Christmas: The Art of Giving

What does Christmas mean to you? Whether it’s turkey and all the trimmings, family get-togethers or simply having some time off work it’s likely to involve at least some giving or receiving. Christmas presents can bring huge financial and emotional pressures but whether you have dozens of gifts to buy or just a few, whether your budget is limited or limitless, having a mindful approach to giving this Christmas might take some of the pressure off and could strengthen your relationships.

Why do we give gifts?

The social value of giving has been recognised throughout human history. The giving of gifts is a complex and important part of human interaction, helping us to define relationships and strengthen bonds with family and friends. Gift exchanges can reveal how people think about others, what they value and enjoy, and how they build and maintain relationships. It’s also an important part of developing a healthy sense of one’s own self-worth and a right to relish life’s pleasures.

“For it is in giving that we receive.” (Francis of Assisi)

Many of us grew up being told that it’s more noble to give than to receive and it is true that acknowledging others’ needs, respecting their feelings and being responsive to those less fortunate safeguards us from unbridled narcissism. However, research studies have found that it is often the giver, rather than the recipient, who reaps the biggest psychological gains from a gift because giving to others reinforces our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.

In order to be able to give gifts freely, however, we need to be able to receive them freely. As one of my favourite authors, Brené Brown, says “until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”

Giving and receiving creates an ‘intimacy economy’, where a moment of connection is shared. In that moment there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. Both people are giving and receiving in their own unique ways – a shared experience that can be profoundly intimate. If we fear intimacy, however, we may not allow ourselves to receive or give a gift or compliment, thereby avoiding that uncomfortable feeling, but in doing so we’re inadvertently depriving ourselves of a precious moment of connection. Avoiding these exchanges altogether or prioritising giving over receiving may be a convenient way to keep people distant and our hearts defended.

 “Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Frustrated by crowds, traffic and commercialism, people can be tempted at this time of year to opt out of gift giving altogether but research tells us that people who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues and on connections with family and friends. Who is on your gift list is telling you who is important in your life.

Likewise, if you don’t let someone give you a gift, then you’re not encouraging them to think about you and think about things you like. You’re preventing them from experiencing the joy of engaging in all those activities and doing them a disservice by not giving them the gift of giving.

Suspicious minds

We may be uncomfortable receiving if gifts or compliments came with strings attached when we were growing up. We may have them only when we accomplished something, like winning at sports or achieving academically. If we sensed that we weren’t being accepted for who we are but rather for our achievements and accomplishments, it may not feel safe to receive. If parents used us to meet their own needs, such as to showcase us to their friends or cling to an image of being good parents, we may equate compliments to being used because we were recognised for what we do rather than for who we really are.

To counter these feelings, practice giving and receiving freely and notice what it’s like to do so. What’s happening in your body? Is your breathing relaxed and your belly soft or are you tightening up? Can you let in the caring and connection? By giving and receiving with a tender self-compassion, you’re allowing yourself to be touched by life’s gifts. Letting yourself receive deeply and graciously is also a gift to the giver. It conveys that their giving has made a difference — that you’ve been affected.

“I know what I have given you… I do not know what you have received.” (Antonio Porchia)

In The Light in the Heart, Roy T. Bennett says, “Help others without any reason and give without the expectation of receiving anything in return.” When we give, we may feel in control but receiving can feel uncomfortable as it invites us to welcome a vulnerable part of ourselves. Living more in this tender place allows us to be more available to receive the subtle gifts we’re offered every day, such as a sincere “thank you”, a compliment, or a warm smile. Next time you’re offered such a gift, stop yourself from discounting the moment (“Oh, this old dress?”) and instead simply smile, say thank you and really notice what it feels like to be connected to the other person in that moment and to receive their kindness.

Whether you’re giving a Christmas bonus to the window cleaner, doing Secret Santa at work or exchanging carefully chosen gifts with loved ones, practice giving and receiving with humility and appreciation. Being more comfortable with being connected to other people in these moments allows intimacy and nourishes relationships.

 

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