• Hazelden Renewal Center

Recovering the Joy of Giving

With the Holiday season drawing near, my thoughts are turning to Christmas gift-giving. Who should be on the list? What should I give? Do I have to give a gift to co-workers? Bosses? Mail delivery persons? In the midst of all this mind chatter I like to slow down, think and get clear about the spirit of gift-giving. Why give gifts and what is gift-giving about? I’m not even a practicing Christian anymore. What does Christmas mean to me? In our culture, it’s become a secular Holiday as much as a religious Holiday and has become conflated with gift-giving. Sorting out my feelings about the season is particularly important to me as a recovering compulsive debtor. For me, compulsive debting expresses as unsecured debt (such as credit cards), a terminal vagueness about money, avoidance of monitoring my finances, and an inability to identify or fulfill my personal needs. The Christmas season can be especially charged for me and others with this specific issue.

I am a member of Debtors Anonymous and have been abstinent from incurring unsecured debt since 2000. Yep, I live without credit cards. Beyond that, the 12 Step program of Debtors Anonymous (“DA”) has helped me to live a joy-filled and prosperous life.

I’m much like Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”) members who have stopped drinking one day at a time and have realized the AA promise that states, “We are going to know a new freedom and a happiness.”

Prior to DA, anxiety and fear surrounded my gift-giving and the Christmas holiday. My character defects reared their very ugly heads, too. Gift giving is a natural human behavior. It is wired in our brains, is a part of the mesolimbic reward system, and is about social attachment. Giving a gift makes us feel better about ourselves. Giving can actually make us happier and see the world as an overall better place. However, what if that natural inclination has gone awry? For me, in the throes of my debting and vagueness about my finances, the joy I might have felt in gift giving were replaced with worry, resentment and fear. I measured my worth by what I could give, more accurately, by how much I spent! I used credit cards to purchase gifts, especially at Christmas, and got myself further and further into debt. I spent much more than I could afford. I thought giving expensive gifts showed others my good taste. For me, this was a particularly pervasive and harmful form of “big shot” syndrome. The gift was no longer about giving and the receiver, but about me. Additionally, I set myself up for resentment when the person failed to reciprocate my good taste and provide an equally expensive gift to me. I did harm to myself both spiritually and financially. I gave beyond my means and gained a resentment. Another common behavior I used was to offer dinners or lunches out as a gift. Because I did not manage my money and was deep in debt there really was no money for such things, even for myself, let alone enough to treat another. Therefore, it was an offer I could never fulfill. This was inherently dishonest, but somehow in my vagueness, I thought it got me off the hook of having to give. Gift-debting if you will. All in all, I did not experience happiness and my world was not a better place from my gift giving.

There are other very large and debilitating symptoms of my money issues including bankruptcy, foreclosure, utilities shut off, furniture and car repossession and finally the thoughts of suicide. The gift-giving season is only one aspect of the larger debting issue. However, it was a source of pain and anxiety for me, especially because of how the Holiday gift-giving season is portrayed in our society and represented in advertising. I’ll never forget the surprise on a retail clerk’s face, my first DA Christmas, when I paid cash for my purchase!

By working the program of DA, angst-free gift-giving has become a part of that new freedom and an abundant life. Once in the program, I cut up my credit cards and I stopped debting one day at a time. I attended meetings, became willing to keep records of my spending and my income, became willing to monitor my bank account at last, rather than ignoring and pretending that the balance never changed (despite my spending). I got a sponsor and followed the other 12 Tools of the Program. One of those Tools was to create a Spending Plan (a budget). With the help of my Sponsor, reaching out to DA members, and asking for help, I was able to adhere to the Spending Plan and my life got better, one day at a time. My first Christmas was difficult. I only spent what I had. Sometimes that meant not giving gifts at all. I came to realize, my being present, really present was the gift. No more trying to impress. My spiritual awakening around gifts was that no family member, friend or loved one who cares about me wants me to go into debt to give them a gift. Taking care of and valuing myself is the first and most necessary gift. Only then, am I truly able to give freely without guilt, without obligation, or to look good, or to prove my worth.

As I continued in the DA program, the Spending Plan included savings for gifts. Now I put away a monthly amount toward gifts. I no longer worry about birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas or any other occasion. I give within my means and there is enough. The spirit of giving is present in me. Giving brings me joy and I do believe the world is a better place.


If you would like to know more about Debtors Anonymous, visit the website: debtorsanonymous.org or the MN DA Intergroup website at daminnesota.org. Phone: 952-953-8438.

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