The Holiday Season: When you open your gift and the only words that come to mind are "You shouldn't have...I mean you really shouldn't have!"

We give gifts for a multitude of reasons. Some good and some not.We give gifts to show love and affection. We give gifts to show gratitude and appreciation. We give gifts to honor people....And then we give gifts out of habit, custom and tradition...due to the holidays, or out of a need to be accepted, or because we feel we  have to.


Sometimes the gift is about the giver and their desire to share a part of themselves with you. Sometimes the gift is about the receiver and just finding that magical gift that says I know you...I truly understand what it is that you like, and it gives me great joy to make you happy. I remember when my daughter was two and she fell in love with a pair of pink, sparkly shoes. My mother could not resist going back to buy her those shoes, and I truly don't know who was experiencing the excitement of the moment more when my mother gave my daughter those shoes...she KNEW exactly what would make my daughter shrill with joy, and she was the one providing that joy! That was truly a love-exchange moment. Have you had a moment where you extended yourself to know somebody...really know somebody and you bought them something they just loved? What joy did that bring you? Have you had a moment where   somebody extended their self to know...really know you and they bought you something you just loved? What joy did that bring you? Gift giving is a love language!


Sometime the gift is about meeting a physical need, like feeding a hungry family. Those moments can be priceless and again it is hard to tell who is receiving the larger chunk of joy.


Many people do not realize that gift giving is one of the love languages. They never looked at giving a gift as a way to connect with another human being. Gary Chapman, author of the Five Love Languages, shares insight on ways we can fill the love-wells of other people by taking the time to really understand and know who they are, through speaking their love language. People have a deep need to feel loved and feel like they belong and this is a method by which people can learn to speak love into other people. The premise of this tool/theory is that as people are in relationship with one another, their relationship will grow stronger and healthier if they learn to speak their loved one’s love language. When a person is experiencing the feeling of being loved, they will respond by giving out love and the relationship will not only be strengthened, but will be happy and more able to endure the stresses that life throws at them. When a person is experiencing the feeling of giving love, they too fill with a joy and a presence that enhances the relationship as well.

Gift giving traditions are often handed down by families and their language changes as families marry, have children, grow older, experience divorce, suffer or overcome economic challenges, and survive deaths. Each change can alter a family tradition and these changes can impact how people speak the gift giving love language. It is important to exercise caution and use extra communication when making these changes…because this is an area that can lead to family friction and cause hurt. Add in friends to the mixture and one will learn that there is a wide diversity in the dialects of love languages spoken and even more rules about what the right way to give a gift is. This is no easy tool to learn!

Nothing brings the understanding and confusion of gift giving as a love language more to light than the Holidays... and the week after. Therapists often hear about many of the successes and failures. Clients seem to have many more stories of disappointment than contentment, and the hurts run pretty deep.  Gift giving  can be used to show love, however it also can fail to communicate love. For many people gift giving is not a love language. When people don't realize the importance of this being a love language, they fail to honor it or use it in a way that builds love. 

At Christmas, gift giving can become a list of TO-DOs and it can become exhausting, overwhelming, and expensive. My advise: if you feel compelled to give a gift for any other reason than love- DON'T DO IT. Never let gift giving become a list of TO DOs. When you make a person feel like they are on your "Have to Do" list versus your "Want to Do" list, you make them feel unimportant and unloved. Instead of bringing light to their life, you wasted your money to make them feel insignificant.  I remember being in a work related Santa Exchange more than once, where the exchange was disappointing and disheartening. One time I was a given a name of my secret person and a list of things they liked, and I went out of my way to sneak happiness and joy into their holiday season. At the same time, I was receiving sugar candies from my person on a daily basis, when I had specifically written on my list, please don't give me candy or food.  I felt so disregarded. I felt like the giver had not taken the time to know what would make me smile and they had not even read or respected my request not to give me sweets.


Not only are there people who fail to pay attention or understand or know their recipient,  there are begrudged givers, who have no desire to engage in the forced participation of a gift exchange...and they make it well known. One example is the brother-in-law physician who drew a name out of a hat on a family gift exchange, and then grabbed an old subscription of magazines from his practice and wrapped that as a gift. Way to say, "I care!"

Even for those who really want to give an amazing gift, it is so easy to miss on knowing your loved one's dialect. A techy husband might think giving his wife a laptop on her 40th birthday is the most wonderful and practical gift he could imagine, while his wife might see that as anything but romantic, especially if computers cause her anxiety and frustration. This couple lacked a shared dialect of gift giving, and/or they lacked a shared understanding of the purpose of giving/receiving gifts. It is so important to have conversations not only on what makes you feel loved, but what the purpose of gift giving is for each individual in the relationship.

Most important one must remind themselves that not everyone knows about the love language of gift giving. Not everyone cares that gift giving is a love language. EVERYONE has different rules and expectations when it comes to gift giving. Expectations lead to disappointment, hurt, and anger. Not everyone is willing to engage in the process of discussion and growth. To spare feelings of hurt, one must first take on the perspective that people live by different rules and second, they must not have expectation of others to know that gift giving could be a way to enhance a relationship. Instead, when the disappointment happens, the receiver must practice grace towards those who do not understand that gift giving can be a love language and the failure to use it as such.

Then there is the question of etiquette after the failed gift. What should the expected response of one be when they get that gift that disappoints? Our morals teach us to tell the truth, but our culture tells us that to be politically correct one must be polite. The more distant the receiver is from the giver, the easier it is to be polite. However, the closer the relationship and emotional connection is, the harder it is to be polite because feelings get hurt when gift giving does not match the expectation of the receiver. When someone close to you gives you used shoes for Christmas, not in your size, and not to your liking, after you have asked her to please not give you recycled gifts, feelings can be really hurt. The initial message received may be, “Wow this person did not even care to send me something I would want,” or “This person does not really know me,” or “She really didn't want to spend any money on me,” or “This person doesn't even care about me,” or “Christmas for this person is just about getting it done- being able to put anything under the tree to have something to open. An empty box wrapped in paper might have gone over better.” Those are honest feelings from a person who looks at gift giving as an extension of a love language. When you receive silver earrings from someone who knows you are allergic to silver, it really does convey that they did not put much thought into the gift they were sending, especially if you clearly stated in the past,  "please don't give me jewelry".  This really can make one think, “Do you not listen to me or respect me when I tell you what I don't like?"


Communication and learning a shared dialect around the art of speaking the gift giving love dialect of your loved ones is essential for filling love-wells and for the growth of a relationship, but both individuals must buy in to agreeing that this is something important to be honest about, and both individuals must agree they are willing and want to grow through the process. The hardest part is making a decision- do you take the time, and the energy to convey how hurt you are by the gift?...risking the guilt you might feel in sharing the lack of gratitude you have for the gift. Or do you not say anything and keep the relationship where it is at?...hopeless that it will ever grow into something healthy, honest, and respectful. To be polite and to keep them at a distance? Or...to be honest, with hope for growth, but also risking that correcting a person's behavior might not be received favorably and there response to that correction may be defensiveness or hurt feelings? 


Action Step: What is your love language dialect? Have you ever been thoughtless in giving a gift? Have you ever received a gift that was impersonal and really didn’t make you feel loved? What gifts have you received that made you know that you are loved? What gifts have you given that made you know that you loved someone? How did you feel when you got it right? What rules do you have about gift giving? Who do you need to have a conversation with about your shared gift giving dialect? Remember each relationship is unique and you will need to negotiate rules with everyone you love so that you both know this is how I show love and this is what makes me know I am loved!