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Deep Dive: Gratitude, Potential Pitfalls Week Two

Hello!

In Part One of our deep dive into gratitude, we looked at what gratitude actually means and what it means to build a daily practice around acknowledging your gratefulness. While these might seem like really simple concepts, there are a lot of things that can be needlessly attached to gratitude that can actually set back or hurt your progress or the benefits that you might feel from a gratitude practice.

For me, before I was really able to embrace the things that I was grateful for, I needed to strip myself of some of the shame that I had felt for years, both about things I had been given, about past traumas and about privileges that I experience. While I believe that we all need to explore these emotions and realities as well, combining them with gratitude can have negative effects. It can make you feel undeserving and depressed rather than feeling grateful. 

Once I was able to recognize these patterns, it was much easier for me to create long lists of things I am grateful for on a daily basis. What follows are some of the most common pitfalls to gratitude that we discovered in our research.

-Karla

When you start to think of being grateful, it can be easy to concentrate on the privileges and things that you have that others do not. When we are a child, for example, many of us are told to finish our dinners because “there are children in the world who are going hungry”. While it is very important to leave places in your thoughts for acknowledging your privileges and showing empathy to others (and hopefully inspiring you to act when possible to help) this is not what a gratitude practice is all about.  

When we look at the “worst case scenario” or try to talk ourselves out of negative feelings of pain, frustration, anger or sadness, we can fall into the trap of invalidating what is true for us in that moment. 

In the article Why I Quit My Gratitude Practice to Improve My Mental Health, author and occupational therapist Sarah Bence explains the dangers that can come from comparison. Her daily gratitude practice actually caused her to invalidate the pain that she was constantly feeling and it was those thoughts that kept her from seeking out the medical attention that she needed to find relief. She says, “Obviously, something had gone very wrong in my gratitude practice. By constantly invalidating my experience, I wasn’t giving myself the space to acknowledge what was happening and process my feelings.”

She goes on to explain that she realized that showing gratitude should not mean that you don’t acknowledge and work through the hardships in your life. Feelings of gratitude and feelings of frustration can exist within you at the same time and are not meant to cancel each other out. 

When you’re creating your own gratitude practice, it is important to stay as present in your own body, life and world as much as possible. Once you feel the strength that comes from acknowledging your gifts without shame or comparison, you will then feel empowered to think and look bigger and possibly be of service within your community or beyond.

Showing gratitude should not lead to guilt. Neither can you guilt yourself into gratitude. But, this is an easy place to settle, if you’re not careful. This video from Hank Green nicely explains how guilt is a natural part of acknowledging the things that you have been given.

When it comes to creating your gratitude practice, this is a time to give thanks without any judgement on yourself and what you deserve or don’t deserve. We have all been given things that we did not need to earn. Recognizing this and putting aside other feelings is a part of your practice that might take time and building of a new habit.

If you’re interested in taking Hank’s advice and doing something with the advantages that you have been given, we recommend looking into our Deep Dive: Allyship Series, which is all about recognizing your place in a larger world and supporting marginalized communities and dives into concepts surrounding activism and allyship.

While gratitude practices concentrate on things that were given that you likely didn’t earn or might not deserve, there are also many accomplishments that you did work towards. When you’re thinking of things you are grateful for, it is important to remember that while you might not be owed specific advantages or might be given things without working for them, that doesn’t mean that you are not worthy of those things. 

An article for Berkeley’s Greater Good site explains, “If you are someone who focuses on thanking everyone else, downplaying your own hard work and talent to a fault, you may be hiding low self-esteem behind your gratitude. Don’t let gratitude get in the way of appropriately taking credit for your own part in success.” 

Like with guilt and gratitude, it is possible to feel both humbled for those things that came into your life and proud for those things that you earned and worked towards. You can actually draw strength and purpose from both sides of this coin, as they together have provided you with the life and opportunities that you currently have in front of you.

Sometimes it isn’t our own voices, but the voices of others that change the focus of our thanks and gratitude. If you have grown up in a home where your struggles were met with statements like “we had it much worse when we were your age”, you might still have that voice in your head and believe it is what it means to be grateful. This can again lead you to feeling unworthy or guilty instead of feeling true gratitude.

We can also have people try to force gratitude on us in situations where we did actually do the work to achieve something. For instance, someone might tell you your promotion was because of a friendship with your manager instead of because you have consistently sent in quality work and gone above and beyond. This can lead you to want to defend your position (understandably) and this can spill over into your gratitude practice.

When you’re creating your practice, this is another reason to try to focus on that moment and singular exercise as much as possible. Outside voices and perspectives can warp the work that you’re trying to do. Taking this time to live only inside your own head can also help you combat those conversations or comments when they do happen.

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The first step to creating a gratitude practice is in learning to practice mindfulness.  Begin with these questions >

Engaging in gratitude can help you better connect to those around you.  Celebrate the power  that words can have.  Gratitude Pillow Cover >

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