Suffocated by gifts

Our agony aunt Mary Fenwick offers a new perspective on whatever is troubling you


Suffocated by gifts

Q. My husband and I are both naturally minimalist in how we live. He loves living in a clutter-free ‘tidy’ home, and I am an environmentalist and love seeing the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra in practice.

However, my mother is the complete opposite to us – a serial consumer and hoarder. I own three dressing gowns, a wardrobe full of unworn clothes, cosmetics and ornaments galore that she has bought for me.

On the odd occasion that she has caught me donating these unwanted gifts to the charity shop, I have been struck with a verbal attack on how ungrateful I am.

I know my mother loves us and wants the best for us. We are a close family and have an otherwise great relationship. I honestly believe she thinks she is helping us in some way and not being intentionally awkward, but how can I convince her that she is actually causing problems, and making me depressed, without sounding ungrateful and nasty? Nita

A. It sounds as though your mother wants to shower you with love; for you to have a little piece of her with you when you get dressed, put on make-up or look around your home. I assume she buys you these gifts with the desire to share something with you, and perhaps even the desire for you to accept her.

I think there is a potential win-win situation here if you can nudge her in the direction of research showing that experiences make us happier than possessions. I can’t put it better than Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University. He says whether we like or dislike material stuff doesn’t define us: ‘You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.’

How about exploring some things you could do together, which she can nonetheless give you as a gift? Perhaps you could go for a walk with a lovely picnic. Or maybe theatre tickets, a train journey to see some remarkable architecture, membership of an art gallery or museum, or a chef who comes to your home. I’m having fun just thinking about the options myself.