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What's gratitude shaming?

Is it weird to think that your problems are not worth talking about because you know that other people have worse problems? You might have internalized guilt gratitude – as opposed to real gratitude.

Woman seen from the back walking on a countryside road at the golden hour

Let's talk about something we've all been through, for instance. The pandemic and multiple lockdowns have not been great for our collective mental health. Everyone felt it in some way, and some continue to.

Maybe you were feeling lower than usual, less motivated with your studies. Maybe you weren’t sleeping as well, or experienced anxiety about your safety or your future. Or maybe it left you feeling completely burnt out.

Typically, if you had been feeling this way for a long period of time, a mental health professional may consider these warning signs for a mood or anxiety disorder. However, these symptoms now also double as totally normal reactions to having lived through a pandemic.

But does the fact that we are all collectively experiencing these emotions, make them any less valid? Or does the spectrum of the tragedies many people have experienced affect the validity of what we are all feeling individually?

Kelsey's guilt gratitude story

"This year, I have felt a whole range of emotions. I’m homesick for my friends and family who are 18,000 miles away. I have anxiety about what the next 12 months might look like. I’ve felt extra sensitive, I’ve felt sad, I’ve felt fed up and overwhelmed. And then I scroll through my social media feed or turn on the news, and that all changes almost immediately, to a feeling of guilt.

"Let me list all the things I’ve felt guilty about so far this year:

  • I feel guilty that I’m not on the front lines.

  • I feel guilty that I have a nice place to live during the lockdown.

  • I feel guilty that people have died and lost loved ones and I have not.

  • I feel guilty for not helping out enough.

  • I feel guilty that I still have a job and others don’t.

  • I feel guilty for feeling homesick, sensitive, sad, fed up, and overwhelmed when it feels like so many others have it worse.

"I feel guilty for not feeling more grateful."

So many people have grappled with guilt and shame throughout the year about their relative safety, security, or privilege.

And we don’t just do it to ourselves, we do it to others too. How many times have you said to a friend, or had a friend say to you, “It could be worse”? All this does is make us feel like we should be grateful it’s not worse, and feel guilty that gratitude isn’t the initial reaction we had to that negative experience.

A deep dive into gratitude shaming

In November 2020, Sahaj Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy, tweeted about a concept called "gratitude shaming".

What does gratitude shaming mean? When you gratitude-shame yourself, you don’t accept, validate, or normalize your emotions, including the negative ones, which are both warranted and healthy.

The fact is, things can always be worse. And it’s not helpful to get caught in an endless loop of telling yourself you don’t deserve to be in pain because other people are in more pain.

Over time, this could turn into a pattern of telling yourself that your feelings and experiences don’t matter. She explains that it "may feed a sense of obligation to do, be, or act in certain ways that are not authentic to how we really feel or what we really need right now." And this internalized narrative can result in resentment, guilt, and low self-esteem.

Toxic gratitude can hurt your mental health

The risk of not validating your feelings is that you don’t reach out for help when you need it. That you try and ‘deal’ with everything on your own. That you bottle things up and ‘get on with it’ because someone else is more worthy of the support and you don’t want to stop them from getting it, or you’re embarrassed to share what you might feel is trivial.

That's why it's important to make the difference between feeling genuinely grateful for the good things in your life and denying you've ever felt a negative emotion in your life. Once again for those in the back: you're allowed to feel down sometimes.

Let's shift from shame to gratitude (the real kind).

Practicing gratitude is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our mental health and relationships, but the idea that gratitude means you can’t hurt or suffer is toxic.

Humans are complex beings who are capable of holding contradicting feelings at the same time. Toxic gratitude denies you the fundamental right not to feel 100% all the time. Real, authentic gratitude, on the other hand, means you acknowledge what you have and your privilege. But that doesn't mean you don't experience negative thoughts at all. These feelings can coexist!

You can feel homesick for friends and family while also feeling grateful to be privileged enough to have an overseas experience. You can feel hopeful for the next few months while also feeling fed up at the thought of the ‘hamster wheel’ existence of the weeks ahead. You can feel empathy for those who have suffered the loss of family and friends due to the pandemic and also acknowledge that this year has been challenging for you too.

It’s important to be compassionate with ourselves about these feelings because they are entirely normal.

5 tips to stop gratitude shaming

Here are 5 things we want you to remember and focus on when you feel yourself start to slip down this rabbit hole.

1. Sharing is caring

Your sharing helps others to share. It's easy to feel alone in our struggles and remembering that others might relate to our experience can really help. We all need validation sometimes, even if it’s just to hear “Wow, that’s really tough.”

2. Your feelings are valid

Everything is relative and all feelings are relevant. Two people who have the exact same experiences would feel differently about the experience. This is why we should never compare our pain with someone else’s.

3. No problem is "too small to matter"

If you're feeling down and start feeling guilty and ashamed about them, don't let that prevent you from reaching out. Don’t let your feelings spiral out of control! Getting support early on can really help, even if you feel like your problems are not important enough.

4. You don't have to do everything on your own

You matter. Building self-worth is important to avoid pushing your problems aside for not being "serious enough". If you feel that you need support, can you challenge yourself to reach out?

5. Everyone has mental health

Everyone is going through battles, and everyone gets affected in different ways. Sometimes it's the small things that can really tip the balance, so who is to say what the small and big things are in life?

If you could do with some support today, please take that step to get it. It’s okay to not be okay.


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