Have you ever tried to speak to a friend about something that was bothering you, only to get a response of "others have it worse"?
You might have been told to "look on the bright side". Or reminded that "at least you’ve still got XYZ". These responses are well-intended encouragements to be ‘positive’. Yet, it often leaves us with the opposite effect. Hearing something like "others have it worse" invalidates our experiences; it suppresses our feelings. Rather than receiving support, we feel ashamed and guilty.
Whilst positivity can be a helpful tool, if used to the extreme, it can become toxic. Gratitude shaming is a direct product of toxic positivity.
What is gratitude shaming?
This is when we shame ourselves into feeling gratitude instead of what we are actually feeling. This is especially true when our feelings are labelled as ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ - where the pressure to have perfect and happy lives is exceedingly high. And where ‘positive’ emotions are favoured over ‘negative’ ones. The thing is, as humans, we naturally and universally experience five primary emotions:
Looking at this list, how many would you classify as ‘positive’?
When we gratitude shame, we deny ourselves the human experience by refusing to feel all but one emotion. Instead, we judge ourselves and tell ourselves that we should feel differently.
Let’s look at our example again. This time, imagine your friend telling you how sad they are feeling. Imagine you respond with: "What have you got to be sad about? Being sad isn’t very positive of you. Being sad has no value. Especially when you have so much to be grateful for." Not only is that response dismissive, but it belittles their feelings, experience and self-worth. We could never imagine saying that to a friend. So why do we say it to ourselves?
Emotions are signals
Emotions are our signals. They aren’t good or bad, they just are. They are useful tools to let us know what is going on in our world and what we need to do to find balance in it.
Anger helps us recognise that a boundary has been crossed. It signals that we need to rectify a wrong. And that we need to take responsibility for our experiences. Fear protects us - it helps us prepare for difficulty and strengthens our resilience. Sadness allows us to accept a difficult reality. It facilitates our growth, allowing us to refocus, adapt, and turn to our community for empathy. Disgust underpins our judgement. It is key to our physical survival and helps us establish our social and moral identities.
Feeling ‘negative’ emotions is not only cathartic, but it’s valuable. If we are always shutting down these helpful signals (i.e. our emotions), we will struggle to foster inner trust. And if we don't trust ourselves, how can we really know what we are feeling? How can we find balance or emotional safety or even authentic gratitude?
Because gratitude isn’t all bad. It can be a helpful tool in keeping perspective, managing anxiety or staying grounded. It allows us to look at the details of our lives, and find joy in the small and simple. But to be effective, gratitude must consider the details of our experiences. It’s the practice of being thankful for all our circumstances, not just one.
So how do we break free from gratitude shaming?
By finding a way to be comfortable with all our emotions, not only the ‘positive’ ones. In therapy, we talk a lot about the value of recognising and identifying how we’re feeling. Because much like anything, the more familiar you are with something, the less scary it is.
A popular tool to do this is through the acronym RAIN. Recognise, Acknowledge, Investigate and Nourish. The RAIN approach facilitates mindfulness and self-compassion. It also helps us learn to relate a physical feeling to an emotional one. Just like when your tummy rumbles, you might associate that with hunger. By doing this, we can start getting to know ourselves a little more. To start feeling comfortable in both 'what' we are feeling and 'how'. As you practice letting go of gratitude shaming, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Identify how you are feeling in your emotions, energy or physical body. Have you felt like this before? If so, when?
Allow yourself to feel. Admit the truth of your feelings, as they are. Allow yourself to say ‘I am feeling bad’ or ‘I am uncomfortable’. You can do this by saying it out loud, writing it down or even listening to music that matches your emotions. Affirmations can be helpful here too.
Reflect on what is preventing you from validating or acknowledging your feelings. Was it your community or culture? What experiences have made you feel like you couldn’t be ‘you’?
With self-compassion, think of yourself as though you are talking to a best friend or a loved one. How would you treat them if they shared they are feeling bad? How would you support them? Sitting with our emotions is a brave thing to do. So, go gently. Treat yourself with kindness, just as you would treat a friend.
If you have any questions for me or if you resonate with anything I’ve shared, feel free to visit my profile and get in touch to learn more.