The dark side of gratitude

As you may be aware, I’m a believer that gratitude practice is good practice. Good for our health. Our psychological well being. Our relationships. And I’ve written about the benefits of gratitude here and here and here. But like with all good things, gratitude is probably best practiced in moderation. 

Firstly, using the hashtag ‘blessed’ to accompany your Instagram post is not quite the same as acknowledging the things that we are grateful for. To be quite clear about it, to be blessed means to be  “divine or supremely favoured.” When we are taking selfies of our self in a new dress is it really a result of some form of divine intervention from the Lord Himself? I highly doubt it. But by using the term “blessed” we’re implying that there’s a reason that life has been good. And it has nothing to do with talent, looks, effort or work.

And the flip side is that those of us who aren’t so #blessed, those of us who might be struggling, what are we then? We could be seen as somewhat undeserving. Or even cursed. Instead, let’s use the right hashtags in our Instagram posts. The majority of us are probably more likely to be ‘lucky’ or ‘privileged’ than ‘blessed’. The term 'lucky' acknowledges a more just truth about the world. That the world is unfair, but in this instance, you were lucky.

Secondly, when we practice gratitude it can have the potential to give rise to feelings of guilt and self recrimination. Suddenly, we might become fearful of admitting that we aren’t satisfied with what we have. We might feel like there’s something wrong with us if we can’t see the good in something or pretend everything is awesome even when life isn’t anything like we might want it to be.

But we can’t fake gratitude. If we despise our job, then being grateful isn’t the antidote, but finding a new job might be. If you don’t love your husband, should you really feel the need to be grateful just because you have one and a friend doesn’t? Of course not.

Attempting to be grateful, when we are feeling shit or life just sucks can often exacerbate the situation because it creates what we call ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Cognitive dissonance is that awkward feeling we get when we try to hold two contrary beliefs at the same time. Even though there are usually way more than 50 shades of grey to every situation, our brain generally prefers not to believe that. It wants binary information because it’s easier to deal with.

The brain really likes black or white, true or false, big or small, right or wrong, fake or real. So when we try and tell it we’re grateful for something when we really aren’t – the brain thinks it's smarter than this. It knows the reality and it resists anything else fiercely.

It's the same when we're feeling depressed and someone with good intentions explains in incredible detail all the millions of people who have it much, much worse than us. This does very little to improve our own personal situation. If anything, it just assists in adding fuel to the guilt fire. Our gratitude practice has to fit into our own life. What I am grateful for will be different to what you will be grateful for.

So let’s not beat our selves up for not feeling grateful for something we actually dislike, anymore than we would for not pressuring ourselves into feeling grateful for avoiding an attack from a T-Rex and a Great White today whilst doing the grocery shopping. We've got to keep it relevant. 

It might be easy for some people to tell you to be grateful, but they aren’t living our life and only we truly know what that is like and which elements deserve our thanks and appreciation, or our determination to change them.

And thirdly, let’s try not to overdose on the gratitude. Because too much gratitude can have the potential to have some negative impacts in our lives.

When it comes to keeping track of our gratitude, the adage “more is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. If we set too high of a goal for our gratitude practice, we may find our self falling short, which paradoxically could leave us feeling less grateful and happy than if we hadn’t tracked our gratitude at all. In a study of gratitude journaling, people who tracked their gratitude once per week were happier after six weeks, whereas those who wrote and tracked their gratitude three times per week were not. If you find yourself hesitating when putting pen to paper, you may begin to think your life isn’t that good or you don’t have that much to be grateful for. If that is the case, take a step back and focus on quality over quantity.

If we are in unhealthy relationships we – or at least, I - can fall into the trap of continually expressing gratitude - finding all the good things in those relationships - to the detriment of our self-esteem, life potential, and happiness. Such gratitude has the potential to keep us engaged in these relationships, much longer than is healthy. In a number of work negotiations, I've also noticed my tendency towards gratefulness - taking a very passive, trusting, selfless, and soft approach to those negotiations, but underplaying my value, skills, and contributions. In these cases, I was a combination of too grateful for the compensation or job offer, and to have any job at all, and also too humble. I failed to recognise and acknowledge the value of my own work. (And this is probably going to be a lifelong learning this one.)

So my friends, be grateful. It is good for you. But be careful. Be prepared to say - "Wait a second, I don't have to be grateful about this situation. There's nothing wrong with expecting a little more."

Don’t let gratitude hold you back from courage.

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