I’ve been taught to be grateful my whole life. I was brought up to write thank you cards, remember my manners, and, indeed, I am very grateful to have this foundation. I’m always over-thanking people, and I have exceptional gratitude for everything I’ve ever had in life. I am hyper aware of not taking anything for granted.
So, in many ways, I’m all for the current hype about “gratitude.” Life is about the little things, so surely it’s a positive that people are being encouraged to focus on them.
Oftentimes, it’s very easy to get caught up in the rat race and forget about what really matters. Moreover, it’s common practice these days to get hung up on what we don’t have or cannot do rather than acknowledge all that we do have and can do. We’re told, shown, and taught that other people have it so much worse, thus we should be grateful. And don’t get me wrong, I am.
For a while, I kept a gratitude diary. Every day, I’d write down four things for which I was grateful. My daily lists were very similar: my family, my education, my healthcare, my dogs, my friends, my home… They were focused on “The Big Things”. I’d look at my lists and, yes, I’d feel very grateful. However, the wave of guilt would come right after. I would see all these positives – all these things that meant my life was wonderful – and I’d convince myself that I took things for granted. I’d tell myself that I didn’t deserve any of these things. That I was, on a fundamental level, a bad person. And since I had all these things, I had no “right” to be having a bad day.
I took this to my therapist, and her response took me aback.
Simply, she told me that I needed to be less grateful. That gratitude was never going to be my solution. I stared at her, thanked her for her comment, and asked her what on Earth she meant. She asked me why I felt I needed to be excessively grateful for everything. She asked me what that really meant for my sense of self. And, I began to realise that the most damaging aspect to being so obsessively grateful is that I am, essentially, also apologising for simply being me.
Let me explain…
In saying how grateful we are for our families, education, healthcare, home, or life, we deem these as exceptional or extraordinary. And while I am not naive and know that these things are not always “a given,” I often get caught up in believing that I have not “earned” these things. I tend to think I’m unworthy or undeserving of these things, which, in turn, convinces me that I am somehow a lesser human being. Too much gratitude presents basic needs and requirements as exceptional.
Furthermore, adopting the “you have to be grateful for everything and anything” stance is harmful. Telling someone that they should be grateful not only belittles their experience and hard work, but it’s also often used as a blanket approach. For example, “you went on nice family holidays, therefore you should be grateful for your loving family.” Physical presence cannot get confused with emotional presence. This dismisses and ignores the actual reality. Just like in life, there are different layers to it. Thus, it is wrong and assumptive to apply a snapshot (nice holiday) to a wider concept (loving family).
Similarly, gratitude is often confused with “luck.”
For example, someone may be deemed “lucky” to have their job. However, this overlooks the hard-work and sacrifice that they previously had to put in. Thus, they may be grateful for their job, but they are also likely to know that the situation is not really a case of “luck.”
Finally, the focus on gratitude can lead to a fear of appearing ungrateful. As we all know, being ungrateful means taking things for granted. And taking things for granted increases the risk of losing them. And so begins a spiral of worry and thinking that we are unworthy. Which we’re not.
So, for all my fellow overly-grateful beings, my advice to you is to avoid focusing on the big things. Be grateful for the little things. Be mindfully grateful for your family, career and life. But also focus on the specific moments that make you smile. Avoid tying them to your sense of self. You are enough. You do deserve to be safe, happy, and loved.