Six Clues Your Gift Giving Is Codependent

Posted on November 27, 2012 | By Mindy Crary

Six Clues Your Gift Giving Is Codependent

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.

(Click Picture To Tweet)

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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41 Responses to “Six Clues Your Gift Giving Is Codependent”

  1. Sonnet says:

    Love this post! I always get caught up in trying to impress my partner’s parents with Christmas gifts, which is tough because they are much better off than myself financially and it always puts a big strain on me during the holidays. I’m now inspired to let go of the need for “perfection”! Thanks Mindy! :)

  2. Jean says:

    Love this. I used to spend so much time and energy shopping for perfect gifts for everyone. When I realized it wasn’t fun and that I was spending money I shouldn’t be spending, I stopped.

  3. Roberta says:

    This really strikes a chord – and explains why for so many years I felt only disappointment during the holiday season. I would try to create the perfect Christmas everything – tree, dinner, gifts, etc. Looking at the season’s activites and expectations from a codependence and motivation perspective is an AHA moment for me. Thank you, Mindy, for this timely post.

  4. Deanna says:

    Great, great post. One of my most co-dependent gifts was a bunch of expensive (for me) clothes for my young niece and nephew one Christmas. I come from a dysfunctional family where personal choice–for instance, being a woman in her late 20s without any intention of having children–was ridiculed and dishonored. So I was trying in a weird way to “prove” I knew about kids (I really like kids, was a nanny, just didn’t want any of my own). My SIL, being dysfunctional herself, took the clothes out of the box and proceeded to laugh because I had bought them “too big.” Haha the dumb woman who doesn’t know about children! Clearly too stupid to know their sizes when they change every 4 months! I vowed then to never ever spend my limited money on presents for a) people who didn’t accept graciously or b) to prove something about myself. I’ve done pretty good since then.

  5. Anne says:

    Excellent post about the dark side of gift giving. We have started doing Kris Kindle over the last few years and really it takes the pressure off everyone – get a name, set a budget and ask them for suggestions..well done Mindy :-)

  6. Megan Flatt says:

    We are SO on the same page with this! I love everything you said and can totally see a few of these scenarios in my own family (and a few in myself). I love all your ideas and will be following your actions. What I want to know is HOW did you come to the decision with your family that you would no longer exchange gifts? I feel like it is a conversation we have to have now about 2013. I’d love some tips!
    Megan Flatt recently posted..Find Joy (and a little break) Behind Your Camera- Guest PostMy Profile

  7. Pam Pearson says:

    WOW Mindy. This really hit home for me. The most codependent gift I ever gave was a truck. Yup a big Red Ford F350. Of course my boyfriend will “pay me back” but I can see thanks to your post the codependent nature of this and how it was really about making me feel good. Thanks for such an insightful post and giving me something to reflect upon.
    xo Pam
    Pam Pearson recently posted..On the ReboundMy Profile

  8. Sheila says:

    Excellent post, Mindy! I am on board with you. I have attempted a few times to get our family revise the gift giving of the holidays to relieve stress, pressure and overspending and yet it falls on deaf ears. I would love to hear how you presented the idea to your family. So far, I come off sounding like the Grinch with a heart 3 sizes too small. 😉 Your wisdom is greatly appreciated.

    • Mindy Crary says:

      I think a big part for my family was the idea of experience over possessions–plus, my immediate family has no small children. I used to get so disappointed when the whole family was exhausted from opening gifts, that everyone would pass out in the middle of Christmas, and there would be no one to talk to or do things with! So we started doing activities like frosting cutout cookies, or going outside to play a game and everyone could see that it was more fun than HAVING stuff without connection. I’ll do a post soon!
      Mindy Crary recently posted..Six Clues Your Gift Giving Is CodependentMy Profile

  9. Cathy Sykora says:

    Mindy, I love your posts. I have been working on this since 2001! Every year I force myself to put a little more heart into my gifts…and a little less money. Last year my son told me he was proud of me for not over doing it! Success! Thanks! ~Cathy
    Cathy Sykora recently posted..Invisible HandsMy Profile

  10. Joanna says:

    This is such a timely post Mindy. Thanks for sharing. You hit the nail on the head with some of these suggestions. The search for the perfect gift is endless. Then there’s the expected response when someone gives you a gift that they believe is ‘perfect’. I like Cathy’s comment too: More heart, less money :-) I try to keep it reasonable and useful – not always so easy. It’s true, it can be difficult not to get caught up in the obligations and expectations.

  11. Sarah says:

    What a fabulous list Mindy.

    As i’ve gotten older and started to care less and less about stuff I do less and less for christmas- for others. This year I gave my kids art. Makes me happy. Hope it makes them happy too!

  12. OMG…I used to be so bad at all this – giving and doing and buying and….well, you obviously get the picture! I stopped a lot of this craziness many years ago. BUT, in reading the codependent signs, I see that I still have the tendencies. Oh my….need to do some work around this for sure, even though I no longer “buy big and buy often” like days of old. Thanks for breaking this down in a way I have never seen before….much thinking and some work yet to do.
    xo, Tina
    Tina Pruitt | Speaker | Kick Ass Online Business Strategist recently posted..Seven Simple Ways to Shift Your Energy TodayMy Profile

  13. Kat Bouchard says:

    Mindy I am just in love with your writing and your ideas, they are always so bang on! For the last few years I have been on a big tangent about not going crazy with gifts at Christmas and Birthdays and thankfully my family has been on board. Especially now that I have a child I am adamant she will not grow up to expect big gifts at all the holidays!
    I never thought about gift giving in a co-dependent way, I have always been concerned with the excess waste it creates in our lives. But I love this thought process, even now the gifts I do get for people, there probably is a big part of me wanting to impress them with ‘how thoughtful I am!’
    Thanks for these great ideas!
    Kat Bouchard recently posted..How To Be Better Than BigMy Profile

  14. Rich Donahue says:


    OMG what an eye opener. Not that I’m taking others inventory, LOL, but great article. I’m sharing this one! Really nice work. Thank you and Happy Holidays!
    Rich Donahue recently posted..Best Type Of Juicer For YouMy Profile

  15. Carla says:

    My biggest fear with gift giving is that a friend/employee will gift me and I won’t have something to return. I really don’t expect or even want gifts for myself. I feel immense guilt if I’ve been gifted and have nothing to exchange.

    When suggested some people will just not NOT give gifts – a mutual agreement to gift each other with more time & less stress. So those peeps give gifts and then I feel obligated to have something to return.

    If it were up to me, there would be no gift exchange in my circle and we’d all just let the gifting happen for the children. The adults would enjoy each other’s company, the lights, the music and the time off from work.
    Carla recently posted..The Light-Worker’s Diet: Eating for GodMy Profile

    • Mindy Crary says:

      I think in those situations it is helpful to remember that that person wants to honor you, and they knew there was a chance that you wouldn’t have anything for them in return–and that is okay. Your appreciation is always enough, ESPECIALLY if there was an agreement beforehand!

      Sometimes we get into reciprocity because of guilt that we are not enough, that it’s “not right” that anyone should just give us gifts because of our innate being. You are gift enough, just being you.

      And it is always up to you to create the experience you want–it might not be the full-scale vision, but you can incorporate a little more each year. You might be surprised to find that the children are more ready to join you than the adults!
      Mindy Crary recently posted..When Listening To Your Gut Is The Wrong Thing To DoMy Profile

  16. Tera Maxwell says:

    Thank you for your candid, illuminating article! The gift-giving is still something I am working through.

    Tera Maxwell recently posted..Visioning-Your-Success PartyMy Profile

  17. […] to a time when we could relax and enjoy each other.  Recently, some blog readers asked me how we got to that point—how did we have the conversation that initiated the change so we no longer gave gifts to each […]

  18. Sara Taylor says:

    Hi Mindy- lived your very illuminating article! My Mom “spoiled” me with an extremely large quantity if gifts for EVERY occasion…I believe it was more of her guilty conscience for not always being available and for other dysfunctional family issues! And, of course, I ended up being dubbed the “spoiled brat! Not fair as a child!!!!
    My question is this… We still do exchange some gifts with immediate family at Christmas, Birthdays…what’s your take on the folks who ” control” the forthcoming gift? I think recipient should be happy with whatever they get!!! How annoying and maybe I will just call a “gift” truce…..:)

    • Mindy Crary says:

      Hm, Sara, I’m not sure…I tend to remind myself to keep my eyes on my own paper, and when I DO need to give gifts, give ones that make me feel good without worrying too much about how it’s going to land with the other person, because I can’t control that. This also means I don’t get into discussions beforehand about what might be “appropriate” so that someone else is controlling my decision making. I just know the more i talk about it, the more attached I get, which isn’t a good thing!

  19. Lora says:

    Last week my husband came home from a business trip with a bag full of jewelry. I kid you not. Literally, a bag full. Granted it was all costume/fun jewelry, but the fact that he didn’t look at just one item and say to himself; “I bet this would look good on Lora” or “I think Lora might like this” and instead brought home 10 pieces, really speaks to the codependency in our marriage. For a solid week now I’ve listened to him repeatedly telling everyone who’ll listen about all the bling he bought me (he neglects to mention none of it is real or expensive, so of course some people have actually told me I’m a spoiled princess and should show him “proper appreciation.”

    I’ve changed a great deal over the past 2-3 yrs, gaining self esteem and confidence, and my husband is transparent in his discomfort with my newfound sense of self. Lately he’s seeming almost desperate for approval and validation and I’m feeling more and more distanced from his neediness. Your article hits the nail on the head in a most timely way.

  20. Tina says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I am 37 years old, married, yet my mom STILL gives us a TON of gifts for nearly every occasion imaginable – Christmas, Valentine’s Day (no joke), Easter (seriously!), birthdays, etc…it is so frustrating! I have been researching ‘obsessive gift giving’ the past couple of days just because after this last Christmas, I have had it and cannot take the overabundance of gifts anymore. My husband and I each received at least 30 gifts from my mom Christmas Day. There were a total of six of us celebrating Christmas at my parents house together, and we had not one, but TWO gift exchanges, lasting a total of over three hours. Between exchanging gifts, throwing away wrapping paper, organizing gifts and the boxes they came in, transporting gifts to our car, and helping my mom in the kitchen, I did NOT enjoy my day whatsoever. I wanted to simply spend time with family, yet my mother’s obsession with gift-giving seemed to take over the whole day. Yesterday, my husband and I either (1) threw away, or (2) gave to Goodwill about 3/4 of the things she gave to us. I continually tell her I want NO MORE GIFTS, yet she still continues to give us so much JUNK! My husband and I both are also very successful, so if we want something, we just buy it! I don’t even want ANY gifts, but if I MUST receive a gift from her, I would prefer one or two NICE things vs. 30 clearance items that I don’t want/need. Do you have ANY suggestions for how I can approach my mother about this? She is 70 years old, so I don’t see her changing, but I really wish she would stop giving us things. Most of them end up in the trash or at the thrift store. Help!!! (Can you tell I’m at my wits end??)

  21. Tina says:

    I am sorry to post again, but I must also add that my mom requests Christmas/Birthday lists from us before each holiday and/or birthday. I tell her, “I don’t want anything”, and she will say, “That’s too bad!”. She is 70 years old, my father is EXTREMELY successful, and she will also give US a Christmas list that SHE makes for items that she wants – despite the fact that her husband is a very successful businessman and she can easily take her credit cards and go out to purchase anything she wants! Isn’t that so strange? Oh how I need help here…

    • Mindy Crary says:

      Hey Tina – wow, I feel so bad for you, this is such an intense situation! Changing my mom over was a multi-year situation too. I had to point out to her that her most enjoyable moments were the ones that had nothing to do with gifts, first. Then, with lists, we had a conversation; I would point to each item and ask her, why would it be more fun to get this as a gift than to simply buy it for yourself? Or with me, I started putting things like NO CANDY on my list…which she objected to, until I said, “To me, less junk IS a gift.” I also started to function less and she noticed–like, I would wrap all of my gifts in the same paper, and make less effort with choosing thoughtful gifts. People started getting gift cards. But then she saw I was still excited about the season, just not the gifts, she started to shift. I think my mom was afraid of losing all of the magic, but I had to reassure her, I was still “in” for the holiday meals and the time together. I hope this helps, let me know :o)

      • Tina says:

        Hi Mindy,

        I really appreciate your reply. I feel like maybe I rambled on a bit too much, but I was just SO frustrated, and it was nice to read that someone else out there knew and understood this unique situation. I will have some friends who tell me I sound selfish or bratty that I complain about the overload of gifts – so I am glad you can empathize! I really like your suggestions a lot! I just have to start having more conversations with her and be honest about it and more direct (I am going to try putting ‘NO CLOTHES’ on my next ‘list’, we’ll see how that goes – haha!). I also like trying to change the focus by explaining to her that my joy of the Christmas season (or any holiday, for that matter) comes from spending time with family and making memories, NOT gift giving! We’ll see what happens! Thank you for your help!

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