Welcome to the “Word to the Wise” column where we explore the light sides and the shadow sides of certain popular self-help terms. This week’s word: “gratitude.” What does this word mean to you?
The lighter side of gratitude
If you’re interested the current spiritual wellness movement, as I am, you’ll probably already be really familiar with the practice of gratitude. You might be a practising Buddhist, a yogi, or curious about mindfulness or meditation. Or you might not be spiritually inclined, but you like to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine because it helps you feel better.
Our popular media is having a bit of a heyday with this wellness focus, and there are a multitude of articles on how to practice gratitude. Researchers have been studying it as well: a gratitude practice has been found to increase emotional intelligence and wellbeing.
The age-old spiritual practice of gratitude focuses on the feeling of thankfulness and appreciation.
We need not be official Buddhists to incorporate this kind of practice.
Appreciation and gratitude allow each of us as individuals to recognize the value of what we already have in our lives. This can be as basic as being able to breathe, or enjoying a cup of strong coffee (which tea drinkers might not find valuable), or it can be as big as the entirety of the world of nature, or our love for animals. We each have our own lists of items that bring about that sense of wonder and grace in everyday life.
Gratitude reminds us to be aware of the abundance we already have. It reminds us to delight in the beauty of simple and small things. It reminds us to love. It reminds us to stay in the present, instead of focusing on wants to be filled in the future. It reminds us of life’s deliciousness. It reminds us to value the people and things that make our lives meaningful.
When we are in appreciation, we feel lighter, fuller, healthier, and more abundant. We are more likely to share and to be compassionate.
These are the more well-known and lighter aspects of gratitude: they lift us up.
But is there also a darker side of gratitude, which can work to hold us down.
The shadow side of gratitude: “You should be grateful.”
“You should be grateful for…”
How many of us have heard this statement?
What does it evoke in you? For me, it evokes shame and guilt. I am a bad person for wanting “more.” Being choosy, or picky, or selfish is bad.
When I hated my corporate job for years and years, I kept telling myself that at least I had a paycheque and benefits and decent people to work with, and that I should be grateful that I even had a job. Following my passion would be something I could do in the future, but I was really lucky to have what I have now. But while I did appreciate being paid well and having a job to go to every morning, it didn’t exactly fill me with lightness, abundance, and wellbeing. It made me cranky, stubborn, and resentful.
I noticed that there is an inner battle going on with what we feel we should accept, and what we really desire. If what we accept and what we desire are the same things, we feel good about them. But when our desires are different from what we think we should accept, we can feel resentful.Gratitude comes when what we accept and what we desire meet. Resentment comes when what we accept and what we desire conflict.Click To Tweet
As children, we’ve likely received a version of the gratitude lesson from our parents. Sometimes it comes in a gentle “teachable moment” and sometimes it comes in a harsh rebuke, depending on the tone and mood of the conversation.
When children vent, complain, or moan about something, they are reminded that they have it pretty good and that others don’t.
“But I don’t like mushrooms!”
“You should be grateful that you have food to eat, unlike other starving children.”
Sometimes the grateful reminder is followed up by “Don’t be selfish!” Which is typically a response to asking for something wanted or needed.
“I want the pink one.”
“Don’t be selfish, you should be grateful that you have toys to play with at all.”
That is a very quick and efficient way for the child to back down, and quietly say “but I am grateful” or “you’re right, I don’t need that.”
Or throw a tantrum, not really understanding the lesson.
All the child hears is that their wants and preferences don’t matter. The child then either learns to please others, not to ask for what they want or need. They learn that they’re not allowed to feel sad or upset when they don’t get what they want. Alternatively, the child could then push against what they are being told and start fighting for what they want until they get it.
Neither one of these reactions is going to lead to a healthy and true appreciation practice.
As we grow up, we learn and reinforce the message that being grateful is good and being ungrateful is bad.
Being ungrateful is selfish. Being ungrateful is narcissistic. In order to be a good person, we must be pleased by whatever we get from someone else. Whether that someone else is a parent, a stranger, or “God.”
Instead of leading towards the spirit and intention of the lighter side of gratitude, it then becomes loaded with the belief systems of the people of authority and passed down.
We feel guilt for wanting what we want. We feel restricted because we are told that we shouldn’t want what we want. We feel shame because wanting what we want makes us “bad.”
This is the breeding ground for scarcity and fear.
Which is entirely the opposite point of having a gratitude practice.
Who are we grateful to?
“Grateful” is really just a synonym for thankful. But when we are experiencing the shadow side of gratitude, there is an expectation that we should express thankfulness to someone else for something that we’ve been given.
When there is an expectation that we should feel grateful for being given something by someone else, we shift our focus from the *feeling* of appreciation to the *demonstration* of appreciation.Gratitude is a feeling, not a demonstration.Click To Tweet
And when the demonstration of appreciation is being assessed, who gets to define whether that demonstration is appropriate or enough? The giver or the receiver? What if there is no defined giver?
In this definition of gratitude, it becomes a party of two or more people deciding what or whom is worthy of appreciation, and a lot of “shoulds” are applied. These expectations are held by the personality manager (aka ego), not the soul.
When someone feels like you “should” be grateful, they set expectations about how you should communicate that. If Aunt Joan sent you a gift for your birthday, you might think that saying “thanks very much” by e-mail is enough. But Aunt Joan, who is of an older generation, expects a hand-written note card mailed to her by snail mail.
We can get into difficulty in relationships when someone else is defining what is “grateful enough.”
Let’s drop the meaning and the “shoulds” that we apply to gratitude and appreciation. There is no bad or good. We need not look at ourselves or at others and judge our characters by our ability to be thankful.
Appreciation from the heart, not the mind
We can sense that we are attaching expectations to gratitude when we feel a sense of imbalance: either we feel guilty if we think we’re receiving “too much” or we feel resentful if we think we’re not being appreciated “enough.”
These expectations come from the personality manager (the ego) who wants to control things and make sure the transaction is fair. This sense of unfairness may arise if we are told that we shouldn’t get what we want, or we’re giving too much without setting boundaries. Our thoughts will revolve around making sure the scales are equal.
Our personality manager holds the beliefs, lenses, meanings, and judgments about what it means to be grateful; it takes us out of a balanced and grounded awareness of what we have and our joy at having it.
When we feel appreciation and gratitude from the heart, our minds get less focused on the transactions, and we are more likely to find a sense of peace and balance.
When we are in that heart-felt, peaceful place of appreciation, we are also more likely to share our abundance with others and to be compassionate for those who are struggling to find theirs.
Gratitude and appreciation remind of of who we really are — that we are all one, that we are in this together and connected by love. We are reminded that there is beauty in this world, and we are one with that beauty too. We are reminded that all we truly have is the present moment. True appreciation is from the heart.
We’d love to hear your wisdom and insights about gratitude, so please leave a comment below.
How do you define “gratitude” for yourself? What does it feel like to you?
How do you respond when there is an expectation of gratitude?
Keep shining the insight light,