Is Gratitude Bad For Your Health?

a woman writing on her journal while lying in bed
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

I am a big believer in the power of gratitude. 

In fact, if you are a regular reader of my blogs, you would know that I have been extolling the benefits of gratitude for years.

Gratitude has been and still is a transformative influence in my life, however, as with anything in life, there is a flip side to any practice. A Ying to the Yang – a delicate natural balance that needs to be upheld.  A shift too much to one side of the scale can be disastrous.

You might ask the question, “Can gratitude be harmful to my mental health?”

“Is there really a destructive side to expressin appreciation for life?”

I do believe that the answer can be “yes”.

Toxic Gratitude

There is a way that a regular gratitude practice can be toxic to our mental health.

Now you might be shaking your head at me as you read this but hear me out here.  There is a danger in switching straight to gratitude in every situation.

Emotions such as sadness, anger and disappointment are part of life. Our emotions are subjective to us and what we value.

A toddler may be overwhelmed with emotion over their distress at not getting the blue cup that they had their heart set on.

Teenagers might be heartbroken about the concert that was cancelled due to COVID restrictions.

An adult could become anxious because they are forced to work from home because of an increase in alert levels.

One thing that COVID has taught me is that none of us is bulletproof to disappointment and disruption to our lives.  We all had things that we were looking forward to which got cancelled like holidays, social events and concerts.  Many people have lost their jobs and some even their homes, businesses, loves ones and even their lives.

Through it all, we can almost always find someone else who has things tougher than us. And we can find a million reasons why we should be grateful.

As New Zealanders, we see people in other countries are struggling with COVID-19 or unrest. We might feel pressured to be grateful or to think “What right have I, to be sad or frightened about compared to (insert worse COVID-19 story) we live in the safety of New Zealand?”

woman doing hand heart sign
Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com

Cognitive Bypassing

There is something recently learned about that I would like to share with you. And it is the term is Cognitive Bypass.

When we think of something we are grateful for our brain rewards us with a little hit of dopamine. Over time as we strengthen this practice our brains bypass our unpleasant emotions and switch straight to gratitude in order to get the hit of dopamine that feels so good to us.

Now I am not poo-pooing being grateful or practising gratitude. What I am cautious about is when we use positive psychology to inhibit us from feeling our emotions.

Grief is constantly pushed aside in our society. So much of our psychopathology is due to unresolved grief over the losses we’ve sustained… “Spiritual Bypassing” was a term coined in the 1980s by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist John Welwood. He explains it as a “Tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” Cognitive Bypassing is the practice of avoiding feelings by detouring into cognitive ideas or beliefs. Cognitive bypassing operates under the assumption that every trauma and emotion can be fixed cognitively or restructuring the way you think. 

Dr Russell Kennedy

The truth of the matter is that we can both be grieving a loss and feel profoundly grateful at the same time.  They are not mutually exclusive to each other.

Allowing Yourself Time to Grieve

2020 was a year of deep loss for many.

2021 is the year where we grieve.

Grief is multi-faceted and is non-prescriptive in what it looks like and how long it should take. Grief is sneaky. You may think that you are done and then something unexpected happens to trigger you and you find yourself right back in the thick of it. When we force ourselves to move out of grief too soon or bypass our grief this can prolong the healing process.

We can only truly heal from our traumas when we allow ourselves to fully feel our emotions and allow ourselves to grieve.

When we suppress what we perceive as negative emotions and only allow ourselves to experience the ‘positive’ ones we leave no space to acknowledge or honour our feelings. This minimises our experiences. It minimises us. Just like brushing off a toddler’s heartbreak over not having the blue cup communicates not that the blue cup is not important, but that they aren’t important.

The Shame of Pain

Upon reflection into my own emotions during the last couple of years, I have found that my automatic shift towards appreciation is often in response to the emotion of shame.

This shame response comes from a place of “this (loss) is so insignificant compared to someone else, I don’t deserve to feel sad, or angry or frustrated about this.” or “I should feel ashamed for feeling upset about this – I should be grateful for all that I have.”

According to Brēne Brown and her research, we offload our shame in unhealthy ways.

  • Packing down our shame and bottling it up until we erupt.
  • Bouncing shame and attacking others.
  • Shutting down and use substances, sex and social media to numb ourselves.
  • Or becoming an “everything is awesome” happiness ticking time bomb.

Which is unhealthy for us in so many ways.

When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or the fear of shame we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours and to attack or shame others.

Brene Brown

What to do Instead?

Am I suggesting that we ditch gratitude and simply wallow in self-pity?

No.

What I am suggesting is that we hold space for ourselves as we would for a dear friend to allow ourselves the time and space to fully feel our emotions.

Another part of the puzzle is to become literate in the vocabulary of our emotions. Often being able to acknowledge, name and allow ourselves to sit with our emotions as they move through us is a powerfully healing experience.

I would like us to normalise all of our emotions and our emotional experiences.

To be able to experience an emotion and say to ourselves;

“What I am feeling is… And it sucks, I am allowed to feel this way.”

or

“Something that I cared about is lost and I am sad, mad, angry, fearful, upset. It meant a lot to me and so feeling this way is the natural consequence of losing this.”

“I am a human being having a human emotion. I am allowed to feel all of my emotions.”

“It is okay if I give myself some time to process this emotion.”

And…

“I am grateful that I live in New Zealand, I still have my job and my family is safe and healthy.”

If you would like to find out more about how you can support other’s emotions while preserving your emotional health check out my online webinar on Emotionally Literate Leadership HERE.

You may also like

What is Holistic Leadership?

Holistic Leadership

Some of you may have noticed when you visited my website that the title under my name says “Holistic Leadership Coach”.

You may be wondering, “What does a Holistic Leadership Coach do?”

You may even be wondering, “What is Holistic Leadership?”

To help you to understand these concepts, I thought I would write this blog to create some clarity and transparency about how I define Holistic Leadership.

Holistic as a Definition

Many of us are familiar with the term “Holistic” when it comes to natural medicines or even spirituality.

When you Google the word “Holistic” you may find pictures of crystals, massage, acupuncture, yoga, meditation, or burning sage. But what does it mean in terms of leadership?

When I look at Holistic in terms of Early Childhood Education and Leadership, I like to refer to the definition found in Te Whāriki when it refers to Holistic Development:

Holistic development – children learn and grow in a holistic way. Their intellectual, social, cultural, physical, emotional and spiritual learning is interwoven across all their experiences.

Ministry of Education

Some of you may be familiar with my work and may have read my book Weaving Your Leadership Whāriki.

In my book, I speak about my belief that the needs that our children have in order to develop into confident, competent, whole-hearted, life-long learners are what the grown-ups need too. I also believe that the well-being, sense of belonging, ability to contribute, communicate and explore in our learning environments for everyone is intimately interconnected in one integrally, interwoven, beautiful, complex whāriki.

In other words, what affects one strand of our centre whāriki affects all the strands.

Simply put.

If we want great outcomes for children, then we need to look after teachers. And if we want great outcomes for teachers then we need to look after leaders.

Tanya Valentin

Holistic Leadership and Me

I have been in the education profession for many years. During this time there have been many popular philosophies for teaching and leading. One of the leadership philosophies that were popular when I was a new leader. was “leave your personal stuff at the door”.

And this is how I learned to view leadership:

You see, I was taught to believe that leadership was a role that I did at work. It was something outside of me. Leadership was something that was above me – just out of reach. Something that I had to work hard to achieve.

During my early years as a leader, I was taught that leadership was a top-down, hierarchical construct.

It took years to undo this learning. However, since then, my new learning on leadership has been:

  • Leadership is in me.
  • The person and the leader cannot be separated. You lead with your whole self. Which means that you lead from your strengths but also your challenges.
  • You are already a leader. You may not have a leadership title. However, by taking accountability for yourself, your thoughts, your beliefs, your decisions and your actions you are a leader.
  • We are all worthy and leaderful in our own right. Just as I am a “whole” person, flawsome and already worthy of love and acceptance, so are all the other people (child and adult) in our learning community a “whole” person, flawsome and already worthy of love and acceptance. I love the Te Ao Maori concept of AKO which speaks to the reciprocal sharing of the responsibility of teaching and learning, leading and following.
  • If we want leaders who lead with confidence, love and integrity, then we need to take care of the person at the heart of the leader.
  • Rather than the top-down model of leadership I was taught, I believe that leaders are the root system that forms the foundation from which the whole tree can thrive. If the roots are malnourished, then the whole tree withers.

Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini – My strength is not as an individual, but as a collective.

What does a Holistic Leadership Coach Do?

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, we lead with our whole selves, and we lead others as whole humans. This can come with its challenges.

As illustrated in my diagram above on Holistic Leadership we are made up of many beautiful dimensions that influence who we are personally and professionally. If we neglect one dimension it will affect who we are and how we lead. The same goes for the people whom we lead.

Traditionally we have been taught to develop “leadership skills”. However, if we just focus on the leadership aspect of ourselves without addressing what is going on for the person then we can never hope to create strong, robust leadership for our profession we and all pay the price for this.

This certainly has been true for me. In an earlier blog, I reflected on my early experience with leadership:

In another lifetime, I would have done anything to not feel the discomfort and the pain of confronting myself – my truths.  My younger version was happy to keep myself safe, to do as I was told, to go with the flow, to not ruffle any feathers and to play it small.  I would do anything to avoid conflict.  If you met me on the floor of my centre, you would think, “wow she is always so calm” “she always looks so happy”.

Inside I was at war.  I was at war with myself.  I knew that there were truths that I was swallowing, conflicts that I was avoiding and incompetence, unkindness and prejudice in others that I was tolerating.  I was doing so to keep the peace.  I told myself that this was for the best for everyone involved. However, I was lying to myself – things that you bury have a way of festering and coming back up to the surface.

If I was being honest with myself, I was PETRIFIED.

I was petrified of admitting that I didn’t have the skills to handle the situation, of not having all the answers. I was petrified of making a mistake and letting my boss and my team down.  I was petrified of not being in control of the situation of not living up to my own, impossibly, high expectations of myself.   I put off challenging bad practice in others, because I was petrified about what shortcomings it would unearth about me.  I was petrified of looking like a fraud and I was petrified of appearing weak.  I was petrified of being wrong, and any feedback that wasn’t glowing praise. Paradoxically by the time the glowing praise had filtered through my brain it sounded like criticism to me anyway.

There was a thought loop, a narrative playing over and over in my head keeping me rooted to the spot.  In this thought loop I was telling myself that I was not good enough, that I just couldn’t do it, that I just wasn’t strong enough.

Tanya Valentin

I wrote these words in 2018, and what I have discovered again and again is that it isn’t the stuff outside of us that trips us up but rather the stuff on the inside of us.

It is not what we know that creates change, but how we implement it.

Each of us wages a silent war with ourselves against the things we were taught to believe about ourselves during our formative years.

As a Holistic Leadership Coach, I support leaders to create a clear vision for how they would like to live their lives personally and professionally based on what is important to them. I support leaders to look at what is currently happening for them and what might be holding them back. I then work with them to align their thoughts, values, beliefs, and behaviors so that they can implement strategies to help them to succeed.

If you would like to find out more about Holistic Leadership Coaching and how this might work for you feel free to book a FREE 30-minute Exploration Call you can do this HERE.

Download my FREE self-assessment tool to start your Holistic Leadership relationship with yourself.

Hey Lovely, I think that you are truly amazing and that you deserve a community all of your own that celebrates and nurtures the whole you. If you do too, check out the new community that I am building exclusively for Leaders in Education, HERE

You may also like