If you can’t access gratitude right now, that’s ok. Feel what you feel.
There is a lot of pressure to feel grateful for health and well-being during this COVID-19 crisis. After all, so many others are in terrible pain. And while gratitude can increase a person’s level of satisfaction, help them see beyond the crisis, and train the mind to look for positives, the pressure to feel grateful can turn gratitude from a source of relief into a source self-torment. As I often tell my clients, gratitude is great, but not when it is guilt-induced.
What does guilt-induced gratitude sound like?
I should feel grateful…
- Because others have it so much worse.
- Because I have a roof over my head.
- Because at least I don’t have cancer.
- Because I have so much support.
- Because I made it this far.
What happens when you try to force gratitude during a crisis?
A person who tries to guilt themselves into a grateful state by comparing their pain to others may unintentionally delegitimize their feelings and worsen rather than improve their mental health. They may feel responsible for feeling grateful rather than anxious, stuck, hurt, or overwhelmed. The attempt to feel grateful becomes a way to dismiss or reject uncomfortable feelings without honoring or addressing them. Gratitude becomes the weapon of choice against the self.
Signs That You are Misusing Gratitude
- Your tone is accusatory; gratitude becomes a rebuke. You yell at yourself to feel grateful. You feel like you failed when you struggle to find that gratitude. You probably use the word “should” to tell yourself how to feel.
- You decide you don’t deserve to feel pain. You compare your situation to others and conclude that your situation does not warrant painful feelings. Introducing gratitude becomes an exercise in ranking pain.
- You try to replace your painful feelings with forced gratitude. Gratitude becomes a way to tell yourself that you’re not entitled to your feelings.
Here are some rules of thumb for using gratitude when the world and your life feels overwhelming:
- Allow yourself to feel your feelings: The first rule of gratitude is to allow yourself to be in pain, even if things could be worse, even if others have it worse, even if you’ve felt worse in the past. Allow yourself to feel and move through those feelings instead of immediately throwing gratitude at it to make it go away. You cannot successfully shame yourself out of your feelings by telling yourself to feel grateful instead. Instead, gratitude can supplement those things and perhaps gently replace them over time, though not through force.
- Validate your feelings: Before you invite in gratitude, validate your own feelings. Tell yourself that your feelings are OK. Notice them, notice where you feel them in your body, and welcome them. There can be no true gratitude without validation. If you try to force gratitude on yourself before this point, you may end up feeling bullied into feeling something different. It will backfire.
- Make room for both difficult feelings and gratitude: Gently allow yourself to see if you feel the capacity for gratitude alongside your other difficult feelings. Perhaps that sounds like “I feel so overwhelmed. I also feel really grateful that I have support to help me through it.” Or perhaps it sounds like, “This is so hard. I’m glad I have the safety net to get me through this tough stretch while I figure things out.” Be curious about gratitude — try it out.
- Try again later: Maybe in a moment of overwhelming hurt, you cannot access gratitude. That’s ok. When the crisis subsides and things feel calmer, try again to access it in a more healthy way.
By: Sarah Epstein MFT Between the Generations