The dark side of gratitude

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

Half Moon IMG_2140s from Flickr via Wylio

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. I love that we have a national holiday that is focused on gratitude!

Gratitude as an intentional, ongoing practice has truly been a lifesaver for me. It has profoundly affected my outlook and experience of life in positive, life-giving ways.

I make gratitude a regular part of my life (including my Gratituesday postings on Facebook each week), and my own experience leads me to believe that a more pervasive practice of gratitude would be good for our culture as a whole.

And yet, as much as I love and value the practice of gratitude, I have also seen it practiced in ways that have a dark side. Like everything else in life, even this life-giving practice has the potential to be used in ways that are harmful.

As we approach this Thanksgiving, there are many who will be singing gratitude's praises (me among them), so I want to take this chance to look at the dark side of the practice of gratitude as a balance.

Gratitude as avoidance

One of the most common ways I see gratitude misused is by using it as a means of avoiding a hard reality.

In many cases, we do this to ourselves. We may push ourselves to express or feel gratitude in order to hide from our own difficult feelings by adopting gratitude as a mask.

This is a tricky balance. Finding a space for gratitude in the midst of hard times can do a great deal to ease the way through the challenges by shifting perspective and attitude to make it possible to keep moving and to find new options. There's no denying that it can be very helpful in times like this.

But there's a difference between the positive practice of acknowledging the reality of our difficult feelings or challenging situation on the one hand while also acknowledging the things for which we are grateful on the other hand to find a more complete perspective and the avoidant practice of denying, minimizing, or avoiding harsh realities by using gratitude as a mask.

The first can be a healing lifesaver; the latter keeps us stuck with unresolved pain lurking in our subconscious waiting to be expressed or keeps us stuck in difficult situations by not allowing ourselves to see that we have better options (since we aren't acknowledging the difficulty to begin with).

For example, we've all known (or perhaps been) that person in a miserable job situation who refuses to consider looking for a better position because they are too busy being "grateful" to have a job at all to take any action. Holding the real challenges of the job situation together with honest gratitude for the paycheck that keeps the bills paid is more likely to motivate someone to find something better than the use of gratitude to avoid the real pain in their situation.

It's much like kintsugi. The break has to be acknowledged and dealt with in order to do the repair work necessary to move toward gold-filled wholeness. The hope of the gold that is coming motivates us to the repair work, but sprinkling gold dust on the object without addressing the break won't do much good.

Gratitude as dismissal

Even more often, we try to use the practice of gratitude as a way of dismissing someone else's difficult situation or emotions so that we can avoid having to deal with them.

I've so often seen people's real pain and challenge dismissed as if it were nothing more than a character flaw for not expressing more gratitude.

Yes, getting in touch with the things that we still have to be grateful for can make moving through challenging situations easier, but it does not make all challenges disappear.

Just as we benefit from holding our challenges and our gratitude together, so do others benefit from having their challenges acknowledged and validated without being told that they just need to be more grateful.

Sometimes validating another's pain or difficulty is what can open the door to that person finding space for healing, for movement, or for more awareness of all that remains to be grateful for.

Shutting someone down by telling them to be more grateful for what they do have just adds to their pain.

Gratitude as violence

I believe that there is always gold to be found in our healing and that healing is always possible. But this does not mean that we should be grateful for the things that break us.

We can be grateful for the healing and any lessons we may have learned through the experience without being grateful for the situation or action that caused the break.

But I see people often trying to push themselves or others to be grateful for the break itself (or what caused it) as a means of being grateful for the gold, and that just adds additional violence to what was already a wounding situation.

While it may be possible to find something to be grateful for in the midst of any and every difficult situation, it never means that we should be grateful for the difficulty itself.

Nor do we get to decide what another person should be grateful for in a given situation. That turns gratitude into a weapon that we beat someone with—usually someone who is already hurting and wounded.

Genuine gratitude always come from within; it cannot be imposed from the outside.

Practicing healthy gratitude

Fortunately, gratitude is fairly easy to practice in healthy ways. When we make a point of focusing on we are genuinely grateful for, we automatically move in healthy directions.

The two things to watch out for are the appearance of the word should—forcing ourselves to be grateful when we really aren't is never helpful—and any attempt to monitor, force, or coerce another person's experience or expression of gratitude.

Genuine gratefulness is always an inside job, and it will spring up naturally when we give it the space and the awareness to do so.

I wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow. May you find much in your life to be genuinely grateful for!

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