Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I was younger I used gift giving to gain love, approval, control and admiration. People seem to think that the less control you exert over your environment, the less control you have over your money, but I found exactly the opposite to be true for me. The less codependent I became, the less money I spend.
My Codependent Gift Giving History
My mom was the one who first “taught” me to give excessively (as a codependent child of an alcoholic); she went overboard with buying gifts for my sister and me on every possible occasion. I don’t blame mom for my gift giving behavior, but looking back, I can see how I adopted it.
One year in high school, we enlisted the entire family to help make little needlepoint boxes to hold Christmas candy for about 25 classmates. Another year, my dad and I made 20 Zen Gardens as gifts. When I was into ceramics, EVERYONE got one. If I am dead honest, I think giving those gifts was more about trying to make people see me a certain way than about any real connection.
A real turning point for me came many years ago when my family agreed to stop gift giving altogether. I suggested it because the entire process had felt empty to me for several years (as I changed my codependent ways). Now my family enjoys the holidays together without worrying about giving the perfect gift.
Motivations for Codependent Gift Giving
Some people think they’ll disappoint their children if they don’t go full-out with gifts under the Christmas tree. I’ve found that with kids, gift satisfaction can be very short term. And even early on, kids KNOW whether the gift you are giving is for them, or for you. The gifts you give to satisfy an idealized vision have no value to them.
If you think you might be behaving codependently with your gift giving, ask yourself if you are you trying to:
Be perfect or admired? When I gave out gifts to more than 20 of my friends, I wanted to impress them. I would imagine them saying, “Wow, what a thoughtful, creative gift; Mindy is awesome!” And I would be SO disappointed if someone didn’t properly express their appreciation. It was all about me.
Shape someone? This still makes me chuckle … my mom always thought I never dressed slutty enough :o) Her gifts in high school were all about form-fitting outfits that I would NEVER wear in a million years.
Avoid focusing on yourself? One year while gift shopping, the store had to call my credit card company so that they could make sure it was really me–I had spent so much in such a small amount of time, they were worried my credit card had been stolen! I was buying too much because I was trying to avoid acknowledging my negative feelings about my life and the people in it at the time.
Solve other people’s problems? I once bought a book for a boyfriend so that he could learn how to be more emotionally available. This was before I realized that I ALSO had/have emotional availability issues!
Avoid saying no? My dad has 3 sisters and two brothers, so you can imagine the gift-giving chaos with all of those nieces, nephews and cousins! Once we finally said that we were no longer going to be giving gifts, everyone was actually relieved.
Make people care about you as much as you care about them? As a codependent, you spend A LOT of time figuring out (or TRYING to figure out) what other people are thinking so that you can manipulate them and bend them to your will—in the most loving way, of course! If I wasn’t sure how someone felt about me, you could be sure that they would get a really good gift from me!
Clean Gift Giving
Codependent gift giving is all about imagining a “perfect” scenario as the result of this “perfect” gift you’re giving. In the past, I’ve watched my mother even get codependent over gifts she gave my cat—picking up the cat and trying to entice it with the new toy or blanket, simply unable to accept the cat wasn’t interested.
When thinking about giving a gift, it’s good to consider if you have an agenda, such as:
Is this gift a deviation from the recipient’s typical behavior? My mom once got bunny ears for my cat to wear. Are you trying to get someone to wear metaphorical bunny ears to fulfill an idealized image?
Do you imagine this gift will make someone respond differently? My good friend once admitted to me that he was really bummed that his girlfriend didn’t “properly” appreciate the earrings he bought for her. But we both already knew that she was a low-key person and hard to read. He was hoping that the earrings would magically make her more demonstrative of her affection.
Am I trying to help this person keep up their end of the relationship? I hear a lot of women complain that they are the ones who make plans to celebrate anniversaries or birthdays and resent their husbands for passively going along. What I have found is that when you stop worrying about perfection and over functioning, most spouses step up to the plate.
Is this gift more expensive than I planned to spend? It’s easy to get caught in “This is SO perfect for X, I have to get it!” but reality is, most people would rather receive a less expensive gift (with no expectations) than feel uncomfortable over how much you spent on the perfect one.
Actions This Week
- Eliminate “perfect” from your vocabulary. Take the pressure off yourself and everyone around you. Whatever idealized vision for gifts and the holidays you’re imagining, purge it from your brain! The best way to do this is to stay present as much as possible.
- Evaluate Role Obligation. Are you doing something, attending something, buying or baking something because you think you’re expected to as a mom, wife, daughter-in-law, friend, community member? This always increased the pressure for me to be perfect or find the perfect gift.
- Review your list of gifts for people. What are your expectations? Do you have a fantasy of how this person will behave toward you after opening the gift? That might be a good clue for you to reconsider giving it. Gifts do not improve, enhance or change relationships.
And in the comment section tell me …
What is the most codependent gift you ever gave or received?
And thanks for being part of the Creative Money Community!
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