We all know someone who says "Don't get me anything" -- and means it. Or can barely say "thank you" before shoving your gift aside.
Why are they like that? Don't they know how hard you worked to get them just the right thing? There are a lot of reasons why some people can't accept gifts graciously, experts say. Most stem from the past.
One reason might be that when the person was a child, gifts came with strings attached.
So now, as an adult, "They assume, even if the gift is not from their parents, that maybe there's a string attached," says Maud Purcell, a Stamford, Conn., psychotherapist.
This can be a problem when parents are divorced and use presents to try to "buy" their child's love, says Meri Wallace, a family therapist in Brooklyn and the author of "Birth Order Blues" (Owl Books, 1999). "It's like the child is saying, 'You just want something from me, my love,' and they never forget that. Or the parents give gifts instead of giving time."
The guilt-gift link can be strong, she says.
"Say there's no money in the household," she says. "The idea of your parents spending any money, you know is a hardship. As you grow, you sort of cut off your desires for things, and you feel guilty when they give to you.
"Or, if you're the oldest of many kids, you're so used to just giving, and nothing coming your way, that you just give up. You say, 'Don't give to me."'
But even affluent parents can pass the message that receiving presents is bad.
"In a lot of families, children's desires are treated as greedy and wrong. It's not OK to want," Wallace says.
A mixed message is hurtful, too. "In a toy store, the child asks for something and the parent says, 'It's too expensive, you have too much,' and then they buy it. The unconscious message is, 'I'll give it to you but it's not right' and children can sense that."
Sometimes the rejection of gifts is just simple shyness. "Some people just hate being the center of attention and hate having that attention brought to them," says Purcell.
It could go deeper, though. Giving and receiving are tied very closely to our concepts of ourselves and each other, and that relationship can be fraught with complexities.
"If somebody doesn't feel good about themselves, they don't feel that they deserve to be given anything," Purcell says.
Mary Wolfinbarger, a professor of marketing at California State University at Long Beach, did a lot of research on gift giving for her doctorate. She found that some receivers see the gift as a message about his or her self-concept, and the kind of person they are. It can be a cycle -- people with a poor self-concept are more sensitive to what the gift says about them, which leads to more opportunities to be wounded: Does this sweater mean he thinks I'm fat? Does this bubble bath mean I'm dirty?
"If they have had a series of disappointments, never getting the gift that they really want and that affirms who they are, they don't want to put their self-concept at risk any more."
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