by Tammy Dorff, Psy.D.
The holidays are upon us. Stores and streets are decorated. The big sales have begun. There are reminders all around that now is the time to go out and spend lots of money on gifts for the ones we love.
How we handle this season can reveal a lot about ourselves and our relationships with others. It raises questions for us in a variety of areas. It can also sometimes create conflicts between ourselves and our loved ones at a time when what we want most is to feel close to them.
One of the greatest areas for potential conflict involves finances. Decisions about how much to spend overall can reflect our overarching approach to budgeting, as well as our values. Some of us might want to spend a similar amount for everybody on our list, while others might spend money instead based on how much we care about each individual person or on how much they tend to spend on us.
When couples disagree about how to spend money for holiday purchases, or on who is more or less deserving of the better gifts, arguments can ensue. Sometimes these fights can continue long after the holidays have passed, as the memory of the conflict resurfaces with each credit card bill that needs to be paid off due to spending more than was readily available at the time. When these arguments cannot be resolved quickly, psychotherapy might be helpful in assisting couples to sort out their disagreements about finances and about the underlying meaning of why they feel the need to spend or save at the holidays and more generally.
When purchasing gifts, some people are easier to buy for than others. Maybe this is because they told us ahead of time what they wanted and their requests were reasonable. Maybe it is due to our knowing them very well so having a good sense of what they would enjoy. Or perhaps they have interests that lend themselves to obvious gift choices. Sometimes, shopping for gifts can feel joyous and exciting as we anticipate the happy faces of the people we love upon receiving their presents from us.
Others gifts are trickier to figure out. This could be due to not knowing the person as well, to their wanting things that we cannot afford, or to their having been unappreciative of our gifts in the past. We might feel conflicted when needing to purchase a gift for a relative whom we dislike or for a demanding boss. Guilt and obligation can play a role in the process. So can competition with ex-spouses, with in-laws, etc. Pressure can build inside of us as we struggle to figure out what to buy. The gift-purchasing process can provide clues to underlying conflicts with others in your life which you may then wish to address in therapy.
In addition, people (children and adults alike!) tend to have big expectations about what gifts they might receive over the holidays. When our expectations are met or exceeded, we might feel elated, as well as even closer to those we love. We can feel like we are truly known, appreciated and treasured by them. This is the way we ideally want to feel around the holidays and throughout the year–like we are surrounded by people who notice us, who care and who are generous towards us with their time, their money and their love.
However, when we receive no gift at all from someone we love, or when we get gifts that show no forethought, that reflect lack of knowledge about us, or that are inexpensive, our feelings can get hurt. We can feel mad, rejected and resent the gift we got for the other person. It can damage our relationship with that other person sometimes, depending on how much significance we ascribe to the gift and its underlying meaning. We might find ourselves distancing from the other person, saying mean things to others about him or her, and putting up walls. Psychotherapy can be helpful in exploring what happened and then working towards repairing the emotional damage that occurred.
The Best Gifts of All
While all of these issues might come into play during this holiday season, it is important to remember that the best gifts we have to offer to our loved ones have nothing to do with money.
These are the gifts of our love, our time, our patience, our forgiveness, our helpfulness, our joy, our humor. It is about being ourselves in ways that connect with and support the others in our lives.
Spending time with those we love, seeing them through a difficult time, celebrating accomplishments with them, forgiving them when they make a mistake–even a big one that hurt you a lot, letting them know how much you appreciate them, these are the greatest gifts that any of us have to offer.
Wishing you a holiday season filled with love, joy and a sense of close connection to your loved ones!