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November 21, 2022

Authentic Gratitude: How to Be Thankful When You Don’t Feel Thankful

Post By:
Patricia Alexis
In-House Contributor
The Daily Drip
Guest Contributor:

“Look on the bright side…”

What a well-intentioned phrase. Sometimes, it makes you feel a little better. And sometimes it makes you want to scream. But it’s not supposed to make you feel bad, right? 

You’re supposed to be grateful. You’re so blessed. Things could always be worse. That difficult situation you’re struggling through? It wouldn’t be so bad if you would just look on the bright side.

Every self-help book, social media guru, major religious text, and doctor’s office motivational poster seems to agree: gratitude is the answer. But the answer to what, exactly?

Research suggests gratitude leads to greater health and happiness. And that sounds absolutely fabulous…. in theory. There’s just one tiny problem.

By skipping straight to gratitude, we emotionally abandon ourselves.

There’s a time and place for default-gratitude, but in the wrong context, it can actually be toxic. If we slap on the “it can always be worse” band-aid, we’re missing the one key step that leads to authentic gratitude– and all the peace and joy that comes with it. So what’s this critical missing link?

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We have an inherent tendency to be understanding and empathetic toward everyone and everything, and put ourselves dead-last. We have compassion for everyone around us, but God forbid we extend that same compassion to ourselves. Over time, this doesn’t just lead to burnout-- it breeds resentment, depression, anxiety, and even complex trauma.

The current societal narrative around gratitude can perpetuate this toxic cycle when we gaslight ourselves into believing our problems “really aren’t so bad”. Are you healthy? Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have a family? Friends? A job? Why are you complaining? You shouldn’t feel upset. You have so much to be GRATEFUL for.

And we do this even when our problems are serious and painful. A death in the family, a house fire, a life-changing diagnosis, a heartbreak, a betrayal. We quickly remind ourselves that someone else has it “worse”, calling into question the worthiness of our own pain. 

At least they lived a long life. At least no one was in the house. At least the doctors caught it early. At least you weren’t married yet. At least they showed their true colors. Aren’t you grateful?

The grief, anger, and sadness takes a backseat. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel these emotions and instead, stuff down those difficult feelings because the circumstances aren’t “worthy”. Our “gratitude” can keep us complacent and convenient, productive and palatable, silent and selfless.

What if we cared more about our own lived experience than we did about outside comparisons? What if we gave these difficult feelings their moment?

When you’re trained to “look on the bright side,” it’s uncomfortable to sit with the not-so-bright side. The emotions are messy. Depending on what you’re walking through, you might be facing down years worth of unresolved pain. Maybe you’re equipped for it, maybe you’re not. And it will almost definitely suck.

But the fact is, nothing sucks worse than betraying yourself. It’s ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst. The temporary distraction of pseudo-gratitude doesn’t heal the deeper heart issues. And we all deserve to live healed.

In the spirit of gratitude, let’s start to show up for ourselves in the hard moments. If you wouldn’t tell someone you love to stop feeling bad and get over it, why would you say that to yourself? You’re allowed to cry. You’re allowed to scream into a pillow. You’re allowed to write that angry letter and burn it. You’re allowed to comfort yourself.

You’re allowed to be present with your real emotional experience, not just the one you think you’re supposed to have. When we hold space for all of it-- the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful-- we validate our emotions and honor ourselves. 

To quote John Green: “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” Your difficult feelings are trying to tell you something, so listen to them. Your anger may be telling you that your needs aren’t being met; your regret may be showing you a new way of doing things; your sadness may be revealing your true values. The emotions may not be comfortable, but they’re giving you important feedback that will ultimately allow you to heal and move forward. 

And only then can we truly experience real gratitude– and all the peace and joy that comes with it.

If surface-level gratitude is like a band-aid for shallow scrapes, self-compassion is like stitches for deep wounds. It may be unpleasant at first, but it’s necessary for real healing to take place and the power of gratitude to be fully achieved.

So, is your gratitude toxic? That’s something you need to answer for yourself. If you’re avoiding painful emotions under the guise of being “thankful,” take some time to ask yourself: What would I be feeling if I wasn’t so fixated on gratitude? Start there. With practice, you can learn to trust yourself again.

Once you’ve shown yourself empathy and processed the difficult feelings, gratitude won’t be a quick-fix anymore. It stops being a cliche, and starts being a natural byproduct of your inner peace and clarity. Because life sucks sometimes, and it’s also beautiful. Both things are true; make room for both. In abandoning the myth of toxic gratitude, you’ll discover the freedom of living truly grateful.