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The Dark Side of Gratitude

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

Gratitude is all the rage these days. Nearly every self-help author, spiritual guru, life coach, home organizer, diet specialist, etc. advocates gratitude as the fastest way to change your life. Why do you think you deserve better if you aren’t grateful for what you have? How can you attract a better life if your negative vibration is so strong? How can you make a change if you always expect things to go wrong? Be grateful every day in every way and see your life change!

Sign that says Good vibes only.

Well, there certainly is some truth to this. I do believe that gratitude is life changing. Taking a moment to see the good things in your life can reframe problems, change your outlook, and raise your energy levels so that you can accomplish something. However, I also see a weakness in the popular conception of gratitude as the fastest way to a new life. From what I’ve read, popular gratitude focuses only on the positive to the point where it nearly denies the existence of negative feelings.

At its extreme, gratitude gurus only want you to feel positive emotions and see positive experiences. If you notice or focus on the negative, they say, you will perpetuate that in your life. So just don’t acknowledge it and it will go away! Be grateful for everything, even your problems! Deny your challenges and they will cease to have control over you!

The major problem with this is gratitude can be used as a tool of suppression and denial. In order to only validate positive feelings, we actually have to cover up a whole lot of negative experiences. How many of us have heard (or said), “you should just be grateful for….” in our work, home, or society? When used like this, gratitude becomes a way to push aside things that aren’t ok. It might look like this:

  • Your friend tells you to “just be grateful for what you have” after listening to you talk about how unhappy you are with your life right now.

  • Your boss tells you to “just be grateful you have a job” to cover up unreasonable expectations that require extra hours, shorter lunches, or unsafe conditions.

  • Your spouse/parent says “just be grateful you have a place to live” while dishing out verbal, emotional, or physical abuse at home.

  • Everyone around you says “Just be grateful to be alive” as you suffer every day with a debilitating medical condition and the depression that comes with it.

  • Society says “just be grateful for how far you’ve come” while denying the systemic racism that keeps you from moving further toward equal opportunity.

This is a problem. Gratitude should never ask you to be stagnant, complacent, defeated, marginalized, denied, suppressed, subjugated, or miserable. It should never ask you to deny any of your negative feelings or anything in your life that isn’t ok.

Not only does this not match up with reality, but the fact is that negative feelings and experiences have a purpose in our lives. Denying those feelings and experiences also denies their role in our lives and covers up things that need to change.

So just to be clear, your negative experiences and feelings are completely valid. You are allowed to have them. You don’t have to “grateful” them or “positive think” them out of existence to change your life.

Sad person watching sunset

I’d like to suggest that we are big enough to be grateful and acknowledge our negative stuff at the same time.

  • You can be grateful for the few things in your job that you like while also working your butt off in the evenings to find a new job where you aren’t taken advantage of.

  • You can be grateful for your home while also taking steps to get out of an abusive relationship.

  • You can be grateful for good things every day while still doing everything you possibly can to find a treatment for your health condition.

  • You can be grateful for all the opportunities available to you while also working toward racial justice.

Negative experiences and emotions are warning signs that something isn’t right. Ignoring those warning signs is not helpful. You need to do something about them, not just try to think positive thoughts until they go away. On the other hand, you can’t just wallow in the negativity either. You can’t change your life if you are griping about your problems all day long. You need to consider what the negative stuff is telling you and then get up and do something about it. Some of our biggest soul growth happens when we actively work through challenging situations and emotions. We don’t grow if we wallow OR if we deny. We need to face the challenges with our best attitude and discover what they have to teach us.

There is a purpose for your negative experiences and feelings. You need to examine them and figure out what they are telling you. Inside each problem and feeling is the possibility of transformation, for yourself and your world. That’s why using gratitude to push this under the carpet is so insidious. It denies us the opportunity to remake our lives and societies. That's why my practice is built around acknowledging the negative stuff in our lives. Only by working through it can we create the necessary change we need.

I learned a lot about this during my last year of teaching (I talk more about this in the post Thoughts on Gratitude). I tried to be grateful all year for everything I possibly could. At the same time, it was still one of the most miserable years of teaching I ever experienced. Gratitude didn’t make it all ok for me but it did keep me from getting lost in my misery. You see, in some sense, I needed to be miserable because it was time for me to move on to the next phase of my life. The Universe was not leaving me any option to stay (which I probably would have done if I hadn’t been so intensely miserable). But because I was practicing gratitude as well, I still laughed, saw friends, traveled, and did NOT fall into a deep depression (although it was tempting). I was able to use those negative feelings to launch myself into a new life and the gratitude to keep me sane as I went through the process.

Perhaps that is what the hyped-up positive thinking gratitude craze is missing. That combo of gratitude and challenges to change your life. You don’t have to be grateful for your problems, but you can be grateful THROUGH your problems as they transform you and your world. Maybe gratitude keeps you on track toward the ultimate positive goal while also leveraging the best that challenges have to offer. Maybe gratitude isn’t the opposite of negativity. Maybe they are two sides of the same coin. Maybe acknowledging your gratitude and your challenges at the same time allow the best parts of both to unfold in new and exciting ways.

So, this week think about gratitude as you go through your day. When you are practicing gratitude, ask yourself if you are using it to cover up any important negative emotions or problems? When negative emotions and problems come to mind, can you be grateful in a way that doesn’t deny them but helps you learn through them? Do your life and experience change if you try to live in the full experience of your challenges while also practicing gratitude?

I truly believe that gratitude is a life-changing practice. But if we are grateful for everything to the point where we deny every challenge, problem, or injustice, we will never change as people or as a society. Only by acknowledging our problems and negative emotions can we see the areas of our life that need transformation. Only then can we use gratitude to keep us moving through this (sometimes very difficult) process to create a better life for ourselves and our world.

If you have any thoughts on this topic or experiences you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you! Contact me through my website.

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