“I have a gift for you.”

A gift—for me? All right! Bring it on! My excitement grows as I anticipate the gift. Okay, so I like gifts. What about you? I bet you like gifts, too.
Actually, most of us love to receive gifts, and we celebrate the excitement and the joy of the process. The occasion may be the Christmas holidays, a birthday, another special event, or just an ordinary day. Yeah, whatever the day--just bring on the gifts!
However, there may be an exception—when the gift has strings attached! You’re in a relationship of some type and the other person honors you with a gift. Initially, you appreciate and enjoy the gift. Then, to your dismay you find out that the giver now expects something of you regarding the gift. Hmmm . . . strings!
When you practice gift-giving within your relationships, do you give gifts with strings attached or with no strings attached? In regard to gift-receiving, which type of gifts do you prefer to receive—with or without strings attached? Unfortunately, many people tend to attach strings to the gifts they give, and too often as recipients we feel frustrated because of those strings. Somehow we just don’t like the stress that comes with strings!
 “Wait a minute,” you ask, “what do you mean by ‘strings’ in regard to gift-giving?” Excellent question! Here’s what I mean. If I give you a gift “with strings attached,” I attach to the gift some kind of an expectation that you have to fulfill. You are now in my debt and you have to do something (what I expect) to “repay the debt.” In other words, I have an ulterior motive and a hidden agenda, and my purpose in the “gift-giving” is to manipulate you in some way to achieve my personal goal. Basically, my motive is self-centered and narcissistic in nature; my agenda is the fulfillment of my own wants and needs, regardless of the negative results for you.
In contrast, if there are “no strings attached,” then the gift is totally yours with no expectations at all. There is no indebtedness involved in the process; I expect nothing in return. My motive or my agenda is to increase and improve your well-being in life. Since I am seeking no gain for me myself, the gift to you is free from manipulations and hidden agendas.  
In strings-attached giving there are two messages: the surface statement and the ulterior statement. The negative “hook” is imbedded in the “below-the-surface” message, that is, the ulterior motive. Allow me to share a few illustrations.

          • My surface statement is:  “Here is a gift for you.”
                  (My ulterior motive is: “Now you must praise and honor me.”)
          • My surface statement is: “I hope you really enjoy this gift for a long time.”
                 (My ulterior motive is:  “Now you are really in my debt. I can control you however I wish.”)
          • My surface statement is: “Look what I’ve given to you!”
                 (My ulterior motive is: “Therefore you owe me—big time!”)
          • My surface statement is: “If you really loved me . . .”
                 (My ulterior motive is: “Do what I require because you feel guilty.”)
          •  My surface statement is: “You didn’t use the gift I gave you.”
                  (My ulterior motive is: “I had expectations of you.”)
          • My surface statement is: “Here’s what you should do.”
                 (My ulterior motive is: “Follow my advice or I’ll be really upset with you.”)
Obviously, no one likes the feeling of indebtedness inherent in the strings-attached gift. Negative emotions usually result and may lead to subtle and obvious changes in the relationship. We may experience confusion, detecting that something is going on beneath the surface but feeling unable to discern the actual nature of the negative interaction. Our confusion brings on uncertainty which triggers anxiety which may cause shockwaves within the relationship. Our emotional reaction could include anger—and even resentment—which may be expressed openly in that we confront the gift-giver or we may tell other people about our negative feelings toward the gift-giver. Alternatively, our resentment could prompt us to react passively in that we simply avoid the giver, leading to increased distance and perhaps alienation within the relationship.
Gift-giving “with strings attached” is inherently self-centered and manipulative. We may claim to love people, yet in reality we merely “use” them through our gift-giving to gain something that is important to us. Rather than protect our relationships through “loving people and using things” we practice instead the manipulative skill of “loving things and using people.” One therapy client echoed this sense of being “used” by a gift-giver when she said, “I feel like I’ve just been emotionally blackmailed!” Most recipients of strings-attached giving probably do interpret the gift as a form of emotional blackmail. One man described the process as a form of bribery:  “When I get a gift like that, I feel like I’ve just been bribed.” I recall experiencing that feeling when a lady once gave me a book about grandparenting when she learned that I had a new grandchild. I thought that the book was a nice gift until she handed me a form about her job and asked me to “do her a favor” by completing and signing the form for her. Ouch—the strings! Ugh—I felt bribed!
Sometimes the gift is a future-oriented item, such as a promised inheritance. Now we’re venturing into some murky waters and some troublesome quicksand. The intended heir could be promised a gift with huge strings attached and with threats included, like “If you don’t live just the way I want you to live, then I’ll cut you out of my will.” Admittedly, we have the right to leave our money to our heirs, but we don’t need to “blackmail” the recipients toward certain behavior by constantly holding the promised gift “over their heads.” However, the expectation may not be blackmail if we are very clear and specific about what we require regarding the inheritance. As a giver I have every right to attach realistic conditions to the gift itself, but I need to make those conditions clear and understandable to the potential recipients. Everything is out in the open; there are no hidden agendas and ulterior motives.
As givers or as recipients we all need to consider our intentions and our reactions to the harmful stress that accompanies strings-attached gift-giving.
Let’s explore several considerations for the giver. 

*Determine your motive. Is the gift truly a “gift” or is it really a “loan”? If you expect something back, then the item is probably more of a loan than a true gift, perhaps a loan with a very high interest rate! On the other hand, if you expect nothing back, then it would appear to be a true gift.
*Clarify your expectation. “This is a gift—with no strings attached. It is yours to do with however you choose. I expect nothing in return.” (Or, if you do have “strings,” at least tell the receiver what you expect in return. Be sure and place a warning alert on the gift so that your intentions are clear.)
*Remember your intention. If the recipient does in fact fail to be appreciative or does not use the gift in the way you would have preferred, remember that you gave it as a gift. In doing so, you let it go, so it’s no longer yours to consider one way or the other. Release it again—and forget it!
*Refrain from personalizing. When you attach strings, you’re tempted to interpret the receiver’s behavior regarding the gift as some type of personal reflection upon you. Accordingly, you “take it personally” when the receiver’s response is not what you expected.  In contrast, once you give the gift “freely,” there is nothing personal about the reaction. You allow the recipient to choose his own response to the gift.
*Learn from experience. As a giver of gifts you have options and choices. You can choose to stop giving gifts to a specific person if you don’t like the way he accepts and responds to your gift. (Or, you can continue to give “with strings attached” and you’ll continue to suffer, along with the recipients, from the negative pattern.)

Now let’s explore several considerations for the recipient.

*Be aware! Listen to your emotions since they can provide potentially helpful information. However, rely upon your head (your logical, constructive thinking) for help before you make important conclusions about the gift.
*Be assertive! If you sense that there are “strings attached” to the gift, ask the giver to clarify the intention for the gift. “Is this item a gift or a loan? Do you want or need anything back from me? If you do, then tell me clearly what you expect.”
*Say “No!” Give yourself permission to decline any gift, especially if you sense strings. You can say “no” with words like, “Thank you for offering this gift. However, I must decline acceptance.” The ability to decline is an important tool to use with someone who has a known history of strings-attached giving. If you have difficulty in saying, “No, thank you,” you might want to establish for yourself a “personal policy” about gifts. Then you simply invoke your policy:  “I have a personal policy that forbids me from accepting such gifts. Therefore I must decline. Thanks for the offer.” If the giver is persistent, be equally firm:  “I cannot violate a personal policy. I cannot accept the gift. I’m sure that you can understand and honor my decision to follow my personal policy.”
*Reject guilt-tripping! Overcome the temptation to be guilt-tripped by a gift into some action that is unwise or unhealthy for you. If the giver tries to “lay a guilt trip” on you, recognize the manipulation for what it is and determine to reject the practice. Tell yourself, “I will not allow the gift-giver to use guilt to force me into something that I should not do. If I do feel guilty, I understand that it is unhealthy guilt. I’ll just experience the guilty feeling, but I will not act on it.”
 *Live with being disliked!  Let’s face reality. If you don’t play the gift-giver’s game and you refuse to cooperate with his “strings,” it’s possible that he will not like you. That’s unfortunate, especially if the person is someone you value. However, sometimes we just have to allow other people to dislike us if they choose to do so, particularly when we’re simply following our own principles and values. 
The foregoing guidelines provide practical ways to work with strings-attached gift giving. Since the price tag for this negative pattern is quite high for both the giver and the recipient, we would do well to avoid this type of unhealthy practice. I encourage all gift-givers to examine their motives and to grow toward the ability to give freely—with no strings attached. I encourage all gift recipients to explore their reactions and to grow toward the ability to receive wisely—even to decline gifts with strings attached.

Concluding thoughts . . .

Several people have pointed out to me that the unhealthy pattern of strings-attached gift-giving has important spiritual implications. Recently a friend sent me an email in which he shared some of his thoughts about the fact that God gives unconditionally in that He doesn’t attach strings to his gifts to mankind. God continues to bless us with life-sustaining resources (like the air we breathe) even when we are ungrateful and rebellious. As the creation we would do well to imitate God’s motives in our gift-giving to one another. Further, Jesus himself taught us that show-casing our gift-giving is inappropriate. If we seek honor from men, that’s all we may get; we already have our reward (Mt. 6:1-4). Jesus gave of himself daily but he did not seek the praise and honor of men. His gifts to people were unconditional; there were no strings attached. What a great example for us to follow! The apostle Paul acknowledged that his personal goal was to build other people up—not to tear them down nor to exploit them (II Cor. 13:10; 7:2). What a great goal for us to imitate!
If you see in yourself the tendency to practice a “strings-attached gift-giving pattern,” what are your ultimate goals? What are you really after? What do you hope to gain? What are the effects and implications of that pattern? One thing is very clear: the strings you’ve attached to your gifts will definitely bounce back and harm you as well as hurting the recipient. Perhaps you’ve decided that it’s time for something different, a time for personal growth involving both attitude adjustment and behavior change. As you grow, you will learn to leave behind the unhealthy practice of “strings-attached” giving, and you’ll learn to give freely and unconditionally. Your growth toward healthy gift-giving will bring you a tremendous sense of joy and satisfaction. Your travels along the highway of life will certainly be happier and better.
I wish you the best as you examine your current gift-giving patterns and as you commit to personal growth toward healthier gift-giving practices.
I also wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

VIDEO:  To view a four-minute video clip in which Dr. Baker discusses "Gift-giving--with Strings Attached!" during a television interview, just click on the picture to the right or simply click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


                                                                                  (Blog: HR#104)

9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill