How to receive a gift that embarrasses me
May 30, 2015 6:40 AM   Subscribe

My parents are about to give me an embarrassing birthday gift. Help.

My parents have used my Amazon wish list for the last few years to buy my birthday presents. Recently, I accidentally added a self-help book about chronic underachievement to my public wish list when I intended to delete it from my cart. I also forgot until today to update my public wish list with gifts I currently am wishing for, so I was not leaving my parents with any other recent choices. When I visited my list today, I filtered it by "Purchased" and discovered that this book had been bought for me. My parents are the only people who buy things off my wish list, so the book is from them. I'll see my parents this weekend, so this is when I can expect to be given the book.

I'm cagey about my underachievement and the depression that causes it and is reinforced by it. I try to present myself to most people, including my parents, as reasonably contented with my life -- like I'm not really an underachiever, I'm just uninterested in conventional measures of achievement. I suppose this act is not fully convincing to anyone who really pays attention, but people mostly pick up my cues about how to interact with me. My parents are well-meaning people who try to be respectful of my privacy but don't fully understand what my sensitivities are. I don't discuss my issues with them because I don't want them to be witnesses to these embarrassing aspects of my life. So, receiving this stupid book is going to cause problems for me.

I can't think of a response that won't open up a can of worms. Normally my response to being given a gift from my wish list is to be effusive about the thing I'm given and talk a little about why I wanted it. I can't do that here because I don't want to acknowledge that the book has anything to do with me in the first place. I can't just say "thanks" and leave it at that, because that will come across as curt. My parents presumably think I added the book to my wish list because I'm open to discussing the topic of the book with them, so any kind of closed-off response would seem like setting out a welcome mat and then yanking it out from under them.

I'm not sure what a good outcome would even look like here. I'm looking for suggestions for how to handle this. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lie. White lie. "What's up with this book?" "Oh crap, how did that come up on my Wish list?" "Damn, I meant to buy that for a friend. Thank you so much for the gift though, maybe I'll take a skim through it myself, and thank you so much for the gift." Then misdirect: "who is ready for some lunch?"
posted by slateyness at 6:44 AM on May 30, 2015 [18 favorites]

I feel a bit of anxiety just reading that so I'm aware this is much easier said than done but you're just going to have to brazen it out. Prepare a couple sentences and practice what you will say so you don't panic.

"Thank you! I've been wanting to read this since person or news outlet recommended it. I've read a study about something related and found it really interesting."

I would attempt to make my interest seem like an intellectual exercise. Best of luck!
posted by cessair at 6:47 AM on May 30, 2015 [51 favorites]

It's only a big deal because you've built it up to be one in your mind. Everyone has things about themselves they're working on, andd I'd just tell them that. You can address it without making it some deep conversation. A little honesty can go a long way.
posted by Aranquis at 6:48 AM on May 30, 2015 [39 favorites]

Tell them the truth: that you didn't mean to have it on your wish list because it's a little embarrassing, but that you are interested in reading it and appreciate the gift, and that you'd rather talk about something else. The best way to handle embarrassment is to acknowledge it, plus just being truthful and matter-of-fact is more of an adult-to-adult interaction rather than a child-to-parent interaction (a footing which can help with other potentially embarrassing situations that may arise in the future as well).
posted by frobozz at 6:57 AM on May 30, 2015 [76 favorites]

I don't know what your relationship with your parents is like, but could you consider being a little bit honest about it? Reading your question, it seems like hiding the fact that you're working on these issues is making the issues feel bigger and more shameful and more anxiety-provoking than maybe they have to feel. It might feel good to be a little more open about them. Might reduce some of their power. Especially if your parents happen to be generally supportive and loving, it might be a bit of a relief to fess up a little about these "embarrassing" things (which I don't think you have to be embarrassed about at all, by the way) and have it turn out to be not such a big deal after all.

You don't have to have a whole therapy session with your parents or anything, but maybe you could say, "Oh, thank you for the book! I am actually feeling kind of sensitive about this stuff so I don't really want to talk about it in depth but this is some stuff I am working on, so thank you."
posted by aka burlap at 6:59 AM on May 30, 2015 [8 favorites]

Hiding depression and anxiety can, in my experience, lead to feelings that reinforce the depression and anxiety, so though you choose to be private with your parents, being up-front about the fact that you're looking for ways to improve your life and leaving it at that would, in my opinion, be better than lying and pretending it's for "a friend" or something.
posted by xingcat at 7:13 AM on May 30, 2015 [18 favorites]

I suspect you already know this, but just in case: being so embarrassed about your perceived underachievement is going to result in you hiding it and avoiding seeking help, which will end up setting you further back, and it will just spiral. (Ask me how I know!) If you want to fix this, you have to learn how to either get over your embarrassment or fake your way through. Instead of trying to cover this up, you could look at it as the uncomfortable but necessary first step to breaking the cycle. I know how embarrassing the subject is, but it really doesn't have to be.

If you're not ready for that, though, lie: it was on your wish list by mistake (which is technically true) and you were looking at it for such-and-so reason (for a friend, it was linked from an article you recently read, etc.). If your parents know you well, though, they'll see through the story. I don't know your parents at all, but could they know that this has long been a sore spot for you and are eager for this opportunity to talk to you about it?
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:13 AM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

> Came in to say "white lie", too, but to have the specific white lie be "a friend was over to my place recently, saw my account open on my computer, and added that book to my cart as a joke". Like, give your parents something to believe that seems reasonable, so they don't have to keep wondering if you're hiding something.

I disagree with this unless you are such a good actor you could take up a career as a conman if you felt like it. Your parents know you pretty well, and I strongly suspect they could tell you were bullshitting them. If you're going to lie about it, I'd go with cessair's "Thank you! I've been wanting to read this since person or news outlet recommended it. I've read a study about something related and found it really interesting." But really I agree with frobozz: "Tell them the truth: that you didn't mean to have it on your wish list because it's a little embarrassing, but that you are interested in reading it and appreciate the gift, and that you'd rather talk about something else." Honestly, it's not as big a deal as you're telling yourself it is.
posted by languagehat at 7:19 AM on May 30, 2015 [12 favorites]

Say thank you and move on to the next subject.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:21 AM on May 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

I like cessair's advice. More suggestions along those lines: you've heard that it has good general productivity tips; a coworker/fellow student/person impressive to you was reading it and said that it was great for dealing with [perfectionism or some other issue that wouldn't bother you as much to have out in the open].

Then you can always segue into thanking them not just for that gift specifically, but for their thoughtful approach to gift-giving (giving you the things you say you want without question, rather than things they like themselves) and how much you appreciate it. (And if you feel that's not enough, you can always go over past hit gifts of theirs and how you still enjoy them.)
posted by trig at 7:29 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding that lying is a terrible idea here, both for your own struggle with these issues, as well as hurting your relationship with your parents. Try a little honesty, and then move on. Your parents are likely proud that you're working on things that matter to you.
posted by canine epigram at 7:31 AM on May 30, 2015 [7 favorites]

If you parents thought this book was a really embarrassing thing for you to be reading, they wouldn't have bought it for you as a birthday gift.
posted by telegraph at 7:40 AM on May 30, 2015 [24 favorites]

Well, I don't know what your relationship with your parents is like. There are some things I have learned that I should not discuss with my folks, personally. Something like feeling like an underachiever would be something that I would never talk about with my parents. It just would not go well.

So if I were in your situation, I would say something like, "That's weird; I was looking at this the other day because I heard someone talking about it [on NPR/at a party/in class]. How did you know?" When they gave me the wish list explanation, I'd reply with, "I don't know how that happened! I don't think this is something that I really need, but I appreciate the thought. Thank you!"

But - I do also think that it it important to be able to talk about this topic with someone. That someone does not have to be your parents, but as people above noted, this is the type of thing that really can improve tremendously when it sees the light of day. That is, talking it out with someone could be incredibly beneficial for you. Do you have a friend that you can talk to about this stuff? Or a therapist? Someone that you feel safe enough to explore this topic with? I would think about focusing on that right now rather than on how you are going to deal with your parents and this awkward situation with the book.

Best of luck. I'm sorry. Try not to get too anxious about it - easier said than done, I know.
posted by sockermom at 7:41 AM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you can just say "thanks" and leave it at that. Smile, flip through the book a bit, you won't seem curt.
posted by Segundus at 8:15 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I think 'there are no accidents' - sure, it's your list, it's your Amazon, it's your Thing. But your parents are, as you say, the only ones who look at it, or regularly purchase for you from it. There's an opening for a conversation about this aspect of yourself that is clearly a struggle for you. If I bought this book for my son or daughter, there's no way it would be unaccompanied by 'the irony of this title! I mean, when I have a child who's enough just as she/he is!'
posted by honey-barbara at 8:33 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wait, why do you have to lie?

Very few people have sat around and thought to themselves "you know, I've accomplished everything that I'm trying to accomplish!" Even those people who you would generally consider to be fairly accomplished want more. Feelings of inadequacy regarding one's life accomplishments is, for better or worse, part of the human condition.

Your parents almost definitely understand that. They almost definitely feel on some level, even if (like you) they don't let on, that they themselves could have accomplished more. Many or most parents, based on their own regrets, are worried about their kids not striving hard enough when they're young, so this may actually come as a relief to them. It's a common thing.

Plus, few people go through life without books or articles or shows or classes on how they can accomplish more. Perhaps this book has some weirdly embarrassing title, but you know, a self-help book about accomplishing more just isn't that weird a gift.

And let me say this: it's far more embarrassing to receive a self-help book unsolicited than it is to ask for it.

If they ask why you wanted it, just say something true and relatable but vague, like "sometimes I just feel like I'd like to accomplish more, and this book looked interesting." Seriously, it's something almost everyone can relate to on some level. They'll probably say "Let us know if we can do anything to help." It will probably end there.
posted by eschatfische at 9:06 AM on May 30, 2015 [20 favorites]

You are over-thinking this! Every adult (hopefully) is on a journey of self-improvement. Similarly, as an adult, you can give your parents a warm sincere "thank you," then move on to other topics.

As an adult, you can change the subject of conversation or deflect direct questions as many times as you like. But it doesn't sound like your parents are going to interrogate you, so I'm not sure why you are freaking out here?
posted by jbenben at 9:08 AM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Play the cards you've been dealt... tell them the truth about meaning to delete it... deflect your embarassment by couching it as a mildly amusing mistake.

Be open to using this as an opportunity to explain a small sense of your sensitivities to your parents, and to thus lower the global level of embarassment and worry you feel about the wider issue.
posted by protorp at 9:37 AM on May 30, 2015

Embarrassment and shame magnify problems like this. I'd suggest taking the opportunity to very slightly open up about acknowledging it. You're not obliged to go into a huge discussion session with someone when you acknowledge something you're struggling with as an adult.
posted by ead at 9:44 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ugh. I'm only commenting to say that I don't think you should minimize this, "suck it up", or just deal with it. Parental relationships are complicated, and there's a good chance that the reason you feel you are "underachieving" has to do with that relationship. I'm a little angry at them on your behalf, but of course that has more to do with my own issues than yours -- probably.

I think this is an inappropriate gift, although naturally the fact that it was on your "wish list" may give them the impression that they are finally allowed to comment on your life/achievements/etc. whether through buying this book or through additional means. I think it's good that you are preparing now to handle this when they actually give it to you.

Good luck. I feel for you, or rather for the you I imagine you being -- of course I don't really know you :) Just know that someone is here, overly and inappropriately ready to defend you from your parents, if you need it.
posted by amtho at 9:53 AM on May 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

Are you sure your parents even know what the book's about, other than a broad-stroke "I want to better my life" self-help book? My family often buys stuff on my wishlist just because it's there and it's in their price range, and my father especially doesn't tend to delve much deeper than that.
posted by jaguar at 10:04 AM on May 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

It definitely depends on your parents... Are they the type to ask you about the book or hassle you about it? Or will you just be able to say, "Thanks! I'm looking forward to reading this!"

Without knowing more about them or your relationship with them, it's really hard to know whether you're thinking about how to maintain a necessary boundary or just blowing this a bit out of proportion due to feelings of shame.
posted by mskyle at 10:17 AM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Some ten years back I asked for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression for my birthday because I was writing something about a depressed relative who eventually committed suicide. My dad and stepmom bought it and then asked, "Is there something you want to tell us about?"—so I told them it was for a project, which they had no trouble believing. Of course it wasn't a lie in my case, and if you don't have any writerly pursuits this one might not work for you, but there are lots of reasons to read books, even very directed books. Maybe you can find a half-truth that lets you be effusive about the book while not having to talk directly about what's going on with you.

I would add that some ten years later I am after all struggling with depression (haha?) and took a long time to tell my mom about it, which meant something like two years of various half-truths in conversation about how my life has been going (focusing on things done rather than feelings felt, generally). In general I think my outward mode of presentation is not unlike yours—I try to present myself as more of a relaxed person who goes by their own drum rather than someone who feels often incapable of doing things other people do easily. When I finally did tell my mom about all this a few months ago she admitted she'd known something was going on but didn't want to push me on it, and was unequivocally happy that I'd finally been able to talk to her about it rather than upset that I had "lied" to her in the past. Depending on your relationship with your parents, they may know that something is going on if you go with a deflection that is comfortable for you, but be nonetheless willing to let you shield yourself and understand that you may need some half-truths in your life, especially on a day that is meant to be a celebration. Good luck.
posted by felix grundy at 10:40 AM on May 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

The advice to come up with a lie about how you didn't really want to the book is, I think, really bad advice. First, because unless you come up with a believable one that you can tell convincingly, you're just going to make the situation more awkward. Second, because it's just not nice to try to save yourself from embarrassment by making your parents think they got you a bad gift. It will make them feel bad.

You should own your interest in the book. Don't be embarrassed about it; say "thank you," and if you need to elaborate, "I heard it has some helpful tips for _X_." I'm sure you can come up with some actual praise for the book, since you were interested in the first place. It doesn't have to be "I think this book will help me stop being a chronic underachiever"; it can be something more specific, like procrastination, confidence in job interviews, or whatnot.

I think you're reading too much into what the topic of the book says about you - no one is going to see you with this book and think, "oh, they're a loser." It's completely normal to feel like you should be achieving more. Although it sounds like you have above-average anxieties about this, no one will know it unless you make it into an issue. If you don't want to talk about this with your parents, you don't have to.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:58 AM on May 30, 2015 [13 favorites]

Can you just honestly answer something like "Oh thanks! I don't know a lot about this book but it might be a good read. I'll pass it on to you if it's any good."

(knowing that you will likely not pass it on, but gracefully moving past the topic after showing them you don't know enough about it to talk about it)
posted by eisforcool at 12:07 PM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Normally my response to being given a gift from my wish list is to be effusive about the thing I'm given

Great! That's perfect!

Maybe hold a couple cards in reserve, e.g. things you've gleaned from the Amazon preview. That way if your parents start to say anything appalling, like: "Honey, we're sorry you feel like an underachiever", you can politely mutter: "Uh -- no, no, I'm ok, thanks [or whatever you'd say if they offered you a third helping of food, or a warm coat on a mild day]. Oh hey the checklist on 23 looks super-useful!"

any kind of closed-off response would seem like setting out a welcome mat and then yanking it out from under them.

Think of it as redirecting them to another venue: "Yoo-hoo! We're around in back, on the patio! The side door is open!"
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:54 PM on May 30, 2015

If you are not ready to address these issues with your parents, you are not ready. This doesn't have to be a come to Jesus moment with your family.

I would laugh and say "oh, a friend of mine mentioned wanting to read this book so I put it in my cart to buy for his birthday". Laugh it off and move along. They might believe you or they might not, but you don't have to get stuck in a big awkward conversation.
posted by vignettist at 12:56 PM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

You do know normal people without depression and anxiety read self help books, right?

I understand your struggle but wanting some tips or advice to achieve more in your life is not a weird, embarrassing or shameful thing. "I heard this has some good productivity tips!" seems like a good reason to read it and a way of closing off any awkward conversations unless your parents are truly overbearing. (Like if they would respond to that by saying "but didn't we give you all the mental tools for a perfect life? Are you not ok?" then lie lie lie as others have suggested.)
posted by shownomercy at 5:47 PM on May 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

Will this be the main or only gift they give you? If not, just say thanks, this book has gotten great reviews and I am looking forward to reading it, and then move on to the next item.
posted by rpfields at 3:13 AM on May 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm amazed how many people suggest lying, especially lying in a way that will make your parents feel terrible about getting you the wrong gift.

Keep it simple and honest:

"Oh, cool. I was thinking of reading this. Thanks!"

And don't say another word if you don't want to.
posted by mmoncur at 3:50 AM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Okay, your parents might be the nicest most sensitive people ever, but if they give you this as a birthday present, then it still amounts to the worst birthday gift ever.

I would go with, "Mom and dad, I love you so much and you are great people but this is really horrible birthday gift. Did you know that this was a book about chronic underachievement and if so why did you buy it for my birthday?" That way they have a chance to tell them that they are proud of you and love you and you have a chance to hear an apology and tell them their choice of gifts sucked.

I really can't understand why the tide is going towards, "Say thanks!" on this thread because I just have a very hard time imagining any world where this is an appropriate birthday gift for your adult child.
posted by mermily at 9:42 AM on May 31, 2015

If someone puts something on their public Wishlist on Amazon, it's a completely valid assumption that they would like someone to buy that thing for them as a gift. That's the purpose of having a Wishlist. There's no reason to assume ill intent on the part of the poster's parents.
posted by jaguar at 9:57 AM on May 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's an appropriate gift for someone who had it on their wishlist, especially when it was the only recent addition.

JFC, lying to your parents about how you didn't really want it, and making them feel bad for getting you a bad gift, is bad enough. Telling them outright it's a bad gift and then expecting them to apologize is the kind of thing you should only do if you're okay being a terrible person to people who love you.

Please do not do this. It won't save you from embarrasment, because it you're inviting your parents to talk about exactly the topic you want to avoid, and second, because it's just cruel.

There is more to life than being an "achiever" or defending your status as one. Some of the best loved, wonderful people in the world never achieved much by traditional standards (jobs, degrees, etc), but made the world better through their relationships with other people.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:36 PM on May 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really can't understand why the tide is going towards, "Say thanks!" on this thread because I just have a very hard time imagining any world where this is an appropriate birthday gift for your adult child.

I think there's a difference in interpretation at work here since we don't know the title of the book.

If the book is called "Achieve Now: 35 life-changing tips for people who sometimes feel unhappy with their achievements", then it's a fine gift and I don't see why that would be a problem.

If the book is called "WHY YOU'RE A LOSER: how to cope with the sad reality of being a chronic underachiever", it would be a terrible gift.

I'm assuming it's something like the former.
posted by mmoncur at 9:22 PM on June 1, 2015

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