You know once Oprah talks about how great something is that A LOT of other people will too: well gratitude practices have been on the mainstream radar since the 90s. More recently serious research is being done into its benefits – there is so much to be gained from being grateful but I don’t think the messages go far enough.
This is what I mean: there are times when appreciating what you have can backfire. And so, as with anything important, it is crucial to be aware of what is really happening. I’ll walk you through some of those instances and suggest some remedies also.
1. Gratitude overload
The advice goes something like this: get a journal and everyday write 3 to 5 things you are grateful for.
The problem: paying attention to the good stuff everyday means that a lot of times we’ll end up writing something that wasn’t a real pleasure, surprise or joy, but actually quite mundane. And so this daily exercise will probably end up being hurried or come to be a chore.
The remedy: go for depth, get detailed about what you’re grateful for rather than writing a short list every day. And don’t overdo it – a study by Sonja Lyubomirsky showed that writing once a week with more depth has more benefits than turning the exercise into a daily grind. I’ve found this myself also – never having maintained a daily habit, once a week works so much better for me. Sometimes once a month!
2. Downplaying your successes through gratitude
You work hard, something good happens and you thank everyone who helped you. So far so good.
The problem: when you don’t acknowledge your own role in your success what’s going on? You might be hiding behind low self-esteem.
The remedy: start patting yourself on the back for your achievements! After all, nothing would happen if you didn’t put any effort in. This is exactly the sort of thing my clients begin to do and find that once they get used to thinking that way it’s really motivating and empowering. Remember, you are awesome!
3. Using gratitude to mask uncomfortable feelings
Focusing on gratitude to avoid confrontation, when actually you’re *!?@%&# angry.
The problem: suppressing your feelings and going for the G-word instead only provides short-lived relief from problems. And they are likely to bubble back up.
The remedy: constructively express and address what you’re feeling. You’re far more likely to resolve the issue and not have it come back to haunt you.
4. Confusing gratitude with obligation
Normally it feels really good when someone helps you out.
The problem: what happens when that help leaves you feeling indebted? You might find yourself rushing to settle that debt by doing something in return.
The remedy: Identify the reason behind those feelings. What are you trying to avoid? Does being indebted leave you feeling heavy with burden? Figure out why that is before negative feelings start to develop.
5. Being grateful and putting up with things or people instead of fighting your corner
Self-help books often say that a gratitude practice will get you through a tough or dissatisfying situation, by learning acceptance.
The problem: the book doesn’t know the details! No way will I ever say to you “accept what you’ve been dished up” if you’re unhappy, especially if the situation is abusive. Pacifism is not always the answer.
The remedy: Account for the entire situation, not just the good parts. Why? Because otherwise you’ll be wall-papering over a crack that is only going to get bigger. Being grateful for what you have should never stop you from fighting for a cause you believe in, whether that cause is civil rights, social justice, or whether that cause is YOU! Nothing will change if you don’t stand up.
Be grateful for sure, and also be brave!