You know about body shaming, you know about food shaming, you know about all kinds of shaming, but how do you know if you’re gratitude shaming?
Gratitude, as with anything, can be a powerful thing, if wielded with care. But, with great power comes great responsibility, and often the gratitude movement can actually make you feel worse.
“Remember just how good you have it!”
“At least you don’t have (insert deadly disease of choice here)!”
“What do YOU have to be depressed about?”
All too often, gratitude deals in the superlative: if you aren’t the WORST off, if you aren’t the SICKEST PERSON EVER, if you haven’t had the MOST TERRIBLE THING happen to you, then you have no right to complain.
This is a problem. Sometimes we need to complain. Sometimes we need to be sad, or angry, or anxious, or all of these things at once. Emotions help us identify where things are going wrong in our lives, as well as where things are going right. This is how we know we need to make changes. This is how we know to reach out for help.
Too often I have people come to my office afraid I’ll turn them away because they’re “not sick enough”. My philosophy is, if you’re in pain, you are deserving of help. If you are sick at all, then you’re sick enough. I don’t care if you have a friend who is sicker – your pain is an indicator that something is wrong.
This is the danger of gratitude shaming. We shame ourselves and others when we minimize our experiences in the name of gratitude. Yes, you can be grateful that you have shoes, even though they have holes in them, because that other guy has no shoes. But come wintertime, you’re both going to get frost bite if you don’t take care of the shoe problem. You still deserve new shoes, even though the other guy has none.
You can still be sad/mad/so angry you could rip someone’s head off about something that has happened in your life, even if someone has had a worse experience. There’s no competition in pain. The worst thing that’s ever happened to you is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, regardless of anyone else’s experience.
When you’re two, you scream and cry when your favorite toy gets lost, because it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. When you’re 5, the worst thing EVER is when your bestie doesn’t want to be your friend anymore. When you’re 12, and your first boyfriend breaks up with you, it feels like your life is ending. If another 12-year-old loses a parent, it doesn’t make you feel any better about the breakup. You’re both in pain. You’re both allowed to be devastated.
As we get older, we learn not to have temper tantrums. When something goes wrong, we learn to put on a happy face. But, as all of the John Green picture quotes say, “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” You can push the pain down all you want but, unless you let yourself feel it, it’s going to come screaming out of you someday.
When I hear people rattle off a list of complaints, then follow it up with “but it’s all good . . . it could be worse,” I brace myself for the explosion. Positivity is not about pretending that things are fine when they’re not. True positivity comes not from never feeling sad, but from knowing that the sadness will end, and you’ll be okay on the other side. The only way to get there is by actually allowing yourself to feel.
Don’t get me wrong: by all means, sit down at the end of the day and make a list of the things you are grateful for. But remember this caveat: the things you’re grateful for don’t have to outweigh the things that make you sad. You’re allowed to be grateful and sad at the same time. I can be grateful for a sunny day when I have a stomach flu, but it isn’t going to make things magically better. Sometimes things are just not okay.
Gratitude is a great tool for reminding yourself why it’s good to be alive, but it isn’t going to save your life if you’re in danger. Thinking positively isn’t going to make a bad situation go away. Let your pain point you in the direction of your healing, and let gratitude and positivity light up your path. But don’t shame yourself if you can’t find the light: sometimes the path just gets too dark. Keep moving forward. The light’s going to shine all the brighter on the other side of the darkness.