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Avoid the trap of trying to find the perfect gift

Stress over holiday giving is a trap many people fall into and can be avoided by following some steps aimed at taking the emphasis off finding the perfect gift.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The holidays were coming up and Mandy Moore had no idea what to get the man she had been dating for a couple of months. Instead of guessing, the single mom and hairstylist decided just to ask him.

She figured he’d request a homemade dinner or a special date.

When he gave her a list of presents, she panicked: Was she supposed to choose one? Or, gasp, did he expect her to buy everything? Caught in the grip of holiday gift anxiety, Moore did what seemed the only safe thing: She bought him everything.

“He wanted a jacket from Old Navy, cologne that was like $70, and all of these other things,” said Moore, of Meridian, Idaho. “I thought he must have spent beaucoup bucks on me, so even though I’d pretty much already gone through my Christmas funds, I bought it all.”

When the day came to exchange gifts, she felt pretty foolish. “He got me a jogging outfit, like a Sporty Spice track outfit — something I’d never wear,” she said. “And here I was with seven or eight boxes” for him.

Stress over holiday giving is a trap many people fall into, said Raymond Crowel, a clinical psychologist and vice president for research and practice at the National Mental Health Association, in Alexandria, Va.

“People think that somehow they’re going to find the perfect gift for everyone on their list, or even just for their mate,” Crowel said. “We spend an enormous amount of time running around for that, and the closer we get to holiday time it’s in the panic mode.”

In fact, finding the perfect gift is a fantasy, he said.

“There’s tremendous pressure to buy a gift that says, ’I know you so well I know exactly what you want,”’ Crowel said. “That’s a sure setup for failure. ... It’s a danger to try to convey more with a gift than you’ll be able to convey — that’s what words are for.”

Instead, he said, focus on the giving, not the gift.

Kristin Johnson, who supervises a day-care center in Camas, Wash., said she always wished she could get her husband, J.J., “a boat or a four-wheeler or something spectacular.” Then she realized that the abundant childhood Christmases she remembers weren’t really about presents. Her favorite memories are the year her mother remarried, or the year her husband proposed.

One Christmas, when she was sick in bed, J.J. stayed up late and decorated the tree — using green twist-ties because he couldn’t find the hooks — so it would be beautiful for her when she awoke.

“It had the tinsel and was all lit up when I woke up — it was almost like he knew how special that was,” she said.

'Gift-giving should be enjoyable'Buying a great present doesn’t require a huge budget or detective skills, said Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif.

“Think about the other person, what their lifestyle is like. Are they casual or formal, natural organic people or not? Gift-giving should be enjoyable, and about the person you’re giving the gift to,” Rodino said.

How to avoid falling prey to holiday gift anxiety?

1. Think about what you’re trying to convey.

“Are you giving gifts to compete or to balance the ledger sheet? To balance the cost of what they gave you? To say, ’I love you from the bottom of my heart or through eternity?’ Or is it to simply say, ’I care,’ and the gift matters less than the thought,” Crowel said.

2. Ditch the notion that the quality of a gift depends on its cost.

“It’s much more the act and the intent that’s important,” said Crowel.

3. Remember: It’s not about you.

“Too often gifts become too much about the giver. They want to have the gift reflect on them in a certain way,” Rodino said. Just picture the recipient instead, she said.

4. If the stress of buying presents is becoming too much, reduce the list of recipients or create a “tiered” list.

“Office partners maybe don’t have quite the level of significance that family has,” Crowel said. “Getting a great personalized gift for 20 people at the office can make you crazy.”

5. If all else fails, try to look beyond the holiday season.

“The anxiety caused by going over budget, especially in January, is pretty significant,” Crowel said.

As for Moore, the hairstylist, she’s treading carefully after last year’s extravagance. The year before, with a previous boyfriend, she had had the opposite problem.

“I didn’t want it to be an ’I-want-to-be-your-wife’ present, and I didn’t want it to be a buddy gift,” she said. So she showed up with something modest, only to find that he and his family “had gotten me every single thing I’d ever mentioned.”

“I’ve under-done it, and definitely overcompensated, and this year I just want to stay single,” she said.