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.

Arohanui

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