This seems a bit petty compared to some of your other letters, but … Every year, my aunt sends piles of gifts for the holidays. The thing is, they are typically the wrong size, smelly, and have even arrived stained and with holes. Like: a tailored dress that’s three sizes too big; a moth-eaten scarf, a shirt with a stain on the front; mugs filled with a fine layer of dust and desiccated insects. (She’s a regular flea-market shopper.) I know you’re always supposed to be grateful to receive gifts, no matter what, and in the past I’ve thanked her for her thoughtfulness. But this seems to have reinforced the idea that I’m somehow indebted to her for her generosity. Now I can barely muster a “thank you” when she follows up repeatedly, asking if I’ve received her gifts, if I like them, etc. I’ve told her I have a small apartment and limited space, that I’m trying to be more of a minimalist, that she really shouldn’t have… But she clearly perceives herself as a generous gift-giver and wants to continue gift-giving, even if it’s not really what I want. I don’t like being ungrateful, and I’m ashamed to find myself acting like an obnoxious teenager. But is it always the right thing to be gracious?
Ambivalent About Stuff
Dear Ambivalent About Stuff,
Personally, I would let her continue sending you an annual gift, simply because:
1. It’s only once a year.
2. The stuff is used anyway, so maybe not a gigantic waste once donated to Goodwill or wherever.
3. She enjoys the notion that her favorite activity (sifting through old stuff to send people) also makes her a generous person.
In other words, accepting her crappy gifts to you is your gift to her each year. If I were you, I would choose to see it that way and behave in accordance with that view by:
1. Acknowledging receipt of her gift immediately instead of getting avoidant and full of resentment over it, thereby amplifying your misery.
2. Donating everything she sends to you swiftly, along with a few of your unwanted items, making you even more of a minimalist than before.
3. Enjoying the notion that your new favorite activity (keeping clutter out of your space by donating these unwanted gifts) also makes you a generous person — to strangers in need and to your aunt.
Now let’s talk about what it means to have an aunt who doesn’t understand you and never will: It’s pretty common. Show of hands? (Everyone raises hand and sighs in unison.)
What I want you to notice is that for you, this self-congratulatory display of deep misunderstanding is an emotional trigger. I think we can go ahead and guess that if your aunt is this, erm, eclectic in her personal choices and behavioral patterns, then one of your parents shares this strange ability to tune out what other people actually want (even when their needs are directly and openly stated!). This parent also might be prone to foisting upon you whatever they believe you should want, while congratulating themselves for being so thoughtful and generous.
You may have been told what you should want and treated like an ingrate for not accepting and embracing and thanking your parent profusely for giving it to you. This is a very common experience. Show of hands? (Everyone sighs and punches nearest wall in unison.)
So it’s normal to have a lot of feelings in response to experiences that mimic this recurring experience of yours as a child. It is not only understandable to have big reactions to this trigger, it is healthy and good to let yourself feel the full force of your emotions on this front. When your torment and anguish and anxiety seem out of proportion to the situation at hand, that’s when you really want to dial into what’s there. Because it’s not just this annual bestowing of used trash into your otherwise pristine domain that gets under your skin. I’ll bet you’re extremely unnerved by any experience that sends you a similar message of “I do not see you clearly, I prefer to see something else entirely,” and also “When you clean this windshield, I will make it dirty again. I prefer to see you my way.”
I understand this sensation well. And lately, I’ve been noticing how often I feel this way. I move to a place of assuming I’m invisible or misunderstood very quickly when I’m under stress or a little sad or a little physically incapacitated. I assume good will with my husband and kids most of the time, almost effortlessly, but with the rest of the world, all bets are off. My perception is very liquid.
So I have to be careful! I have to notice that it’s hard for me to feel seen, and hard for me to trust. And I have to notice that even when I feel invisible or kept at arm’s length, it’s important to be kind to myself but also calm myself the hell down. I need to remember that my first impulse is often to assume that people dislike or disregard me when they don’t.
I also have to work very hard not to take random, small things VERY PERSONALLY.
I’m not saying I have to stop myself from overreacting. I don’t really act out or blame other people for my shit that often anymore. I’m just talking about preventing myself from processing the whole world through this warped filter that says I’m nothing and no one, no matter what.
Luckily, I’ve noticed that most of the creative and interesting and sensitive people I know share a few of these traits, so there’s no big need to blame myself for being a little screwy. It’s easy to be a little screwy when you were raised by humans who were a little screwy. So what, right? Sometimes your screwiness and oversensitivity are what make you so assertive about what you want and need and like and prefer, which means they are also what give you your zest and flair and fun personality, with maybe a few cool creative talents thrown in for good measure.
So even though a therapist or close friend might advise you to simply inform your aunt that, while you appreciate her generosity, you’d prefer that she desist from sending you giant boxes of used things, I would argue that, given your history and personality, IN SOME SITUATIONS, SAYING NO IS GOING TO MAKE YOU FEEL EVEN WORSE.
Does that mean you’re wrong to say no? No. But because you’re sensitive, you’re a little more bothered by these gifts than most, and you’ll also be a little more plagued by bad feelings than most when there’s a blowback to your refusal to accept these gifts. Because you’re resisting the gifts in part because you’re very sensitive to not being seen and heard — and some part of you probably knows that — it’s going to kick up some shame when your refusal to receive gifts is misunderstood and you’re assumed to be ungrateful.
Even if you’re okay with that, your aunt might gripe about you to your parent — these things happen! — and suddenly the whole dumb thing is repeated over and over for years. Why do these aunts torment us so? I played a few merciless and ultimately victorious games of Monopoly back in the early aughts that I have yet to live down. Naturally, my aunts are obscenely competitive, just like me — where do you think I got it?— but somehow I’m the one who needs to graciously lose or else I’m the villain. I refuse to throw games, but I have learned to win without gloating. Baby steps!
So my advice is this: It’s only once a year. Think about the long-term fallout of saying No, seriously, stop sending me a gift every year! I know there’s the Earth to save and allowing someone to ship large boxes around for no reason is faintly suspect in and of itself. But I think you’re going to get yourself into an even more odious standoff with your aunt if you make a big stand in a battle that’s not really worth it.
I’m not advocating for fewer boundaries and more pretending and people pleasing, mind you. I just think that if you bite your tongue, you’ll end up feeling more free to draw firmer boundaries in many different situations moving forward. Saying yes about one smallish thing can make it easier to say no to something bigger that matters much more to you. You’ll also avoid unnecessary guilt while noticing, moving forward, that this is a trigger for you.
Noticing emotional triggers isn’t a way of saying, “I’m too fragile, so do things my way!” It’s actually the opposite. It’s a way of respecting your own bewildering and surprising and ever-shifting feelings instead of blaming yourself for them. It’s a way of loving the volatile seas under your skin enough that you no longer feel angry at yourself (and, in turn, angry at someone else) when strong emotions introduce themselves out of the blue. Becoming more aware of your emotional landscape is a way of becoming more flexible and taking small things less personally, because you know which types of situations wear on you and which don’t. You can see your own projections more clearly. You know what makes you feel trapped and guilty and why. And you can separate your reactions from the situation in order to make a more logical or compassionate choice about how to move forward.
Aunts are their own wild puzzle. I think I could write a whole book just called AUNTS. In many cases, preexisting sibling dynamics between your aunts and your parent are playing out with you as a surrogate. That’s why aunts get so triggered by their siblings’ children, too. When an aunt is trying to be kind and generous, it’s sometimes difficult to welcome it, given all of the weird barely examined resentments and assumptions and projections in the mix. But I think we can agree that sometimes it’s better to sweep all of that stuff aside and just say, “OH, A GIFT. HOW NICE OF YOU!”
That’s your gift to your aunt. And even if she doesn’t say it to you directly, when she gets your nice little thank-you note in the mail a few days after sending off her big box of crap, she will open the card and think, “OH, A GIFT! HOW NICE OF THEM.”
Imagine that. Feel it. It’s nice to make frustrating older people happy for a second. Let’s hope everyone still thinks so when we’re old and frustrating.
Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.