When Gratitude Gets in the Way

While research on the effectiveness of gratitude interventions appears mixed, there’s a shared wisdom that being thankful for what you have is good for you. Most of us have had experiences where something stressful happens (e.g., a minor car accident, an argument with a friend), and we gain perspective by stepping back and appreciating the positive aspects of our lives.

But I’ve also observed instances when gratitude gets in the way. I’ve had friends and therapy patients start to talk about something that bothers them and then they cut themselves off and say, “But I know other people have it worse, so I shouldn’t complain.” I get the impulse–I do it too. I think it serves the purpose of displaying self-awareness or maybe mitigates fears that you’ll be judged as having petty concerns or maybe you think telling yourself that will make the feelings go away. To be sure, there are times when people could use a more zoomed-out perspective and appreciation for their lives. However, I’ve observed this approach hindering progress and worsening well-being too.

The pattern is usually that a person experiences distress, they try talking themselves out of it being a big deal, and then they end up avoiding actions that would actually help them feel better and improve the situation (e.g., leaning on a friend for support, doing something healthy like exercising, gaining clarity about painful emotions, problem-solving, going to therapy). If you’ve tried to address a situation by telling yourself that you should be more grateful and the feelings persist, it’s time to try something else. It doesn’t mean that you’re an ungrateful person for recognizing that you’re bothered by something despite all the people who have worse lives (and by the way, many of the people I’ve heard say this have had objectively terrible things happen to them!). It just means that you’re human and affected by the events surrounding you. Acknowledging your experiences and directly addressing them is a healthy way to deal with them and not an act of self-indulgence.*


*I think it’s really hard to make any general statements when people can be all over the spectrum of gratitude and stress responses and vary from situation to situation, but thought I’d write this out for people who happen to fit into this kind of scenario.



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