Ask Peaceful Dumpling: Holiday Struggles and Regression

December 4, 2014

Ask Peaceful Dumpling: Holiday Struggles and Regression

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My mother-in-law is really generous on holidays–to the point that it gets frustrating. She goes and buys everything I wanted to buy for people on the list so I end up not having anything to get. She also always insists that I only get her a gift card–but then when I do get just a gift card, she seems disappointed that I didn’t get her something more thoughtful. What to do??

Dear Gift-stumped,

Thank you for your question, and I’m sorry to hear that your gift-giving is so stressful. Isn’t it ironic that the thing that’s supposed to give us joy causes so much anxiety? And you seem to be dealing with multiple overlapping conflicts, which only makes it worse. And yet your two main problems–being left without gifts people ask for, and feeling like an asked-for gift is unsatisfactory–have a similar resolution that I find most effective (even when these things aren’t issues): buy people what you think they’d like rather than what they’d ask for. This may seem counterintuitive and, yes, requires more creativity on your part, but that element of surprise on a person’s face when they receive something unexpected is priceless. Of course, it’s not always foolproof: some people just really want only what they ask for and thus are impossible to please. Some people are so picky that even what they say they want doesn’t work. And some people are so hard to figure out that even if you think you know them as well as you know yourself, your choice won’t be quite right. You should use this approach, then, when you feel it’s appropriate and can think of something meaningful that maybe the person would never think to buy him or herself or is a safe/neutral gift that can’t be a disappointment.

For example, my sister is fairly predictable in her Christmas wish list: she loves makeup and clothes and usually has a running list of specific items she wants going since August. And yet for me, giving her those things doesn’t feel special or thoughtful, even though I know she’d enjoy them: it’s as if I were buying her paper towels or milk, something useful but not really exciting to give or get. So I take what I know of her style and search around for things that are perhaps infused with a bit of my own taste, which makes it something that she’d not necessarily think of herself. Usually it’s a hit!

As far as your mother-in-law’s gifts, that’s something a bit more delicate given your relationship with her. Obviously you have the best intentions of pleasing her with the gift she asks for, and yet it’s not working. If you don’t think that the surprise-gift strategy will work, maybe consider something from the place to which she’s asking for a gift card? Or, if you’re close enough (and want to do this yourself), you could plan a fun day together at the spa, going out to eat, or doing some other fun activity she’d enjoy. All gifts are essentially meant to make the other person feel good, so it doesn’t matter as much whether it’s a tangible object or an experience: both can be memorable and certainly thoughtful.

I hope these ideas help, and remember to consider the true meaning behind the holiday season and gift-giving when you’re confronted with these gift dilemmas. Buying presents shouldn’t feel like a job but something gratifying–for both the giver and recipient. Good luck!!


Lately I’ve been grappling with a kind of self identity deja vu. Now well into my mid twenties I’ve gone back to school, which makes me excited as well as anxious to find myself as a student again. I’ve experienced it with my social life too, regressing back to patterns from years ago. When is it healthy to backpedal in life, and assume identities we might have discarded years ago?

Dear Regressing,

Oh, boy, do I know what you mean when you talk about regressing into old habits. Recently, when I was talking to an old college professor, I realized I’d slipped into my English-major-speak without even noticing–ideas and phrases that have no place in my current life flowed from my mouth like water. It was shocking and jarring. But I don’t think that finding yourself replaying a role/situation from the past could truly erase the intervening years and destroy the person you’ve worked to become

I wonder if in your situation you might step back and consider the positive and negative aspects of both of your identities, old and new, before making a judgment call on what is okay/healthy to resume. There are probably things that are fundamental to your character that haven’t changed, or maybe are only slightly modified in the past: those are the things that are going to stick no matter what, and they’ll manifest themselves in different ways depending on your circumstance. Maybe as a student you were very social and outgoing, but your post-college life didn’t allow for the same level of interaction or your schedule didn’t allow for constant going out. When you think about it, your “identity” there didn’t really change, only the way you could express it. If you find, though, that you’re resuming behaviors/thoughts that you’ve worked hard to distance yourself from just because you’re now a student again, you might try to figure out why that is and how to thwart it in its tracks. 

Whether your deja vu relates to academic or social patterns, the important thing to remember is to stay present. You’re not who you were when you were 18 or even 22 right after college: you are who you are now. There are no expectations for how you should behave or respond to anything, and the regression you feel might be more instinctual than it is practical–or even satisfying.

Good luck with your new ventures ahead, and if you stay true to your many selves–past, present, and future–you’ll succeed no matter what.


Peaceful Dumpling

More Ask Peaceful Dumpling: Gift Etiquette and Loneliness

Related: 3 Tips for Mindful Gift Giving 

How to Stay Emotionally Intelligent During the Holidays


Photo: docmoreau via Flickr

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Peaceful Dumpling is used for articles written by staff writers and freelance contributors who wish to remain unidentified.


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