3 Gifts Everyone Should Receive This Year
Once, during a brief virtuous phase, I told my loved ones I no longer needed holiday presents. It was a mature, selfless decision, and it backfired like a political campaign based on porn tweets. I grinched my way through that December, dour and drained from giving without receiving. Things got so miserable, I made a new rule: Whenever I give anyone a gift, I also give something to myself. The practice has served me well, and if you want a happier holiday, I recommend that you adopt it.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you give yourself jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs, unless you're good at stealing them. I like my self-gifts classy but inexpensive——free, if possible. Finding these things can be a challenge, so to help get your self-giving spree started, I crowdsourced the problem. I put up a Facebook post asking, "What are the best gifts you can give yourself?" Hundreds of people responded (if you're one of them, deepest thanks). Remarkably, almost everyone mentioned the same simple, very inexpensive things. Yet they spoke of these gifts wistfully, as if describing impossible dreams. Well, it just so happens that my lifelong obsession is helping people realize their dreams. So here's my holiday present for you: instructions on how to give yourself the gifts so many of us want.
Some Facebookers described the kind of time they wanted: time alone, time in silence, time to do absolutely nothing. No one craves an extra hour a day to suffer, worry, or work. We're not starved for time per se. What we lack is the kind that's quiet, open, free—because when we have free time, we don't know how to keep it free.
Yet while in theory we hanker for stillness, in practice we prefer just about anything else. In one study, researchers gave subjects 15 minutes to either sit quietly or press a button that would give them an electric shock. There was no upside to pressing that button. The choice was 15 minutes of stillness or mild pain. Amazingly, two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women—all of whom had said that they would pay money not to be shocked—chose self-torture over sitting with their thoughts. One person pressed the button 190 times.
If you've ever meditated, this won't surprise you. My own meditation is plagued by frequent waves of anxiety. "Don't just sit here!" my inner voice shrieks. "Get up and do something!" Fortunately, I am deeply lethargic. So I usually persist in doing nothing until my panic fades to unease, then (more and more often) gives way to deep calm.
Whenever you decide to give yourself a gift, cancel ten minutes of some inessential activity: surfing the Net, watching television, listening to your 6-year-old recite the movie Frozen. Give those ten minutes to yourself and sit in them; no matter how uncomfortable you are, stay put. As you become quieter inside, you'll find that empty time is all you'd hoped it would be. Or you can stick your tongue into an electrical outlet. I hear electric shocks help pass the time.
Another thing on my Facebook respondents' wish list wasn't a thing at all, but an absence of things. One comment expressed the sentiment in four words: "Enough with the stuff!" The space that remains when we get rid of things, rather than accumulating them, offers a sense of luxury you might have thought came only from marble counter tops and a live-in masseur.
I gave myself a big helping of stuff-lessness after returning from a month of traveling light. The clarity of having less stuff felt so delicious that when I got home, I purchased several "limbo boxes" (plastic storage bins with sealable lids). A few times a day, I'd look around my house for objects I didn't need, then chuck them into a box. I put the full boxes in the garage. If I need something in them during the subsequent year, I retrieve it. Otherwise, the boxes go to Goodwill without another look.
The limbo-box method can help you circumvent any touch of hoarding disorder that may afflict you. Then, in place of clothes you weren't wearing, papers you weren't reading, and thingamajigs you can't identify, you'll have more open, clear, serene physical space—a premium gift if ever there was one.
Forgiveness and permission were two more things many people told me they want from themselves. These are two sides of the same coin, really: freedom to accept both what you've done and what you want to do—without criticism or self-blame.
Many of us worry that if we give ourselves unconditional acceptance, we'll immediately commit all seven deadly sins. Self-blame and criticism are our attempts to be virtuous, which would work really well, except that they don't work at all. The pain of self-attack actually fuels emotional volatility, addictions, and compulsions.
Here, try a sample-size gift of acceptance to see if it's as dangerous as you fear. Set a timer for 60 seconds. During this minute, stop trying to change. Just for a minute! Do so by reading, rereading, and absorbing the following statements:
When the minute's up, take stock: Are you poised to commit shocking acts of gluttony and lust? Or do you feel calmer, saner? If you liked this sample of self-acceptance, there's good news. You can give yourself industrial amounts of it, anytime.
So there you have it: a list of gifts you should lavish on yourself throughout the holiday. Judging from the number of kind folks who told me they long desperately for these treats, I'm sure you'll find them useful. If you give yourself these things each time you get something for someone else, your sense of gratitude and abundance will increase dramatically. Because while it may be better to give than to receive, doing both at once is better still.
Martha Beck's latest book is Using the Greek Goddesses to Create a Well-Lived Life for Women.