The Dark Side of Gratitude

Forcing yourself to feel grateful in times of stress isn’t just ineffective. It’s also emotionally damaging.

Ashley Abramson
Forge
Published in
5 min readJul 15, 2020

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Photo: SolStock/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I had one of those days where everything seemed to be going wrong — at work, with my kids, and with my own head, which wouldn’t stop pounding. So I brewed a coffee and did what I always do when I need a pep talk: I picked up the phone and dialed a friend to vent.

After a few minutes of letting me unload, my friend interjected: “Just be glad you don’t have the virus.” A little gratitude, she told me, might help snap me out of whatever funk I was in.

Um… thanks?

I mean, I was grateful. I am. I’m very grateful, every day, that my family and I have thus far managed to avoid the infection that’s taken so many people. I also wasn’t calling to talk about Covid, or anything related to it.

I know her advice was well-intended. And sure, naming what you’re grateful for can reset your perspective. But over-fixating on the “good” can also shame you away from some very valid emotions.

While therapists say the practice of gratitude is a powerful way to improve mental health and well-being, forced thankfulness has a dark side: Toxic gratitude forces people to breeze past their pain in search of a silver lining, whether or not one exists.

“Gratitude is one of those practices that, when we look at it through a complex lens, it can be really helpful,” says Kelsey McLaughlin, a Minnesota-based marriage and family therapist. “My concern, personally and professionally, is when it’s meant to be a quick fix — an add-on tool that people use to bypass hard things.”

The problem with trying to rush past feelings that make you or others uncomfortable, McLaughlin explains, is that those feelings are bound to resurface later — often with a vengeance. “When we use gratitude in a performative way, we are completely dismissing what our emotions are trying to tell us in the…

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Ashley Abramson
Forge

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.