game that I already had. When I opened it my parents waited with bated breath to see if the seven year old would betray disappointment at receiving a duplicate. When I simply smiled and said “thank you!” they heaved sighs of relief.
It may have been that same Christmas that my grandparents came over to see what Santa brought. I was busy playing my new Aladdin game on my Super Nintendo and didn’t feel like showing them. In hindsight I was a brat about it. I remember my grandmother telling me about poor children who didn’t get any presents at all and how I should always be grateful for gifts. She made me feel like shit about myself, and that moment has stuck with me through all subsequent birthdays, holidays, graduations, and any other time I’m given a gift.
As an adult I find that I have a lot of guilty feelings over receiving gifts that I don’t actually want, need, or like. I agonize over creating the Christmas or birthday lists that my husband asks for, because I have a difficult time thinking of things I need. Then when I’m told that I’m being silly and I should ask for things I want the conundrum increases…
The things I want tend to be ridiculously practical — like socks, K-cups, gift cards to the gas station, etc. To people who live outside my head these are things that are stuck firmly in the “need” category. My wants and my needs seem to be firmly intertwined instead of two separate categories. I have “nants” or … “weeds?” Whatever it’s called it makes receiving things a tricky road to navigate.
An added layer to my issue with gifts is that when I was fourteen I discovered leopard print. Word to the wise, if you like a print don’t tell anybody. Because, before you know it, you will be inundated with piles of items in your chosen print. While I do love the print to this day, my wedding dress even featured it, somewhere along the line people got confused about the fact that just because something is leopard print doesn’t mean I’ll like it or have a use for it.
Whenever I receive something that I don’t really want, need, or like I revert to the seven year old who got a duplicate of Memory. I smile and say thank you. But now it’s more complicated as I’m the adult who has to decide what to do with the unwanted thing.
My viable solutions to this issue are usually either return it or send it to Goodwill. Returning it usually gets me store credit, which I can then use for something I actually need. Sending it to Goodwill means it will hopefully find a good home with someone who actually wants it. Either option has always seemed better to me than simply sticking the unwanted thing in a closet and letting it waste away.
The problem is the residual feelings of guilt I’m left with once the unwanted thing is out of my life. Even if I replace it with something I really want (sneakers instead of a shawl, pajama pants instead of footie pjs, etc) my mind is invaded by all these feelings. I feel bad that the person spent time, energy and money buying the thing. I feel sad that they thought I’d like it and I don’t. I feel nervous that they’ll wonder why they never see me wearing it, or using it, or why it isn’t on display somewhere at my apartment. Then I feel even more nervous trying to figure out what to say if they should ever ask about it.
To combat my guilty gift feelings I’ve been trying to remember something my husband said to me after a mug my mother had given me (which I did like) slipped out my hands and broke. I was so sad and started to cry. My husband said “Just because it’s gone now doesn’t erase the fact that she gave it to you.”
So now, whenever I return or donate a gift, I try to think about the fact that even though the physical object is gone the sentiment with which is was given isn’t. The point of a gift isn’t about the gift itself but the act of giving.