When Gratitude is a Defense

As a clinical psychologist, most of my clients tend to tell me about the things in their lives that they are not grateful for.  The issues that they struggle with range from romantic spats, to chronic anxiety, to tragic loss or trauma.  In describing the often significant distress they feel, many people quickly follow it up with some version of the refrain: “but I have so much to be grateful for.”  At first blush, this can seem like a very healthy and adaptive perspective, and for some it is.  Being able to ‘see the bigger picture,’ ‘find the silver lining,’ and ‘look on the bright side,’ are valuable skills that a regular gratitude practice can help us to cultivate.  But as with all things, this mindset is best in moderation.  

Some people seem to feel that the existence of positive things in their lives, or the fact that someone else has it worse, somehow negates or invalidates their right to be upset.  This, I believe, is using gratitude as a defense.  Maybe it’s defending against the unpleasant emotions we don’t want to feel, or perhaps against an even more threatening realization that lies just beneath these emotions. Regardless of the unconscious reasoning, in creating this rationalization, people are telling themselves that they are not allowed to be upset, or angry, or sad; that because their suffering is not the worst suffering, they somehow don’t deserve the luxury of “complaining.”  Unfortunately, people who use this defensive gratitude may also have the completely erroneous belief that because they are not allowed to have these feelings, that these feelings will then go away.  And so, ironically, imagine how much more distress gets piled on when they’re not just upset with their life circumstances, but upset with themselves for not being able to be less upset!

It is cliché, but still worthwhile to remember that we don’t have light without dark, and we don’t have happy without sad.  If we accept the general truth that some degree of discomfort, pain, or dissatisfaction is simply a part of life, then to be grateful to be alive is also to be grateful for the full spectrum of human experience, both the parts that feel good and the parts that feel bad.  However, when gratitude is used as a way to minimize other feelings, it only serves to diminish rather than enrich our experience of life.  So for this Thanksgiving season, experiment with a ‘both and’ approach to gratitude.  We can, at the same time, be thankful for a beautiful meal that has brought friends and family together AND be frustrated that the dog peed on the carpet again, and the apple pie got a little burnt, and your nephew is screaming at the top of his lungs because he won’t eat mashed potatoes with lumps.  In making space for all of it, I believe we see our lives more clearly, and we understand more deeply that the warm, fuzzy feelings we all crave only feel so good because we know what it’s like to not have them.

So I encourage you to experiment with feeling grateful for your whole life, not just part of it.  The minute we stop wishing that this moment was different, and we not just tolerate but truly accept things as they are, we become free to embrace the fullness of our lives, and that is something to be grateful for.

Tim Pineau, Ph.D.

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