The gift giving that takes place during the holiday season has brought to mind the much-overlooked challenge of accepting. We tend to focus our attention on the giving part of the gift exchange: what should I get them? What do they need? What do they like? What can I afford? How shall I wrap it? What should I write on the card? But we forget about the other aspect of the transaction: the receiving part.
We don’t tend to regard this as a challenge because who doesn’t want to be thought of and given presents by those they love. However, when we look closely, our actions can be telling a different story. In fact, they may be reflecting our particular style of attachment that is getting in the way of our being able to accept and fully appreciate the feelings that are being expressed to us in the offering.
Early in childhood, we form patterns of attachment that go on to affect how we relate to people throughout our lives. Researchers in attachment theory study the dynamics in long-term interpersonal relationships, including the relationships formed in early childhood and adulthood. They have observed the different ways in which children go about establishing both emotional and physical attachments to their principal caregivers. The pattern of attachment that an individual child leans toward is primarily dependent on the qualities of the caregiving adult.
Researchers have also found that early patterns of attachment continue relatively unaltered into adulthood and largely determine a person’s specific style of interacting in new relationships. These patterns help shape how we operate in relationships, both how we behave and how we expect to be treated. This includes how we react to love and how we accept kindness.
Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: “You really shouldn’t have.”
Children develop this pattern of attachment when they have parents or caretakers who are emotionally unavailable, missatuned and unresponsive to their needs. They realize early on that the best way to not feel the pain of the shame generated by the lack of response to their needs is to retreat and act like they don’t have any. They learn to self-parent and to not rely on others to meet their needs.
In adulthood, people with dismissive-avoidant attachment tend to be distant or self-contained. They are somewhat pseudo-independent, taking care of themselves and keeping their own needs below their level of awareness. Receiving gifts from others challenges their sense of self-sufficiency. “You shouldn’t have. I have everything I need.” It can threaten to activate feelings of wanting that they have suppressed. “This is nice, but I can life without it. You really shouldn’t have wasted your money on it.”
Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: “Oh, no! But I didn’t get you anything!”
Children develop this pattern of attachment when they have parents or caretakers who are intermittently available, sometimes attuning to them and meeting their needs and sometimes not. Because the attention and care these children get is inconsistent and unreliable, they often become clingy and overly dependent to get their needs met. They grow up feeling insecure and untrusting in their relationships, often with a fear of being abandoned or rejected.
In their adult relationships, instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, people with preoccupied attachment often feel confusion, uncertainty or emotional hunger. They may seek a sense of safety and security by clinging to their partner, while at the same time, they may take actions that actually push their partner away. This cycle reinforces their distrust and their ideas about the unreliability of love and relationships. Gift receiving is often complicated for those with anxious-preoccupied attachment. It may trigger their insecurity. “This is so much better than what I got you. I feel terrible, I hope I didn’t make you feel bad.” Their distraction with their own self-attacks interferes with their being able to feel what is being given to them. “I hate my gift to you. I’m a horrible gift giver.”
Fearful Avoidant Attachment: “Oh, for me?”
Children develop this pattern of attachment when they have parents or caretakers who are frightening to them. These parents are often verbally and physically abusive. This type of treatment creates a situation that is impossible for the child to resolve: the person they want to go to for safety is the very same person they are in fear of. Because of this erratic and unpredictable dilemma, the child has no organized strategy to get their needs met.
Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment usually live in an ambivalent state in which they are both frightened of being too close to or too distant from others. They see their relationships from the perspective that they need to go toward others to get their needs met, but they also believe if they get close, the other person will hurt them. They may be overcome with anxiety or emotion and feel triggered by their partner either coming toward them or pulling away. For this reason, these people are often anxious when receiving a gift. At first they may be open, “For me? That’s so nice; I love it.” But then, they may do something to push away, “But do you mind if I exchange it for something else that I really want?”
Secure Attachment: “Thank you.”
Many people developed a secure pattern of attachment as children, because their parents were, for the most part, attuned and responsive to their feelings and needs. These people were fortunate to experience their parents as a safe and solid base from which they could venture out and explore the world. As adults, they feel self-possessed and secure within themselves but are also easily able to reach out and connect with others. In a relationship, they can both identify and meet their own needs as well as the needs of their partner. Because they are comfortable with equal give and take between themselves and their partner, they are able to enjoy both aspects of the exchange of gifts. “Thank you for thinking of me. It means a lot to me. I am touched by your feelings.”
There’s good news: whatever our pattern of attachment, we are all capable of forming more secure attachments and achieving a sense of inner security. Our attachment pattern is not fixed and does not have to define our ways of relating to those we love in our adult lives. As we come to understand our attachment style, we can start to recognize when it gets activated and how it impacts our behavior. We can explore why we start reacting in ways that have more to do with our past than our present. And as we do, we can become more open to love and more comfortable with and accepting of generosity coming toward us.