How I get over the guilt when exchanging or donating unwanted gifts

May 2 2016 | Guest post by Brink Powell
Leopard print gift bag from Amazon.
Leopard print gift bag from Amazon.

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.

  1. At one point in my teen years, people decided that I liked dolphins because I happened to buy a couple dolphin things in a row… for Christmas that year, I got dolphin everything! I was trying to be nice and act surprised/ happy/ thankful at the time. Later on, I had to tell people that I wasn't really that into dolphins. I think part of it comes from not telling people some things that you actually 'want', not just need. A lot of people in my circles don't want to give items like gas cards or gift cards to target or the grocery store – even though I have definitely 'needed' that a one point in my life. They want to give you something 'fun' that you will enjoy, so they come up with this 'random crap'- I mean super awesome stuff- that they thing you might like (such as leopard print slippers). I have found that putting some 'fun' items on the gift lists helps combat this a little bit.

    I once saw on a hoarders type show when the host said something to the effect of, 'just because they gave it to you, does not mean that YOU have to cherish it or keep it forever. It's a gift and you get to decide what happens to it.' – That was a light-bulb moment for me – I can just get rid of this stuff that people gave me and not feel bad about it!?!? If I don't have a use for it, it's probably going back to the store, being re-gifted, or going to goodwill eventually! I have no guilt about this anymore.

    1 agrees
  2. Totally this–and I have to keep reminding myself of it as well…I try to remember the feeling behind the giving and know that I appreciated that feeling and the sentiment of the gift but it doesn't mean I have to hold on to the gift forever.

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    • I may have actually read something along those lines on this very website a couple of years back. Basket moment FTW!!
      My native language has a saying that goes "it's not the gift that counts, it's the intention behind it" ("c'est l'intention qui compte"). It's usually used to guilt-trip people into keeping gift they don't need/want/like, but if you come back to the original meaning, giving is truly about intentions. Once the gift has been received and you appreciated the intention, then it has reached its purpose and does not need to clutter your space if you don't need it.
      There are some ethical concerns about selling a gift but you can absolutely donate/regift it.

  3. I keep in mind that ultimately, the person who gave you the gift wants you to be happy and gave you the gift in the hopes of bringing you joy. For most people, if what they gave doesn't do the trick, they would rather you exchange it for something that does. I see this as true even if you are exchanging it for more room in your home or freedom from stuff. If those things bring you more joy than the original gift, then you are fulfilling the gift-giver's goal of making you happy.

    6 agree
    • "I see this as true even if you are exchanging it for more room in your home or freedom from stuff."

      Wow! That's a really neat way of thinking about it…

      7 agree
      • I've never thought about space as a gift, but it really is! I would love to have more space in our apartment, not to fill up with more stuff but just some breathing room. I did a purge of our bathroom cabinets the other day and got rid of tons of care products that we never used that had come from gift baskets. I just love looking on "my" shelf now and seeing only a brush, a hair straightener, some medicines, and my nail care bag and a bunch of empty space!

        3 agree
    • I love this idea in trying to make my own peace, but it unfortunately doesn't erase the guilt of my mother asking "Have you used that donut maker yet? I'm really curious as to how they turn out!!!" I don't know if "Well, I exchanged it for more room in my house!" will be a satisfactory answer for my guilt-mongering mother 😛

      3 agree
  4. I was really excited to see this show up in my newsfeed this morning (and even more excited to see it was written by Brink!) because I had this problem up until very recently. A few things helped me get over it:

    First, similar to your last point, I read somewhere that the gifter gets joy from the giving. Once it's in your hands, they've done their "job" and it's now up to you to do whatever you please with the gift. As long as you really aren't being blatantly rude when you receive the gift, you've helped the gifter receive their joy.

    Second, I started really hating things in general. I have a friend who is the same way and felt this way looooong before I did. I used to give her gifts and she was always very gracious. But occasionally I would make the mistake of asking her about a gift I had given her. She always, without fail, would say something along the lines of, "I gave it to this other person who needed/wanted it more."

    Yeah, I felt kind of crappy the first couple of times. But eventually I learned that giving her gifts was a waste of my money and only caused her guilt because she never kept the stuff. So now we're both better off because she doesn't get excess stuff or have to feel guilty about giving the stuff away. And I don't have to feel bad that she doesn't really want the stuff I have given her. Sometimes, I'll take a picture of something that reminds me of her and send that to her, instead of buying her the thing.

    That was a very long-winded way of saying that I sort of do the same thing now. I try to rehome unwanted gifts to someone who will appreciate it more than me. I ruthlessly donate anything else. And I'm tactfully honest with anyone who asks me about a gift they've given me. That honesty, paired with my constant insistence that I really, _really_ don't want any "thing" gifts, has actually reduced the number of things trickling into my life.

    5 agree
    • Aww, glad to see it resonated with you! 🙂

      One of my friends recently moved and realized she had way too much STUFF! So I told her that until she tells me otherwise I will only get her "disposable" gifts. Gift cards for gas, or food, packs of cigarettes, tickets to a show, dinner out, etc. Something that is useful but also doesn't take up any space and once it's used it's gone! It's worked out quite well and I'm thinking of implementing it as a rule for my family from now on.

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    • I started requesting experience gifts. Zoo Membership, theatre tickets, that sort of thing. Because unless it is the very specific things that I want, I don't want more stuff. And telling someone *exactly* what to buy you sort of takes the charm out of gifting.

      I found this works well. People get to give me gifts I appreciate (and I always make sure to post pictures of the kids at the zoo, or the family trip to the Puppet Center to follow up the thank yous) and I don't end up with more stuff. Unfortunately, I have had 0 success with getting grandparents to let these count as gifts for the kids who are still excited to get stuff they so don't need.

      3 agree
  5. Do what Marie Kondo says… Thank the item for fulfilling its purpose for you, bringing you joy in the past, for giving the giver joy, etc and pass it along…. It sounds completely hokey, but it does really help to give closure to something you are passing along while acknowledging the good that it did, so no need for guilt

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    • I was just going to say this– I don't love everything that the Kondo book has to say, but the part where you thank the item and send it on its way really helped me and my tendency to personify inanimate objects.

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  6. I'm having this very problem now. My father-in-law (FIL) really likes buying us stuff but often doesn't consider if we actually need/want the stuff. From a tabletop grill with rotating skewers (I never ever make skewers and it was HUGE for our little apartment…) to a remote controlled helicopter (which neither of us would even have wanted as a kid), he's big on big gifts that HE would actually like. Last Christmas, he gave us a beautiful wine decanter. It is pretty and good quality…but neither his son nor myself drink wine, let alone wine that would need decanting. I feel guilty about thinking of selling it online less than six months after receiving it, but there is no way we could return it and no one we know needs one. It is taking up valuable space in our kitchen and I need to get it out the door. I hope one day we'll get the courage to tell my FIL right away when we'd like to exchange a gift even though he'll be disapointed. But whether we tell him right away or get rid of the gift in secret, there just doesn't seem to be any way to escape de guilt even if nothing in the situation is actually our fault. I hope we can also get to be free of the guilt some day. This is giving me hope.

    3 agree
    • My husband and I don't drink either. For our wedding we got really nice champagne flutes from his mom and really nice champagne from my parents. We appreciated the thought, but at the same time… they know we don't drink, so the gifts seemed kind of tone deaf.

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      • This happened to us, too. We drink a little wine but never champagne and we probably have 40 wine type glasses now! unless we have another wedding, when are we going to need 40 wine glasses!?!

        1 agrees
    • This reminds me of a house warming gift I got from one of my aunts. She got us a fondue set when we moved into our apartment. A fondue set! I do not cook and I know that fondue probably really doesn't count as cooking but … it's cooking to me. We also don't really entertain in a sophisticated adult manner. Us entertaining is "BYOB and we'll take up a collection and order pizza once everyone arrives." A fondue set just has no place in our lives, so I totally feel you on the grill.
      I don't think you need to outright tell your FIL that you exchanged or donated any of his gifts, but I also don't think you need to strive to keep it secret. Should he ask where something he gave you went you can just be honest and say "We really appreciated the thought but we just weren't getting that much use out of it so we (exchanged, donated, sold, etc) and were able to (get this other thing, have more space, etc) instead." Perhaps in future you could actually give him a list when gift giving times approach. Since he likes getting you guys things he'd hopefully be receptive to a list of things you'd actually want!

      1 agrees
      • Believe me, we provide a diverse list early every year. He just ignores it. Thing is, if we wanted to exchange it, we'd need the receipt, so we'd have to ask him for it. He hasn't asked about any of the gifts yet, but definitely: if he ever does, we'll be honest and tell him what really happened.

        • Ugh, ignoring a list is not cool! I guess I've been lucky in that most things I want to return have been from stores with easy policies. Very few people gift me gift receipts so it's usually a matter of me saying "I got this as a gift and I don't have the receipt but I don't want it so could I exchange it for a gift card?" Most places seem to be okay with that as long as the UPC comes up in their computer.

          1 agrees
  7. My mother is a hoarder, and once I got out of her house I made a pact with myself that I wouldn't keep anything that I couldn't see the use in keeping. After living 18 years carefully maneuvering around piled up knick-knacks and 4-year-old (never-emptied) shopping bags, I've been careful not to bring that back in my life.

    The struggle between only wanting to keep the gifts you'd like to keep and not hurting anyone's feelings is a tough one. I've accidentally hurt my Mother-in-law's feelings a couple times, no matter how hard I try to stay within that line. Over time she's gotten to know me more and realizes that I prefer practical gifts over something that you display. I'm just glad I'm around people that take the time to get to know me enough to learn my preferences. Sometimes people don't get that lucky.

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  8. I feel you on the weeds/nants thing. I always find things I want, but my brain immediately says, "And when would you use it? Where would you keep it? If you can't answer those two questions, it's not for you." Sometimes that's nice (it allows me to appreciate things without getting the gimmes) and sometimes it's really frustrating (when I'm supposed to get the gimmes!). So for wishlists, I try to keep my finger on the pulse of my wants all year 'round and write them down then.

    • I'm sort of the opposite in that the first things that pop into my head are needs and it actually takes some effort to find things I want. I've started keeping wishlists on Amazon, Etsy, and just in a notebook so when I'm ask to please put a couple things I actually don't NEED but just WANT on a Christmas list I can comply =P

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    • This year I've been keeping a running Google doc of things that are wants and "need, but not right now" needs. My birthday and Christmas are less than a month apart, and my parents always ask for lists, so it can be hard to come up 2 lists back to back.

      I broke my list into 4 sections: Foods, inexpensive things, things that I am saving for, and books to make it easier for my Mom to pick things. The sections also mean I can keep track of those larger items that I want to save for, and not have my favorite snacks buried in my massive book wish list.

      I found that the intersect between want and need is where my Mom tends to pick items from. Yes, I need socks, but I want neon, patterned socks! So I got a bunch of neon socks for Christmas 🙂

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      • My Mom is also great at fusing the wants and needs and sometimes I don't even realize I need the thing until she gets it for me. Example, she heard me complaining about my old purse because it was ratty, one handle was detached, it had lost it's shape, it had no pockets, etc. It never occurred to me to ask for a new purse or just go get one myself but that Christmas I opened up a new purse that had everything I'd complained about the old one lacking.

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        • This is where I've come to love my family's new tradition of gifting expensive groceries. Starting in college, my mom started giving my sister and I big paper grocery bags filled with all the foods we were raised to love but just couldn't justify as broke college students/recent grads. Artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, feta cheese, dark chocolate truffles, etc. They also happen to be all the foods my husband despises (another reason it's hard to justify buying them because they really are JUST for me).

          It hasn't happened as much the last couple of years because there's been something I needed a financial contribution towards that has counted as my gift, but those really were some of the most exciting presents I remember receiving as a grown up. My husband has actually started looking forward to Christmas because he knows it's when he gets "fancy whiskey."

          3 agree
  9. Wow, yet again I feel super lucky to have the parents I do. They are excellent about giving me gifts I will actually use (because I asked specifically for them or specifically mentioned that the one I have is busted), and if I don't specifically request anything, they give me cash. It all works out.

  10. My mom has the same issue with leopard print – but it's true for a lot of things. I have a house full of cats, but I'm not *that* into cat stuff. But many gifts I receive are cat themed presents wrapped in cat patterned paper with a cat themed card. It's like people know you like one thing so they latch on to that. I suppose though it's better that they even know something about you, instead of getting you a generic bath set. Or passing it on rather, I swear there's just 5 bath sets in the world and they're all just being regifted.

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    • Leopard print, Harry Potter, and zombies. Those seem to be the main stand by gifts that I receive. Now, I truly do love all three of those things but I think what happens is people see "Ooo! Harry Potter oven mitts! Brink loves Harry Potter" and I do. BUT, they then don't take the next step and think "Wait, does Brink need oven mitts? Would she use them?" The answers to which are no and no. For my birthday this year my friend got me zombie book ends and that's awesome because she took the next step and YES I could, and do, use a set of book ends.
      I agree about the bath sets. Never been a big fan of them. Receiving or giving!

      • I have this with rubber ducks – now, I have an awesome collection of rubber ducks, and I always appreciate rubber ducks but… I'm not ACTIVELY looking to expand on it (I have almost 100 now), and I do like other things as well….

  11. I have a similar problem, but with an extra layer of guilt added to it. My mom loves buying me/us (my husband and me) gifts for ourselves and our home. Every once in a while I like the gifts but usually they're cutesy things that I don't want or won't use (and they're often completely different from my usual style). The bonus guilt comes in when I think about her financial situation, which is NOT good. So she's spending money she doesn't have on junk I don't want, even though I've told her time and again that I really don't need anything and we have too much stuff. In a perfect world she just wouldn't buy all this stuff, but barring that I'd love to be able to give things back to her so she could return them and get her money back. I've tried that a few times but at best she will take things back because "oh it's just so cute, I will use it at home!" – but she already has 2+ households' worth of stuff in a mobile home she shares with another older lady.

    I know this is an incredibly specific situation and there's probably not any advice you homies could really offer, but I'd love any ideas on how to at least lessen the guilt! I'm torn between keeping my home the way I want it but feeding her hoarder-ish tendencies and maybe even hurting her feelings (by giving things back), keeping the gifts and filling my house with junk, or accepting things then regifting/donating them later (which doesn't come easily to me, so things often get shoved into the bottom of a closet to be dealt with later). There's some guilt (and resentment for making me feel guilty, but that's a whole different beast) with any choice!

    In any case I'll be a gracious recipient when I receive the gift; like the OP I was raised to say "thank you" when I'm given a gift, and I do truly believe that graciousness costs nothing and should be given whenever possible.

    • Here's what I would do in your situation. Start a donation box somewhere in your house where your mother doesn't go like your bedroom closet. When she gives you something you don't want, smile, say thank you and as soon as she leaves put it in the donation box. When the donation box is full take it to your local goodwill.
      I know it's easy for me just say "don't feel guilty!" but in this situation you really can't because it'll eat you up. You've tried telling her you don't need more stuff, you've tried giving it back to her to return, but it seems like she's just a gift giver. Her financial situation isn't yours to worry about. If it brings her joy to find and give these things to you then let her, but if having the objects doesn't bring you joy let them go.

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