Unwrapping the psychology of gift giving and eating disorders

Do you struggle to receive gifts? You’re not alone. While many people see gift-giving as an expression of love, care, and appreciation, some people living with an eating disorder find it hard to accept gifts.

As we enter the festive season, we’re going to explore why it’s often challenging for those living with an eating disorder to receive gifts, the link to being an ‘over-gifter’, and what can be done to help ease the uncomfortable feelings that surround this tradition.

First, let’s unwrap the act of gift giving…

In order to understand why it’s sometimes hard for those living with an eating disorder to receive gifts, we need to understand a little more about the act of gift-giving.

Giving gifts is a universal language. It’s one of the ways we express human connection and love. 

When we choose a gift for a friend or loved one, we want to make that person feel happy. We want them to know we’re thinking of them and that they’re cared about. A thoughtful, well-chosen gift can also communicate our feelings for and understanding of the recipient.

The act of gift-giving releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin, which contribute to feelings of bonding. And as the recipient, it can make us feel positive emotions and strengthen social bonds. 

Why is it hard for those living with an eating disorder to receive gifts?

While gift-giving is a traditional part of the holiday season, it’s not always easy for those living with an eating disorder. 

Just like accepting a compliment, receiving a gift is a selfless act. Being selfless is the opposite of selfish; you think less about yourself and more about others. 

In fact, those living with an eating disorder often have feelings of being unworthy, undeserving, and that they shouldn’t even have their own needs.

Receiving a gift – a symbol of love and care – may jar with their low sense of self-worth and self-image, as well as a belief that they are not entitled to pleasure.

In addition, receiving a gift puts the spotlight onto the recipient – something that can be incredibly uncomfortable for someone living with an eating disorder.

How do those living with an eating disorder experience receiving gifts?

Culturally, gift giving is commonplace, but for those living with an eating disorder, the dynamics around this simple act are often more complex. 

Those living with an eating disorder often have a distorted self-image. Sadly, this negative self-perception can spill into various aspects of their lives, making it hard to accept love and care; receiving gifts being one representation of this.

The feeling of being undeserving of the kindness and thoughtfulness that a gift encapsulates can trigger a huge amount of discomfort for someone living with an eating disorder. They may persistently refuse gifts, or struggle to accept them wholeheartedly, creating a barrier between them and the affection associated with gift-giving.

The development of the over-gifter

On the flip-side of this, those living with an eating disorder may become an over-gifter as part of their desire to be loved and accepted. 

They often struggle with feelings of being unworthy, inadequate, or of not being enough. They may feel they’re only worthy of what they’re able to offer someone else – the act of giving gifts can be a way of validating oneself.

They often associate gift-giving with seeking approval and acceptance from others – thinking that the recipient will like them better if they give them gifts, rather than being liked simply for who they are. 

And while going to great lengths to give to others, the act of over-giving can inadvertently work to neglect their own well-being and needs even further.

The gift of understanding, self-compassion, and kindness

Understanding the relationship between eating disorders and gift-giving is a big step forward towards healing. While building greater awareness and learning to find value in yourself as a person through supportive relationships and therapy is also key.  

Here are some things you could try to build greater awareness of how you handle giving and receiving gifts: 

  • Become more aware of when you feel distressed and gently question those feelings. 
  • See if you can start to notice the voices that come up and begin to allow space for receiving gifts. 
  • When you can’t or don’t accept a gift, in a way, you’re rejecting someone’s attempt to love and care for you. Imagine how you’d like someone to respond when you give them a gift, what would it be like to be open-hearted like that? Gradually, you can learn to model that behaviour instead and accept gestures of love and care.

With regards to giving gifts to others, for those who may be struggling, try taking a moment to think, ‘Why am I giving this gift?’. It’s normal for someone to feel happy about making someone else feel happy. But if you feel you have to give gifts in order to feel valued and loved, there could be a problem.

Creating connections through gift-giving

I believe connection is one of the best antidotes to an eating disorder (and to other mental health difficulties). Because it’s when we feel disconnected that we seek unhealthy ways of coping with our loneliness and sadness. 

If you’re living with an eating disorder, being able to accept a gift is not only an opportunity to create stronger connections with those around you, but it also plays a key role in your journey to recovery. By breaking the cycle of unworthiness, you will be more equipped to build healthier, more fulfilling relationships with both yourself and others.

Ultimately, traditional gift-giving occasions are really about connection, love and joy, and simply being together, but we understand the challenges this can bring for someone living with an eating disorder.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, or another mental health problem, please get in touch to find out how our licensed and trained professionals can help. You can also book a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Take care,

Dr Courtney

For more help and resources, including managing Christmas anxiety, coping with difficult relatives during the holidays, and a survival guide to Christmas with an eating disorder, click here.

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