In recent years, gratitude has become a popular strategy for boosting your mood. We tend to hear practicing gratitude come up even more during difficult times; like during a global pandemic. Research does show that the practice of gratitude can be helpful in increasing positivity and decreasing burnout and anxiety. However, with the emphasis on gratitude we also see people using it to shame and minimize any legitimate feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, despair, hurt, anxiety etc. that we have. Here are some examples of what gratitude shaming can sound like: “I’m upset, but I shouldn’t be because so many people have worse problems.” Or: “I’m so lucky though, I shouldn’t be complaining about this.” 

There is an important difference between the helpful practice of using gratitude to gain perspective and increase compassion, and the harmful practice of using it to minimize and shame our thoughts and feelings. Instead of making you feel appreciative or lucky, the harmful practice of gratitude shaming doubles down on how badly you feel about yourself. What this does, is create a negative feedback loop of meta-emotions (how you feel about your feelings).

Consider this example:

  • You feel sad or angry about COVID-19 and the impact it’s had on your life
  • You tell yourself you are not entitled to these feelings because person X may have it worse
  • You feel guilty and ashamed for feeling sad or angry in the first place

These feeling of guilt and shame compound any pre-existing feelings you had about COVID-19 so now you feel bad both about the external situation and about yourself for being a “selfish person” within it. When we reach this point of feeling particularly badly about ourselves, we tend to be paralyzed and unable to take care of ourselves or escape the feedback loop. 

So what do we do?! Here are some steps to avoiding the gratitude shaming feedback loop: 

  • Learn to identify times when you use gratitude to shame and minimize your thoughts and feelings and catch yourself in the act.
  • Validate yourself and your feelings instead! Remind yourself that you are entitled to your feelings. If your feelings are ones of grief related to COVID-19, try this exercise that will guide you through the validation process:
  • If you find it very difficult to validate your own feelings, imagine what you might say to a friend or someone you love if they were gratitude shaming themselves. How would you validate their experiences? 
  • Allow yourself to hold both feelings at once: pain from your own experience, and understanding that others are experiencing pain as well. A trick to this is replacing the word “but” with “and”. For example: rather than “this hurts for me but I know others have it worse” say “this is sad and difficult for me, and I know that others are experiencing pain and hardship as well”. 
  • Start to un-pair gratitude with shame by associating gratitude with happiness. Name things you’re grateful for only when you’re already feeling neutral, contented, or joyful. 
  • Instead of shaming yourself for your feelings (which are not within your control), focus on how you can use what you are grateful for to support people around you in small ways (if you have the resources such as time, money, energy, etc). This type of pro-social action can help you to feel more empowered and create a sense of meaning in a difficult situation. 

When used to compare suffering and criticize yourself, gratitude morphs into a tool for harm rather than healing. Instead, use gratitude to focus on things you appreciate about yourself and your life as a way to create a kinder, more positive, inner voice. This is a pathway to self-compassion and away from the feedback loop of self-criticism and shame. Remember, you are entitled to your feelings, however complex!