“We cannot selectively numb emotions,
when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Gratitude is a beautiful emotion. Feeling and expressing gratitude has a positive impact on us emotionally and cognitively. It feels good when people express gratitude for who we are or what we did for them. It feels equally good to express gratitude to people who have made our lives better. Scores of research studies tout the benefits of feeling and expressing gratitude, and hundreds of gratitude journals are available to facilitate gratitude mindsets. Gratitude is indeed a beautiful emotion. But are there times when gratitude can become toxic?
I was first introduced to this idea of toxic gratitude by a friend of mine, a US Army veteran who has served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. A couple of years ago, he and I were talking about basketball over drinks when he suddenly blurted out, “I f*****g hate when people tell me to be grateful. I tell them about something that is hard for me, and they tell me to be grateful for some shit that has nothing to do with anything. This gratitude shit has gone too far.” He had previously shared with me some of his struggles with PTSD, but he went into more detail this time and told me about the constant deep pain he experienced when he thought about the brothers and sisters who had died in the wars and the brothers and sisters who had died by suicide after coming home. I was crying after a few minutes, and he apologized for “being a downer.” I told him that he never had to apologize for talking about anything he needed to talk about and that I wanted to be there to listen to anything and everything he wanted or needed to share. He didn’t go back to talking about the pain but circled back to how frustrated he was about how people spoke about gratitude when he talked about pain. “People think that telling you to be grateful for what you have is always good. But being grateful that I’m alive does not make me feel better about someone else being dead. I wish people would just let you be f****d up sometimes without trying to fix it by telling you to be grateful for shit that’s not f****d up.”
He and I talked about many things that evening, and he kept returning to his frustrations about gratitude. As someone who has subscribed to the benefits of feeling and expressing gratitude, his frustrations made me curious enough to ask a few psychologists if they had heard other people express similar frustrations. I was surprised to hear that these frustrations were common enough to warrant a name — toxic gratitude. As one psychologist explained, “Gratitude is one emotion, and it’s a positive emotion, but it can’t be used to replace or neutralize another emotion. So, if someone is sad, you can’t say, ‘Don’t be sad, be grateful.’ When we minimize other emotions by asking people to be grateful, that’s toxic gratitude.” Another psychologist told me that toxic gratitude makes people feel that it’s not okay to not be okay. “When something is not okay, you need the room to not be okay. When you tell someone something is hurting or bothering you, and they tell you to be grateful for something else, it dismisses your painful emotions. And, when we dismiss painful emotions, we can’t process them and get through them to the other side.”
These conversations with psychologists helped me understand when my appreciation for gratitude started veering toward toxicity. There are times when I’m going through a painful or frustrating experience, and I find myself saying, “Okay, that sucks, but I’m grateful for this other thing.” A subtle shift in my language from that to “Okay, that sucks, and next to that suckiness is my gratitude for this other thing” allows me to be grateful without dismissing the sucky feeling. Gratitude is an emotion just as anger, hurt, and frustration are. No feeling can replace another, but bringing gratitude into the mix benefits overall wellbeing.
I went back to my friend and shared what I had learned with him. He loved the term “toxic gratitude” because it helped him better articulate the difference between helpful gratitude and unhelpful gratitude. “I’ve always felt guilty knocking gratitude. I get that gratitude is good. But it’s not always helpful, and it can even be harmful when people bring up gratitude when you really just need them to listen.” He told me that me crying silently while he was talking made him feel heard, and he had actually felt better when I had said that I had no context to understand his experiences. “You can’t understand,” he told me, “and telling me you can’t understand but are here for me anyway makes me trust you more than if you had told me to be grateful that I was still alive or that I still had all my limbs.”
This lesson on toxic gratitude has helped me tremendously as I’ve listened to people’s stories about how they are experiencing their own as well as other people’s pain. As much as I want people to not be hurting, it’s more important for me to honor what they are feeling, even if what they are feeling is raw pain or burning rage. Sometimes my compassion for others activates me to want to fix things for them or do something to make them smile. The lesson on toxic gratitude reminds me that I don’t have the right to dismiss what anyone is feeling because I want them to feel better.
As we process the direct and/or vicarious trauma resulting from everything happening in the world right now and move into the Thanksgiving holiday, it is helpful to remember that gratitude, as positive as it is, cannot replace other emotions. It can only coexist alongside other emotions. If someone tells you they are not doing okay, ask them how you can be there for them. Let them know it’s okay to not be okay. If you are not doing okay, reach out to someone for support. After the pain is expressed, you can focus on the gratitude you feel that someone was there to listen and support you.
Gratitude is a beautiful emotion. But it is only one emotion. The best way for gratitude to have a positive impact on wellbeing is to let it play well with other emotions by knowing when to ask it to play a starring role and when to relegate it to a supporting role. This Thanksgiving, as we focus on gratitude, make some space for all the other emotions as well. Instead of asking someone what they are grateful for, maybe just start by asking them how they are doing.