What to do when you get a gift you really don’t want, according to a psychologist

Portrait of an upset disappointed girl opening gift box isolated over yellow background

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, people were dreading bad gifts from their spouse. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how that song goes, but you get the sentiment: Sometimes people give gifts we don’t want to receive and we don’t know how to deal. This is definitely a first world problem to have, but it can bring up real feelings nonetheless. And since it’s something that a lot of us will be imminently dealing with, I asked a psychologist how to handle the people who give us gifts we don’t want.

The performance of joy we feel obligated to make when we get an unwanted gift can feel like a major chore. Like how much do I have to swoon over sparkly pink corporate bath products that I will never use on my nobinary body? It seems ungracious to mark holiday gift exchanges with my rants about cisheteropatriarchal capitalism. Luckily, most unwanted gifts aren’t actually offensive, they’re just annoying.

Still the irritation you may feel unwrapping something you don’t love is valid. “If gift-giving isn't your personal love language, the constant barrage of gifts can feel confusing, overwhelming, or mildly annoying,” says Katie Lear, a psychotherapist in North Carolina. It can make you feel unheard or unseen when you get a gift that isn’t right for you, she says, and that is real. “If gifts themselves seem random or impersonal to you, the gifting may start to feel more like it's being done for the gift-giver's benefit than for your own.”

Presents aren’t supposed to make you feel irritated, but it’s also probably not how the gifter meant for you to feel. It’s important to consider the giver’s intentions before you freak out, Lear says. “I really believe most gift givers have good intentions,” she says. So before you grimace at the fluffy bunny slippers from your Aunt Melba, think about how they wanted you to feel when they wrapped them, and consider praising that sentiment. You can thank them for thinking of you, even if you don’t love what they give you. “I think it's important to acknowledge and praise the giver's intention,” says Lear.

It’s also possible that the gift giver is trying to be manipulative, even if they aren’t aware of it. “It's definitely possible for gift-giving to cross a boundary or feel manipulative,” says Lear. “There is a sort of unspoken rule that receiving a gift means you need to give something back of roughly equal value in order to be even. This can create a financial or emotional obligation for the recipient. In some situations, gift-giving could also be seen as an apology for bad behavior, making the recipient feel more pressure to let bygones be bygones.”

This is not a sign of great communication, but unless you’re ready to have a deep confrontation over hot cocoa, you might want to simply note the experience and bookmark it to discuss later when it’s a good time to say, “When you gave me blank, it made me feel blank.” For the record, it is totally okay to set boundaries around gift giving, Lear says. But it might be kinder to be flexible about it.

You can direct your gift-giver's energy down a more useful path rather than forbidding any kind of giving, Lear says. For example, if your house is full of tchotchkes, you can ask your loved ones to buy you gift cards or make donations to causes you care about instead of giving you objects and you can explain it by saying you simply have too much stuff. That may feel gentler for everyone than confessing your absolute and total hatred of elfin home decor outright.

You also might want to take this season to notice what kinds of emotional baggage you might be carrying about gift giving. “If it's hard to accept gifts because you feel guilty, unworthy, or beholden to someone, that may be something worth exploring a little deeper,” says Lear. That’s hard, because the feelings of unworthiness that receiving gifts may bring up could be due to a lack of self-esteem or they could be based on formative experiences with a caregiver who gave you things instead of giving care when you needed it, she says. Spelunking into those issues may be complicated, so be gentle with yourself and talk to a friend or a therapist if you notice patterns that need extensive processing.

Okay, but what do you actually do with all the baubles and doodads you may unwillingly receive? “If you can quietly regift or otherwise get an unwanted gift out of your house without bringing it to your gifter's attention, I think that's just fine,” Lear says. You don’t actually have to have a direct confrontation. In fact, this might even lessen your resentment about finding places for all those tchotchkes in your home, Lear says. She adds that if you want to keep the peace, it’s okay to avoid directly returning a gift to someone unless it was really exorbitant, or had truly been given in bad faith.