Today marked the end of both the semester and of my Christmas “doing” for this year. All gifts have been made, purchased, and given (or at least shipped). Cards have been given or mailed. Baking is done. I can now rest.
And as I settled in tonight to rest from the busyness of the last couple of weeks, I had a startling realization: I actually enjoyed my gift giving this year! This probably sounds odd to most people, but gift giving occasions (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) are usually times of intense anxiety and stress for me.
This year was different.
I no longer remember what I had done to disappoint my mother on that particular occasion when I was a child, but I clearly remember her disgust with me when she informed me that there were two kinds of people in the world—there were those who were good at giving and those who were good at receiving, and I somehow managed to be neither. I remember how clear it was that to be a giver was to be the best kind of person, but to be a good receiver was an acceptable alternative. Being neither one made me a failure of the worst sort. I still feel a visceral sense of shame every time that memory crosses my mind.
Over the years, I’ve managed to attract other people into my life that have given me the same message. My gifts have too often been judged as inferior in some way (at times, even to the point of causing offense for being too much, too little, or just not right), which has just made things worse. Each approaching gift giving occasion provokes deep, uncontrollable anxiety so strong that I even feel nauseated at times. I sometimes have trouble breathing as I try to come up with adequate gift ideas. And with each failure, my fear of hurting, disappointing, and offending those I care about in my attempts to demonstrate my care for them becomes more intense.
I’ve never found anyone who is able to explain to me exactly what it is that makes my gifts unacceptable, so I’ve never known what to do differently. I simply did not have some innate skill that seemed to be required. I suspect my anxiety over the possibility of a negative outcome probably contributed to the negative responses I received from people over the years, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that still didn’t help me to fix it.
This year, I have had flashes of nausea and panic, but they have been controllable and only sporadic. I actually took great delight in my gift making and baking this year. As I noticed this difference this evening, I spent some time pondering what was different (so I can be sure to reproduce this ease in future gift giving occasions), and I’ve discovered several internal and external changes.
One thing that helped is that my mother decided that she would not accept any gifts this Christmas, so I did not have to worry about disappointing her again this year. That did reduce the pressure somewhat, but this is not enough to have made as big a difference as I experienced.
A second thing that was a help this year was that I intentionally scaled back on my gift giving in general. I made things simpler this year, which took some of the pressure off and thereby reduced the anxiety a little bit. After all, it may do less harm to not give a gift at all than to do it poorly. By accepting the likelihood of disappointing people as a conscious decision, it made the prospect of it happening easier to bear.
Another thing that I think helped more is that almost all of my gifts this year were homemade. It’s not that I think these gifts would be more appreciated by the recipients than something I purchased (in fact, in some cases, it could make the gifts less valuable), it’s that I knew that I had put a lot of myself into the gift, so I felt like I had given of myself whether the recipient sees it that way or not. In addition, creating homemade gifts limited the number of options for things that I could do for people, so choosing the best option of the ones available was easier to do.
Most of all, however, what I believe has helped this year is that I am surrounded by people who seem to think I am enough just like I am. (Not perfect, but enough even in my imperfections.) I am surrounded by people who give generously in overflowing measure all the time. I am surrounded by people who graciously, enthusiastically, and eagerly accept the things I offer with gratitude and kindness.
I feel safe there, and that safety allowed me to give food and gifts without fear and anxiety. This is what made the difference.
I took in a spread of treats and goodies today to share with this community without experiencing one bit of anxiety over it. Only one person complained a little bit about having too many sweets around, but even that complaint did not put a dent in my fun. It was such a joy to watch these people who have been such a healing balm to me enjoying the goodies, to watch people’s faces light up when they heard that we had free treats in our space, to watch people gather together and laugh and talk. It didn’t even matter to me whether they knew who made the food (many of them did not). Only one person complained about the presence of too much food, but I did not let that spoil my fun. (A notable accomplishment for me!)
Who knows? My mother might be right, and I don’t have whatever innate skill required to be a good giver. I don’t know. But I think I just be learning the spirit of giving anyway. I am grateful to be in such a place of safety and grace that allows me to learn a new skill without after all these years.
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