When Giving Becomes a Gift

The holiday season is on the horizon—a time of giving and receiving gifts. What better delight than seeing a friend’s eyes light up as she appreciates your thoughtfulness, or hearing a grandson squeal with glee as he examines a new toy?

Research suggests that giving can improve your health, increase your longevity, and be gratifying. Yet, we all know that gift giving can also be stressful, particularly during the holidays. In wanting to make sure we give enough, remember everyone, and show our care, we often try to do more than we can. Giving can bring up upsetting memories, failed expectations, and endless questions, such as:

  • Should you continue gifting your children as you did before your income was reduced, even knowing that their incomes are now much higher than yours?
  • Should you stop gifting the 28-year-old niece with a good job who never bothers to say thank-you?
  • If your grandson asks for a violent video game, do you have to choose that?
  • Is it OK to give something used?
  • How should you decide between all the worthy nonprofits begging for your assistance?

Before facing the holiday gift-giving extravaganza, how about a little self-care? Breathe, relax, and try to notice and let go of any exorbitantly high expectations. As the stewardesses tell you onboard every flight, put on your oxygen mask before helping others! Who wants to receive from a totally stressed-out you?

Next, take a moment to consider: Are you giving for wrong reasons? Are there traditions you can end to make gift-giving better for you and your loved ones?

Don’t give to compensate for something from the past or because you feel guilty. That is what apologies are for. It’s better to tell your grown kids, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you in the way you wanted” than to try to win them over with money or gifts. Remember: It’s your love they’re still after.

Don’t try to match others’ giving. Get off the perpetual treadmill of keeping up appearances. If your income has declined, maybe it’s time to have that heart-to-heart with your family or colleagues. You might say: “I wish I could give like I have in the past, and I still want you to know how much I care!” (This is a good conversation to have before the holidays.)

Giving mindfully starts with considering how someone else likes to receive. Author Gary Chapman, in The Five Love Languages, describes the varied ways to express and experience love: gift giving (presents), quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

For example, I like receiving gifts, but I love giving affirmations. My husband loves receiving quality time with me, but he prefers giving acts of service. (I learned this when my requests for “a romantic gift” led him to remodel the bathroom!) If you know your friend’s preferences, you can plan gifts accordingly, but even if you don’t, these languages suggest great gift options. For example:

Presents. Many of us have too much stuff and don’t need big gifts. Have a conversation with family and friends to explore new ways to share gifts. Miss Manners may not approve of “re-gifting” something you’ve been given before, but if your friends decide in advance that it’s OK, thoughtful re-gifting is a great idea. (Just no white elephants, please!) How about a special book or musical instrument? One secret for making a used gift more valuable: Tell the story that comes with it. And if you need to downsize your giving, add some bling to your gifts by wrapping them artistically and adding special notes.

Quality time. Why not give a trip that you and your granddaughter can take together? Or offer your husband an exciting shared experience? One favorite gift to my friends is an invite to coffee or a meal, complete with a note about how much I value our friendship.

Words of affirmation. Nothing moves me like a heartfelt note of appreciation. I keep them in a special file to read on my bad-hair days. A simple present becomes exquisite when you include a note of genuine acknowledgement. I love composing notes and poems for friends. While I may not be a famous poet, the poems I write for my friends receive rave reviews.

Acts of service. A friend gave me a great birthday present: two hours of help working in the garden together. Pulling weeds gave us the perfect chance to catch up!

Touch. Who doesn’t like a good massage, either given by a partner or professional? And for the elderly, like my mother in her last stage of life, touch is one gift that still brings a smile.

Whatever you choose to give, give with an open heart. People want to feel connected to you—and that connection is a gift to your health, longevity, and happiness as well!

Sally Fox is a coach, speaker, podcaster, and owner of Engaging Presence, a firm that helps individuals and organizations develop and share their best brand stories. She is currently working on a book about finding your creative work in the third act of life. Find her blog at and listen to her podcasts at



Discussion3 Comments

  1. I may be alone in this, but I always dread this time of year. My children are grown and most of my family lives on the East Coast. It seems that we now spend one fourth of out year listening, seeing or creating hype about Christmas. In my view, Christmas should be about sharing, loving, taking the time to visit with someone you care about even though it may eat into your busy day. It should not be about simply spending money, getting presents, lavish decoration and talking about the trials of Mrs. Claus. Treating others with kindness and caring should be something that comes naturally and something that is demonstrated all the time, not something that is condensed into 3 months of the year, an obligation one satisfies by plunking down a credit card and checking a name off a list. Sorry to ramble so I will stop. Thank you for listening.

  2. Thanks for writing, Stephanie! I hear you about dreading the holiday season. I always have to spend some quiet time meditating at Christmas to be able to get through the hype that threatens to eclipse what Christmas is really about. I’m with you on what it could/should be. And when gift-giving becomes just an act of plunking down a credit card and checking off a name, both the fun and the life go out of it. That said, I do like to think about the people I love and find that giving a gift from the heart can be uplifting. But as you suggest, why limit this to a three month period, when caring can go on all year! One thought, though, for the mix. Are you giving enough to yourself, in ways that nurture and support the real, kind, and giving you? We’re not likely to undo the hype soon, so we better take care of ourselves! Thanks again for your words! Sally (the author).

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