“I had to throw away my gratitude journal so I could actually deal with my anxiety and depression.”
It was a shocking statement to hear. My friend shared these words, and I found myself reflecting on how everything can be a drug, depending on how we use it – even gratitude. We think it will be the balm for our sorrow, the cure to our disease of discontentment, grief and loneliness, but do we ever talk about the dosage or the proper way to use it?
It certainly is the season for it. But too often, we practice naming the things we are grateful for or focusing on how to feel more grateful when it may be more helpful for us to think about gratitude and healthier ways to practice it.
Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude can be so helpful. It can be a way to challenge our perspective and keep us balanced. It is a powerful tool to help us when we are stuck in emotions of sadness or fear. But, just like every other good thing – use too much of it, and it will sour the whole thing.
What did my friend mean when she said she had to throw away her gratitude journal so she could start processing her anxiety and depression? Isn’t gratitude the remedy for such things?
No, it isn’t.
Far too often, we use gratitude as another way of avoiding what we are actually feeling. Gratitude becomes one more layer of numbing cream to escape the sadness weighing us down.
We do everything we can to escape the depths of our painful emotions. We shop, eat, sleep, work, binge Netflix and turn to gratitude when it would be more beneficial to lean into our fears and sit with them and feel them. Jumping straight to gratitude can prevent us from doing the work that leads to healing.
We do this to ourselves, so of course this means we also project it onto each other. Our well-intentioned responses to people who are suffering highlight the ways we use gratitude in unhelpful ways in our personal lives and as we interact with those around us.
“I heard your mother died earlier this year. You should be grateful you had so many years with her.”
“You had a miscarriage last month? You should feel thankful for your two daughters. Some people are never able to have children.”
“I heard you lost your job. You should be grateful you have parents who will let you stay with them while you figure out what’s next.”
“Your divorce is final? Well, you should be grateful for your kids. You wouldn’t have them if you hadn’t been in that relationship.”
Most of us can quickly recall a time we said something similar to a friend or received this kind of response from someone in our family. Again, these responses are well-intentioned in most situations despite the harm they cause.
Among the many reasons we say such harmful things is pain. Our pain and other people’s pain make us uncomfortable, so we try to cheer them up and silver-line situations that don’t have any sparkle in them. We point to the sunny side by telling the person all they have to be grateful for.
Not only does this invalidate their feelings, but it can also add guilt to their already heavy emotional load. They are grieving, and now they feel guilty because they aren’t grateful for anything.
Another reason for saying these unhelpful platitudes is our faith traditions. For those of us invested in a faith tradition, much of what we have received over the years tells us to “Give thanks always.” It’s no wonder so much of our embedded belief around gratitude is that we should practice it every minute.
We have taken scriptures about gratitude and turned them into a level of expectation that isn’t human. We have twisted them into another way to avoid the pain and discomfort that comes with life.
We also say these things because we want to fix the other person’s situation, and we use gratitude as a tool to do this. Our well-intentioned hope is that if the person we care about remembers all the good things they have in their life, they won’t be so sad. However, these attempts to fix leave the struggling person feeling even more isolated and alone.
We have collectively created a space where none of us feel we can be authentic about how we are truly doing. We lie. We pretend. We fake it. We appear so grateful because we know what is expected from us.
But, inside, many of us don’t feel grateful. We don’t want to practice it, and that’s because it isn’t the time.
This week, as you gather with family and friends, instead of encouraging each other with the platitude “You should feel grateful for…,” try asking those around you how they are feeling. Try not to make assumptions based on how people present themselves or what we see on social media.
You may know that some people are hurting because someone they love died, or you heard other public news about a new diagnosis, job loss, etc. The truth is, we are so good at pretending that you may ask someone how they’re feeling this week and be surprised that the one you thought was “fine” is actually in pain. We can’t know unless we ask and provide a safe space for an authentic answer.
Some around your table this week are feeling anything but thankful, and the best way you can support them is by giving them opportunities to be authentic and share how they’re actually doing.
Board-certified pediatric hospital chaplain. Christy lives in Liberty, MO with her husband, Jason, and their three children.