When giving is really receiving

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With the Christmas holidays upon us, my mind turns to gift giving. I thought I’d share with you a particular type of present: a Chewbacca present. This is something we buy for ourselves under the guise of buying it for another.

The name comes from the first Chewbacca present. It was selected by my husband in the late 1970s. The recipient of his kindness? His mother. It was an actual Chewbacca present — a poster of the 200-year-old Wookiee in the Stars Wars films who is called… Chewbacca.

Clearly it was more appropriate for the eight-year-old giver, than the forty-year-old receiver. Predictably after he’d heard “thank you for such a thoughtful Christmas gift,” he also got “are you sure you don’t want to keep it yourself?”

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Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd

I have received Chewbacca presents from time to time. A wok on my birthday because my husband fancied cooking stir-fries. A box of chocolates as a gift which he polished off himself. I don’t mind really, but I do notice how often it happens to us all. There are many Chewbacca presents out there in the world.

I was on the phone to a friend recently. I was in a bad mood and asked if I could download. She took up the mantle with gusto. Fifteen minutes later, after a long list of complaints from me, this is how the we continued:

Friend: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t solve your problem for you.”

Me: “Actually just listening was helpful. I feel much better for just getting it off my chest.”

Friend: “Oh, but I’d like to wave a magic wand and find the right action for you to take.”

Me: “But you did wave a magic wand. I just wanted you to listen. I wanted to be heard.”

I know it’s subtle but trust me, it’s a Chewbacca present. It’s in disguise but it’s there. My friend is kind and likes to solve my problems. She wants to give me an answer that will address all my concerns.

I tell her I don’t need that kind of help right now. I even say it twice — all I want is to be heard. Still, she can’t quite let go. To be helpful, she must help. To help, she must fix. To fix, she must tell me what I should do. I saw this quote years ago and it stuck with me ever since: “Help is the sunny side of control.”

Now don’t get me wrong. My friend, and so many other people, are really keen to help. It isn’t a subtle ploy to take over the world. But we do feel magnificent when we solve a problem. We wonder for a second whether we might take on the world. Our brain has fixed this problem. We’ve made things better using our knowledge.

My husband and I had couples’ therapy for a while and the therapist once said this to us:

Well look….” he was Antipodean and that’s what Antipodeans say when they start a sentence, don’t they?

Well look, I’ve only just heard about this problem and you’ve been trying to sort it out for months. It’s not helpful if I jump in to be the saviour and tell you to do this or that. I’m sure you’ve thought it through more than I ever could.”

For me, this was a revelation. What? I can talk and he won’t try to fix it? He’ll just let me offload? What a treat.

I remind myself of this therapist every time I want to help. I see someone agonising about a challenge in their life. I’m itching to give them an answer — one that will solve their woes. I want to be helpful and yes, sometimes powerful. But I remember how frustrating it is when this happens to me. So, I try to just stop and be quiet, or at least nod and say “umm.” When I get it right, a remarkable thing can happen. The person continues for a while but then they let it all go.

Well, it is annoying, but I’m sure it will sort itself out.”

Or “oh, I’ve been going on about it for ages. Why don’t we talk about something else?” And then they might start walking into the sunnier climes of a good thing that is happening in their lives.

Think of it like this. Give them a glass of water. Watch carefully as they take a sip. Then another one. And then a third. Only remove the glass once they’ve had their fill. On occasion, when you have the time and patience, pour them another glass, so they can drink from that one too.

There’s a simplicity to all of this really, not that it’s easy to do! Just find out what they need. If they want to get something off their chest, then keep quiet. The less we try to fix it, the quicker they’ll work their way out.

In our excitement, we often plunge head-first into saving mode when they might just like to offload or be heard. When we haven’t asked what they want we can end up focusing on what we want — solving a riddle, sorting a conundrum, making a difference in the world. We need to take a moment to check. We need to ask “is this a Chewbacca present we just want for ourselves?

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’m running interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. Each week I share the themes — how they are getting back on track and the wisdom they are developing as they work their way through. To read more: https://charlotte-sheridan.medium.com

First and third photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

Psychologist, coach, writer, photographer… juggling them all but often dropping balls.

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