Gratitude is a tool; not a panacea

I believe in an intentional gratitude practice.

There is science behind it. Since dropping down to “just” one job setting (my business for self/private practice), I have been working on developing a more consistent a.m. and p.m. routine which includes a gratitude practice. I am a certified Appreciative Living Leader; a way of structuring a spiritual and personal development practice that relies heavily on the science of appreciation and gratitude.

I have written about gratitude in 7 Reasons You Should Start a Gratitude Practice.

And also in my Science of Woo series: Gratitude.

Let’s Reconsider.

But today, I am going to talk about not practicing gratitude. No, I am not going to talk about the opposite, which would be feeding resentment. This is scientifically detrimental to brain and mental health, which I wrote about in the blog post Resentment and Forgiveness, Which Brain Are you Building?

No, I am talking about toxic gratitude. This morning, I was listening to a podcast by therapists that explores alternative (to Christianity) spirituality and the intersection of mental health. They explored forced/toxic gratitude in a meaningful way that inspired this blog post.

a thinking emoji to reinforce the idea of critical thinking regarding a gratitude practice

Feelings are important. I don’t mean to talk to you like you are in 2nd grade; but many of us missed those elementary lessons due to the stunted emotional maturity of the adults shaping us in our childhood. We weren’t given an emotional vocabulary beyond mad, sad, and glad. We weren’t modeled the appropriate way to feel anger AND express it appropriately. We were shamed out of the intensity of (many) feelings. If we experienced want, for example, we were often told we were ungrateful and should think of the “kids who don’t even have an etch-a-sketch.” (I am dating myself. But the principal stands.) Kids who feel a range of intense emotion make emotionally undeveloped adults uncomfortable and when those kids become adults, they become quite uncomfortable with the range of feelings. They internalize “feelings are bad” and, often, “happy is the only acceptable emotion.”

Now What?

So, here we are in 2021 and we can’t walk into HomeGoods or @Home without seeing an abundance of “word art” reinforcing the expectation that we feel blessed and grateful AND that we make sure others know we feel that way.

a wood sign art that says grateful to discuss gratitude practices

But I think we need to be more mindful, careful, and intentional about the suggestion and use of a gratitude practice. Like forgiveness, I think that we can use gratitude (for self and others) as a kind of spiritual bypass. Spiritual bypass (in case you didn’t go to the link) is a way of using spiritual practices to bypass the work of identifying, feeling, expressing, and processing authentic emotion or trauma. 

Where’s the Recovery, Recovery Therapist?

What does this have to do with recovery from substance abuse? Lots. I remember sometime in the first 10 years of my recovery realizing that I had “used” the Serenity Prayer (a tool often suggested in 12-Step recovery) as a way to spiritually bypass FEELING. I was equating “serenity” with absence of feeling. I had not yet developed an emotional vocabulary, and due to the life situation I was in, I had not developed the ability to identify, feel, express, and process emotion.

A gratitude practice at that time would have been a spiritual bypass. Indeed, I tried several books within the spiritual paradigm I was practicing that encouraged a form of “positive thinking” and “gratitude.” The problem was that lack of positive thinking and gratitude weren’t my problem at the time.

Ancient spiritual principles and practices (such as those I discuss in my Science of Woo series) are phenomenal tools and are timeless and universal because they work for human development. But, like physical tools, you can’t use the same tool for each job.

Make sure the tool you are using is the right tool for the right time. If you need help with that, a qualified and specialist therapist can help.

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