The Dark Side of Gratitude

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

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 moment,” she says. “It’s this way of suppressing what you’re actually feeling, which we know can increase stress and lead to lots of different mental health issues down the road.”

Or, she adds, to put it another, more repulsive, way: “You can’t just put a layer of frosting on a shit cake — it still won’t taste very good.” Here’s how to practice gratitude in a way that doesn’t sugar-coat your emotions.

Acknowledge the suck

The best way to reap the benefits of gratitude? Devote some mental space to the crappy stuff, too. Acknowledging the contrast between the great and not-so-great parts of your life doesn’t negate the positive stuff; in fact, it heightens it.

“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,” says McLaughlin. “Naming negative feelings also helps you to be more present in the moment, which can sharpen your ability to notice good things.”

To start, write them down or type them up, or call a trusted friend and describe exactly how you feel in the moment. How does your pain feel in your body? What messages are stuck in your mind? Notice those things without judging them. When you can accept your feelings without trying to banish them, McLaughlin notes, you gain more control over them.

Keep gratitude in its lane

Gratitude isn’t a fast pass out of your feelings. It’s just one part of the human experience, just like pain.

“Gratitude is not an exclusive emotion or experience,” says Thema Bryant-Davis, a psychologist in California and a professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. “Healthy humans have a range of feelings that tell us important information about our experiences, our relationships, and ourselves.”

So by all means, list out the things you’re thankful for. But think of the list as a flashlight to help you get through your hard time, not an escape hatch to get you out of it altogether — ”not to forget about gratitude,” Bryant-Davis says, “but not to use it as a tool for denial or avoidance.”

Just… authentically respond to life

Forcing yourself to be grateful when you don’t feel it will only lead to frustration and guilt. Allow gratitude to surface on its own: Say “thank you” when you’re actually thankful, and say “this sucks” when something sucks. In doing so, you’re sending yourself a message that your feelings, good or bad, are valid — which is far more beneficial for mental health.

“When things actually bubble up that you’re experiencing as joyful, those are the right moments to practice gratitude,” says McLaughlin. “Ultimately, saying ‘thank you’ when you’re thankful leads to more joy and a more congruent life, because you’re grounded in reality.”

Look for emotional generosity

Often, we force gratitude on ourselves because we don’t want to experience our own emotions. But others can steer us in that direction, too.

Bryant-Davis explains that when a person dismisses your feelings, it’s often to protect themselves: “A lot of times, people put up defenses where they don’t want to create any space for unpleasant emotions because they feel like they’ll be overwhelmed by them,” she says. “So they end up putting their own avoidance on other people, which is silencing and unsupportive.” When that happens, Bryant-Davis says, you won’t just miss out on an opportunity to process a feeling. You’ll also gain additional shame and stress from that person’s judgment.

Instead of suffering in silence, seek out people who have the emotional capacity to listen to your pain and difficulties without forcing gratitude. Think about the friends and family members who allow you to show up without judgment — the people who hear you and respond with compassion, instead of offering unsolicited advice or “gratitude platitudes.”

These types of friends might be few and far between, but choosing to air your grievances in safe, empathetic relationships is much more effective than manufacturing gratitude in the name of self-care.

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

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