When gratitude becomes a guilt trip

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

suitcase wtih "guilt" sticker on it against background of train and luggage cart

 

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day (in the US), my favorite holiday of the year. I love that we have a national holiday that is focused on gratitude!

The intentional, ongoing practice of gratitude has profoundly affected my outlook and experience of life in positive, life-giving ways. (I've shared that story elsewhere, so I won't repeat it here.)

I make gratitude a regular part of my life, and I believe that a more pervasive practice of gratitude would be good for our culture as a whole.

And yet, like everything else in life, even this life-giving practice has the potential to be used in ways that are harmful.

Making gratitude a "should"

We turn gratitude from life-giving to damaging as soon as we make it a "should" (for ourselves or for others).

As soon as we declare that we "should" feel more grateful, we turn gratitude into just another guilt trip to beat up on ourselves.

We often do this to avoid having to deal with the difficult emotions that come from life's brokenness. We struggle to face those emotions, so we attempt to hide from them by trying to require expressions of gratitude instead.

While practicing gratitude can indeed be a helpful practice when we're hurting, it needs to balance the acknowledgement of the reality of our difficult feelings with the things for which we are grateful in order to be healing.

Hiding from our difficult emotions with a mask of gratitude just keeps us stuck in the unresolved pain.

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.

The dangers of the gratitude guilt trip

In addition to the danger of avoidance mentioned above, there are two key dangers I see in this misuse of gratitude as a guilt trip.

First, pushing ourselves to feel gratitude in the midst of painful emotions is dismissive of our reality. Having our very real pain and challenge dismissed as if it were nothing more than a character flaw for not expressing more gratitude adds even more injury when we are already suffering.

Validating the reality of our pain or difficulty can open the door to finding space for healing and more awareness of all that remains to be grateful for. Shutting ourselves down by telling ourselves we have to be more grateful for what we do have just adds to the pain.

Second, trying to force ourselves to be grateful for the very thing that hurt us can do an incredible amount of damage.

Yes, I believe that there is always gold to be found in our healing, but this does not mean that we need to 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.

In either case, requiring that we feel (or at least expresses) gratitude in a given situation turns gratitude into a weapon that we beat ourselves with—usually when we are already hurting and wounded.

Dropping the guilt

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.

Let go of the messages about how you should feel, and just be with what is.

No guilt. No should. No beating yourself up. It isn’t needed, and it doesn’t help.

Yes, feeling gratitude can be very helpful in healing. Practicing gratitude is beneficial in many ways.

AND it’s ok not to feel grateful if you’re not feeling it at the moment.

Be with the pain, the grief, the disappointment, the fear, the anger, the hurt in this moment. Come back to gratitude when you’re ready.

Give yourself permission to be where you are now and stretch toward gratitude when there is emotional space 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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