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When Gratitude crosses over to the Dark Side

Have you ever thought of how often you’ve been asked to be thankful, feel grateful or to count your blessings? We have been told that practicing gratitude is good for our Mental Health and overall wellbeing and we’ve seen this in terms of Social Media challenges, hashtags, making gratitude jars or even having gratitude journals. While Gratitude can be a very grounding experience, we need to be conscious that there is a dark side to it which we need to be vigilant of.

The dark side of Gratitude which often goes unnoticed in our quest of constantly counting our blessings is ‘Toxic Gratitude’. While many people and Mental Health professionals advocate that the practice of gratitude is a powerful way to improve our Mental Health, forced thankfulness can be detrimental as it forces people to breeze past their pain in search of a silver lining, whether or not one exists. Forcing ourselves to be grateful in times of times of stress and strife isn’t just ineffective but can also be emotionally damaging. In this piece we will briefly look at toxic gratitude and how we can avoid falling into this trap.

Forcing yourself to feel grateful on days when you feel far from it can lead to frustration and guilt as the gratitude is not genuinely what we feel in that moment. It is also best to allow gratitude to flow naturally. It is best to say “thank you” when you’re actually thankful, and say “this sucks” when something is awful. In doing so, you are acknowledging your feelings, irrespective of whether they are good or bad. This can be beneficial to your Mental Health as you are embracing and accepting your authentic feelings as they are, good or bad, rather than forcing yourself to not acknowledge the bad ones.

Let’s think of Toxic Gratitude as a sweet treat. It is sweet and looks sweet to others as well. But if that’s all you choose to eat, you’re going to be sick. That’s why its important to have and experience everything - broccoli, spinach, apples and strawberries too. While some of these may not be as aesthetically pleasing or come in shiny, colourful wrappers like candy, they are all healthy and part of being human. Know that if you just try to hide all of your tormenting thoughts, experiences and emotions behind shiny wrappers and treats, you will end up damaged indeed. Being grateful does not mean that life is without challenges or bad days, but unfortunately there are times you may feel trapped to seeing the good in everything if you're caught in the web of toxic gratitude. You’re allowed to feel your feelings. Do the best you can to count your blessings during tough times but through that know that you’re allowed to acknowledge the challenges along the road. Know that Gratitude isn’t a fast pass out of your feelings. It’s a part of the human experience, just like pain or pleasure. If it means something to you, make a list of the things you’re thankful for; But at the same time keep that list as more of a flashlight to help you get through hard times, not an escape hatch to get you out of it altogether.

When it comes to gratitude, it helps to be mindful of it and your emotions to make sure you don’t neglect your realities. When trying to reap the benefits of gratitude, devote some mental space for the harder emotions as well. It can be beneficial to make a contrast between the great and not-so-great parts of your life and acknowledge both aspects. Accurately describing and naming your pain can actually help you be a more grateful person, because you’re more thankful for the things that do bring you joy and happiness. By going ahead and naming your negative feelings, you can be more present in the moment, which can sharpen your ability to notice good things in the short and long terms. When you can accept your feelings without trying to banish them, you will gain more control over them.

We need to acknowledge and be aware that it is very much possible to be grateful while also speaking out against what's wrong. Know that you can appreciate a development and thank those who make your life more satisfying while still offering a realistic appraisal of what isn't worth celebrating. There are two sides to a coin and talking about both doesn’t diminish the existence of the other. So let’s rethink the way we look at gratitude and the idea of being thankful. Perhaps instead of "count your blessings," a better motto would be: Striving to make a place for every feeling and have every feeling (including gratitude) in its place.


Written by: Yash Mehrotra

July, 2021


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