The Unwanted Gift (And What To Do About It)

It’s that time of year. Christmas lights, family gatherings, mistletoe, Christmas parties, and…. Unwanted Gifts. We all get that uneasy feeling when we unwrap the fruitcake, the ceramic angel fairy, or fringed elbow-padded sweater, and have to pull off our best improv performance.

Where did we even come up with the idea of gift giving at the holidays anyway? In Christian tradition, it was inspired by the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men. Prior to that, it was done to bring good fortune back to oneself just prior to the New Year – a token of good karma of sorts. And in Jewish customs, it was a benevolent intent of giving money to the poor.

But somehow over time we’ve gone from Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh to Obligation, Consumerism, and Projection. And the joys of wondering what Santa will bring is now “What am I going to be stuck with from the office party?”

Regardless of the occasion, an unwanted gift brings up a lot of anxiety when it comes to decluttering. It can trigger self-worth, lack, guilt, and shame. All of that over a piece of macramé? Yes.

What to do with unwanted gifts is one of the most difficult decisions we face when decluttering. We usually end up doing one of three things: stuff them in a closet and worry about them later, display them reluctantly, or keep them hidden until the gift giver comes to visit.

The excuse we use is that we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings. But I’m going to challenge you: It’s actually you avoiding your own feelings.

For most people, receiving is more difficult than giving because it triggers our self-worth. Rarely are we concerned with what people do with gifts we give, just the gifts we receive. When we give a gift, we feel good about it and move on. When we receive a gift, however, it triggers our self-worth, especially if we don’t like it because now our guilt consciousness is also triggered.

Not only was receiving this gift hard, but now I’m wanting to get rid of it. What kind of person am I?

What if she finds out I got rid of it? She’ll think I’m not a good friend. That would be horrible. I am horrible.

He’ll think I’m ungrateful and a selfish person. I probably am ungrateful and selfish.

These are some of the conversations we have with ourselves, consciously or unconsciously. Notice the exact words in the story you tell yourself. It will give you clues to what’s really at the root of your beliefs about yourself, i.e. Ungrateful. Selfish. Not loyal. Horrible.

This will also be indicative of underlying emotions within the relationship between the gift giver and gift receiver. Rarely do we have a problem getting rid of a gift from someone where there’s no karma at play.

When self-worth wounds are triggered, a domino effect of boundary issues in our life begins. Having items in our home that we don’t like or want represents a boundary we’ve allowed to be crossed.

Most of us grew up with our boundaries or preferences violated, and thus this feels familiar. What our parents provided for us was our definition of being taken care of and therefore what we perceived as love. We got used to others’ preferences being imposed upon us. Resisting them led to shame so we learned to give in and put a smile on our face. You may have heard language like, “You need to be grateful for what you get” or “Beggars can’t be choosers” or “Tell Grandma how much you love the gift.”

So what to do with these items? Stuffing them in the closet is the same as stuffing guilt. At the same time, displaying an unwanted item is a boundary crossing. The only answer is to get rid of unwanted gifts.

If this feels too extreme right away, then pledge to keep the item for one year and then give it away in a manner that feels honoring to the item and the person.

Be mindful of what gifts you give people and if you have expectations or conditions with which you are giving the gift. Give gifts you think the person truly wants, not what you want for them. Be nonattached from there. Give unconditionally.

If you’re unsure what someone wants, then give an intangible gift such as a service, an experience, something consumable, or a gift card. Or there’s always the reliable Frankincense, Gold or Myrrh.

Excerpts from Clutter Intervention: How Your Stuff is Keeping You Stuck (Llewellyn 2018) by Tisha Morris