The Misuse of Gratitude

Gratitude can unknowingly be used in a way that is actually more harmful than it is helpful

Podcast Version:

In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November every year.  This is a national holiday where families and friends generally gather together for a meal and share what they are grateful for.

Gratitude is the buzzword of the 21st century. There are thousands of items to help foster a sense of gratitude like gratitude journals, websites and billboards encouraging a daily practice of gratitude rather than just a one-day-a-year holiday.

A life without something to be grateful for just seems like an unhappy life.  By making gratitude a daily practice, you are encouraged to go about your day looking for things to be grateful for that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Just think about it – if you are a female accountant, your standard of living is better than over 90% of the world’s population.  Just the fact that you have clean drinking water can be considered a luxury.

Because of the self-help movement as well as the science to backup the power of gratitude, more and more people are becoming aware of the impact that gratitude can have on them professionally and personally.

However, with all the wonderful ways that gratitude can be used to create a happier life, it can also be misused.  Gratitude can unknowingly be used in a way that is actually more harmful than it is helpful.

This week I’m going to discuss how gratitude is used as an asset, how it is used as a liability and how to stop misusing gratitude.

Gratitude as an asset

Gratitude is one of those feelings that would be nice to experience more often than on the last Thursday in November or when the diagnosis is benign.  Unfortunately, gratitude doesn’t come naturally because it’s human nature for your thoughts to drift towards what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.

Your primitive brain, the part of the brain that you use more than 80% of the time, is constantly on guard for anything that could threaten your survival.  It doesn’t even register how blessed you are to have the life you have because it’s built-in negative bias focuses more on what’s bothering you.

However, just like going to the gym to build your strength has benefits you may not always realize, taking time to appreciate anyone or anything in your life has many benefits for you both emotionally and physiologically. It can turn something simple like an available parking spot close to the entrance to the mall into a moment of celebration and flood your body with feel-good hormones.  

But just because your brain has a negative bias towards what’s wrong doesn’t mean that you can’t build your gratitude muscle.  As author Wayne Dyer once said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” 

Thankfully the more you know about how gratitude is cultivated, the easier it will be to make it a more prominent part of your life.  With less focus on what you don’t have and less scarcity thinking, you can begin to use gratitude as an asset to change how you see your life.

It’s important to know that you don’t have to cultivate gratitude all on your own.  Your brain has a powerful filtering system (ie, RAS – Reticular Activating System) and its job is to filter the millions of bits of information you process in a day and show you more of what you have decided is important.

This filtering system is the reason why, when you decide you want a particular car in a particular color, “all of a sudden” you see that car everywhere you go.  It’s like having an executive assistant sitting outside the door of your consciousness, only letting the important bits of information into the “office” of your mind.

By practicing looking for things to be grateful for, you begin to use that powerful filter to interpret many more things as gratitude-producing even when you are not consciously aware of it.  For example, when you practice sharing three things you are grateful for with a friend every morning, your filtering system will be on the lookout during the day for things to add to your list.

I have been practicing gratitude for many years, beginning when I read Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance. In it she encouraged the reader to start a gratitude journal, focusing on three things you are grateful for from the previous day.

I started out keeping my gratitude journal private but eventually it morphed into texting a daily list to close friends and my husband.  It has helped me to completely change what I focus on during the day because I know that the next morning I’m going to be sharing those things that may have otherwise gone unappreciated.

Sometimes my gratitude list has included something big like the time I hesitated for a second when the light turned green thankfully missing being hit by a driver who ran their red light.  Sometimes it has included something simple like getting to see a beautiful sunrise.

Having cultivated and practiced gratitude for so many years I’ve also been able to help my children cultivate it as well.  At an early age I began to teach them that when something bad would happen to either one of them, I would immediately say “Ok, now tell me three things you are grateful for”, helping them to find the silver-lining in an otherwise dark situation. 

For example, when my daughter got into a fender-bender on the parkway, she was able to focus on the fact that no one was hurt, that she had insurance for the damages and that the car was still driveable.  By teaching my children to focus on gratitude, they’ve learned how to find a way to see circumstances in a more positive light.

So if having the asset of gratitude is such a positive thing, then how could it possibly be misused?  The key to knowing whether you are misusing gratitude or not is knowing why you are focusing on gratitude and what you’re trying to get from it.

Gratitude as a liability

Whether you’ve had a practice of gratitude for awhile or not, you may not even be aware that you can misuse it.  The misuse of gratitude happens when you try to layer gratitude on top of a negative emotion, like trying to plaster over a hole in a wall.

You are actually misusing gratitude when you have a thought like “I should be grateful”, using it as a weapon against yourself or shaming yourself for having a negative thought or a negative emotion in the first place.  When you try to escape what you are thinking and feeling out of self-judgment and turn to gratitude instead, you are actually misusing gratitude.

For example, your son leaves dirty dishes all over his room even after you’ve spoken to him about it a number of times.  On the one hand you feel angry at your son about the dishes but on the other hand you have the belief that good mothers don’t get so angry so instead of allowing the feeling of anger, you plaster over it with gratitude.

Instead of addressing the underlying thought creating the feeling of anger, you tell yourself that you should just be grateful that your son is safe and sound in his messy room.  You grit your teeth and find something to be grateful for in regards to your son, all the while trying to sweep away the thoughts creating the feeling of anger. 

When you misuse gratitude in this way, you will notice that you actually don’t feel better after you’ve tried to cover over the feeling of anger with the feeling of gratitude.  By telling yourself that you “should” feel gratitude, you actually create shame for feeling anger.

The unconscious misuse of gratitude often happens with working mothers who have a tendency to settle for less than they deserve.  You may have noticed that you often judge yourself for feeling negative emotions like overwhelm and frustration and wind up trying to cover up those emotions with gratitude.

For example, you feel frustrated with your boss that he just keeps piling work on your desk without discussing it with you and you’re beginning to feel taken for granted.  On the one hand you feel overwhelmed and frustrated but on the other hand you don’t think you should have those feelings so you tell yourself that you’re grateful you even have a job.

In the moment you plaster gratitude on top of your true feelings you may feel a momentary sense of relief but strangely, it doesn’t last and you don’t really feel better.  This is because you’ve used gratitude as a weapon to temporarily stop your feelings rather than dealing with the thoughts creating those feelings.   

Anytime that you believe you “should” feel more positive or “shouldn’t” be feeling negative and try to jump to gratitude instead, it’s not sustainable because it’s not authentic.  It’s just a temporary band-aid placed over a wound that may need to be looked at further.

When gratitude is used to stop you from acknowledging how you really feel, it’s time to do some thought work.  By allowing yourself to acknowledge how you feel and the thoughts creating those feelings, you can get to the cause of your negative emotion rather than shaming yourself for having those negative emotions.

How to stop misusing gratitude

First, I want to be very clear – you are NOT a bad person because you feel negative emotions.  You are just a human having thoughts about the circumstances in your life and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  

Once I discovered how to manage my mind I also got caught in the trap of wanting to feel positive all the time and judging myself when I wasn’t.  I noticed my tendency to jump to gratitude as a way to escape negative emotion because I had put gratitude on a pedestal; seeing it as something that I should be experiencing more.

When it comes to doing thought work, my clients are often shocked in the beginning when they realize how many negative thoughts they have about themselves and others.  It can be tempting to either beat themselves up believing they must be a terrible person or to try to feel better quickly.

But learning to manage your mind is like cleaning your house – you wouldn’t see all the dust under your couch and think “It’s too dirty; I’ll have to sell the house now”.  Instead you discover the areas that need more cleaning than others and gradually work on doing what you can. 

By learning how to manage your mind, you can discover whether you are using gratitude as an asset or a liability.  In order to get clear, I suggest the following:

  1. First ask yourself if you authentically feel grateful about something.  Is gratitude what’s true for you?  If so, then that’s great. For example, if you truly feel grateful for the people you work with, then gratitude is an asset.  
  2. But if it’s not what’s true for you, then what is the feeling that is true?  What are you trying NOT to feel by using gratitude instead? For example, if you’re trying to feel grateful about the people you work with but in truth you can’t stand your manager, then I encourage you to put the weapon of gratitude down. 
  3. Now it’s time to allow that true feeling by dropping the judgment you have about feeling it.  For example, allow yourself to be annoyed or frustrated with your manager and not try to escape how you truly feel.
  4. The next step is to uncover the thoughts that are creating your true feelings. Take a minute to write down what you honestly think but may be resisting.  For example, your thought may be “He’s so out of touch with work-life balance and I can’t stand how demanding he is”.
  5. Just let those thoughts be there without judgment.  Remember, you are just a human having some thoughts about another person.  Your thoughts and feelings don’t mean anything bad about you and they don’t need to be swept under the rug.
  6. The last step is to add “and it’s OK” to whatever you are truly thinking and feeling.  When you can give yourself permission to feel what’s true for you, you give yourself the opportunity to stop using gratitude as a liability and live a more authentic life.  For example, “I’m frustrated with my manager because I think he’s out of touch and too demanding and that’s OK.”    

When I learned about the misuse of gratitude, I realized that my tendency to jump to gratitude quickly and to encourage my children to do the same was actually making it seem that having negative emotions was wrong.  I realized that authentic gratitude can feel amazing but forced gratitude actually feels false and doesn’t last. 

The important lesson I have learned is that you don’t HAVE to feel grateful for anything.  You get to decide how you want to think and feel about everything in your life.

A well rounded, balanced life means having all “the feels” without making it mean there’s something wrong with you.  Now that’s definitely something to be grateful for.

Summary

  • Gratitude can unknowingly be used in a way that is actually more harmful than it is helpful.
  • The key to knowing whether you are misusing gratitude or not is knowing why you are focusing on gratitude and what you’re trying to get from it.
  • The unconscious misuse of gratitude often happens with working mothers who tend to settle for less than they deserve. 
  • Anytime that you believe you “should” feel more positive or “shouldn’t” be feeling negative and try to jump to gratitude instead, it’s not sustainable because it’s not authentic. 
  • By learning how to manage your mind, you can discover whether you are using gratitude as an asset or as a liability.

If you’d like some help with the misuse of gratitude, please feel free to schedule a free mini session or email me at dawn@cpa-moms-coach.com and we can get to work together.

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