How many times this week have you told yourself you should be grateful?
We have heard about body shaming, food shaming, and several other kinds of shaming, but have we heard of Gratitude Shaming? Gratitude, as with anything, can be a powerful thing, if wielded with care. But, as they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and often the Gratitude movement can actually make us feel worse and eventually lead to what is known as, Gratitude Shaming.
Gratitude is everywhere in the self-help world right now but what we don’t often realise is that it is not as magical as advertised. On the contrary it can be put to savagely destructive effect, and as a social tool to shame the vulnerable and the different it can turn into barefaced psychological violence. The dark side of gratitude is Gratitude Shaming. It is when we shame ourselves, or others, to feel grateful rather than what we're actually feeling - which might be much more complex or nuanced. It is almost the suggestion that if we aren’t the worst off, if we aren’t the sickest person, if we haven’t had the most terrible thing happen to us, then we have no right to complain and instead should be thankful, grateful and count our blessings. This is a problem because sometimes we need to complain, we need to be sad/angry/anxious or all of these things at once and that too unabashedly without being shamed for it.
Think back on the following statements - how often have you heard them?
“I know I should be more grateful, but I’m not”
"Other people have it worse than I do, so I shouldn't complain."
"You have X so I don't know why you are struggling"
"You should be grateful for what you have."
"What's wrong with me?"
“So many people would do anything to have what you have.”
"At least you aren't struggling with Y"
“Remember just how good you have it!”
“What do you have to be depressed about?”
“You need to focus on the beauty in your life. Don’t waste this precious life in tears.”
If we ponder, we many not even be able to count how many times we’ve heard people deny their own suffering because growing up they were called “ungrateful” when their parents couldn’t tolerate, validate, & support them when they expressed feelings. The idea that gratitude means we can’t hurt or suffer or want more is toxic. Gratitude shaming is when we beat ourselves up and tell ourselves that we don’t deserve anything better because we don’t fully appreciate what we already have and this also often keeps smart people stuck in stupid situations because we’re taught not to trust your feelings. From very early on in life we are taught to “Deal with It” and “appreciate what we have.” Our desire for wanting something more or different is often inconvenient for people around us so instead they teach us to Gratitude shame ourselves out wanting more. This is the danger of gratitude shaming. We shame ourselves and others when we minimize our experiences and feelings in the name of gratitude. We need to honour or needs and requirements irrespective of how better or worse the others have it because we matter. Take this instance - we can be grateful that we have shoes, even though they have holes in them, because that other guy has no shoes. But come wintertime, we’re both going to get frost bite if we don’t take care of the shoe problem. we still deserve new shoes, even though the other guy has none. This comparison shouldn’t exist to make us feel guilty and ashamed of our needs.
Gratitude shaming presents several problems both ibn the short and long term. It can trivialize someone's experience of struggle and reinforce their silence and isolation while also enforcing feelings of guilt, causing us to mistake not being appreciative with wrongdoing. It can make us feel ashamed of wanting something for ourselves or being ambitious because we are supposed to be content with what we have (which is more in comparison to those who have it worse). Additionally, Gratitude Shaming presumes that suffering is a competition and all pain is comparable, which is extremely untrue. Pain is pain regardless of anyone else’s opinion or position in comparison. The worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, regardless of anyone else’s experience. An expectation of feeling gratitude may feed into sense of obligation to do, be, or act in certain ways that are not authentic to how we really feel or what we really need right now and can create a lot of cognitive dissonance as well as our real thoughts and actions are not in sync with each other.
Gratitude Shaming is also a stealthy thinking trap as it minimizes our desire for more challenge, appreciation, impact & tries to tell us that we don’t actually crave what you crave. Feelings be damned, our brain begs us to be happy where we are and with what we have, at the cost of our actual happiness, opportunities to advance, or clear dissatisfaction in our existing situation. It just wants us to be safe. The bigger problem with this however rests in the fact that when we weaponize false gratitude against our true feelings, it sends our brain the message that our ambitions, wants, hunger for growth, and desire to contribute on a bigger scale aren’t valid and that our feelings are misleading us and thus shouldn’t be trusted.
We need to be careful so as to not use gratitude as a substitute for desire. Let’s not tell ourselves that gratitude should be enough, that if we’d “just be grateful”, everything would be okay. The problem lies when the ‘count your blessings” and “be grateful for what you have” arguments get used to shut down desire. They both can coexist and that’s normal. For instance, we can be grateful for the breakfast we just ate, but we will get hungry again and need to eat. And it doesn’t mean we weren’t grateful for your breakfast. A person can’t live on gratitude alone. It’s a wonderful traveling companion, an essential one even. But gratitude isn’t going to get us far by itself. It can’t drive the train. We can’t make it our North star. Desire is always the thing aiming our lives. We are made to want more, to desire more. It’s the design of our hearts to ask, seek, knock. To hunger and thirst. Always. And that’s ok.
To experience true gratitude, let’s take it down off its pedestal. It’s not a moral requirement, a spiritual obligation or a work-around for managing your actual thoughts. We can’t try to spackle it on top of negative emotion to get rid of it. It is important to remember that while Gratitude is an important practice for our mental health and happiness, we need to be careful so as to not use it against yourself or others. It’s fine to sit down at the end of the day and make a list of the things we are grateful for but it also helps to remember this caveat: the things we’re grateful for don’t have to outweigh the things that make us sad or the things that we desire for. We’re allowed to be grateful and sad and even be grateful and have desires at the same time.
To keep out of the dangers posed by Gratitude Shaming, let’s not "should" ourself out of our feelings in the name of gratitude and comparison to whether others have it worse/ better. All of our feelings are valid and it is beneficial to let them guide us towards our needs. It's okay not to feel thankful right now or at any stage, especially during tough times. It is our emotions which help us identify where things are going wrong in our lives, as well as where things are going right. This is how we know we need to make changes. This is how we know to reach out for help. We can absolutely crave something fundamentally different, even if our current situation is pretty good on paper. We can be grateful for what we have and still leave. We deserve to be happy, have dreams, desires and needs and its time we allow ourselves to do that - without feeling guilt or shame for it.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra