The current series, because it is November, has focused on gratitude. We have explored together topics such as toxic positivity and its effect on survivors of complex trauma. We have discovered that gratitude, when experienced without guilt or shame, is healthy and can aid in the healing process.
This article will focus on what it means to be grateful and how we can harness its power to overcome obstacles that stand in our way.
The Destructive Power of All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking is a negative thought process that is considered a cognitive distortion and is common among those who are affected by anxiety and depression. This disordered thinking means that you think in extremes; either something is all good or all bad with no gray area. The thinking pattern causes you to view yourself and your life experiences as black or white (Reading). An example of all-or-nothing thinking might be that either you are a total success or a complete failure without allowing for any middle ground or explanation.
All-or-nothing thinking keeps you from seeing your life as it really is with all its complexity, uncertainty, and change.
People who suffer from all-or-nothing thinking often find they cannot be grateful for anything because they are plagued by their inner critic who accuses and nags at the back of their minds.
According to Pete Walker, the inner critic, “weds shame and self-hate about imperfection to fear of abandonment, and mercilessly drive the psyche with the entwined serpents of perfectionism and endangerment. Recovering individuals must learn to recognize, confront, and disidentify from the many inner critic processes that tumble them back in emotional tie to the awful feeling of overwhelming fear, self-hate, hopelessness, and self-disgust that were part of the parcel of their original childhood abandonment (Walker, 2013).”
All-or-nothing thinking is a favorite tactic of the inner critic and one of the main tools for overcoming it is to form an attitude of gratitude.
You Cannot Rush Gratitude
In the past, you may have been bombarded by statements like, “You have so much to be grateful for” or “Don’t be so ungrateful!” and felt an immediate sense of guilt and shame. It is for this reason that you cannot rush yourself into growing an attitude of gratitude.
Moving into gratitude without validating the original trauma and the emotions that go along with it will fail because of unresolved feelings that will come back to haunt you.
We have been taught that it is vital to substitute gratitude for negative feelings and because of this, we have developed problematic myths about what gratitude is all about. One of these distortions is that we cannot be grateful and still allow other emotions to coexist with it. We may believe that gratitude is something that should cancel our stinking thinking when in reality both can exist at the same time.
There is no doubt that those of us who have developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) have a plethora of emotions that seem negative floating around in our subconscious. Feeling forced to express gratitude puts us in the spot where we feel shameful for not feeling grateful.
We often feel our “negative” emotions stop us from feeling the weight of gratitude, but this is not true.
The problem with this line of thinking is that there is no such thing as “bad” or “negative” emotions. All emotions are vital adaptations that are necessary for us to survive. Feelings such as anger and fear are not harmful to us but rather are critical for us to understand ourselves and our world.
Gratitude and All Our Emotions Can Coexist
I touched on this topic already, that strong emotions and gratitude can coexist. No one needs to feel guilty or shameful because they don’t feel all warm and fuzzy over the holiday season or anytime. To do so would mean leaving our humanity behind and none of us wants to do that. To have the strong emotions of sadness and loneliness during the holiday season is just as valid as the joy and happiness that can be found there.
We place a huge value on the concept of gratitude and there are good reasons for doing so as research suggests that feeling gratitude can reduce anxiety and depression. There are enormous benefits to feeling gratitude. However, if we are force-fed a mandate stating we must be grateful we are at the same time discouraged from expressing or feeling emotions that are not involved in gratitude.
The fact is that you can harbor negative feelings about yourself, your life circumstances, and for others at the same time you are finding things to be grateful for.
Gratitude is an Action
Today many feel they must take time to sit quietly every morning and write in a journal things for which they feel thankful. While there is nothing wrong with doing so, practicing gratitude needs to be a choice, not a chore.
You can buy books, listen to tapes, and relax with a video on your smart TV all in the name of being grateful, but if you are not ready gratitude can become a stone wrapped about your neck.
Even well-meaning therapists ignore the fact that you do not feel grateful and sometimes encourage your true feelings by reading positive affirmations. But you know what? It is okay not to be okay. It is okay not to feel awash with gratitude. Life happens, and many of your experiences were horrid and until you have moved through that and dealt with it, gratitude will be to come by.
By recognizing gratitude as an action AND an emotion you can overcome negativity by doing something even if you don’t feel grateful. For instance, you might contact a friend and thank them for what they bring to your life, mentioning how they mean much to you. Another way to act out gratitude is to compliment strangers on their appearance and watch the smile spread across their faces.
Ending Our Time Together
It is okay not to feel grateful, but there may come a day when you will want to explore the subject. The secret to sanity during the holiday season is not to allow others to try and force their values on you. If you do not feel like celebrating, then do not and allow yourself more time to heal.
However, sooner or later gratitude will creep in as you travel down the road less taken and look back at how far you have come. I know I often look back and recognize how much healing I have done and am truly thankful for the progress.
Don’t be afraid of gratitude when it pokes its head into your mind. When it does you will find yourself suddenly free of the anger and hurt from the past and grateful you are not back there now.
Instead of focusing on gratitude, instead, focus on the black and white thinking that is holding you back from healing. Recognize that there is a gray area and that it is impossible for you to be all a failure or all a success. You are just like the rest of us, a human with flaws and that is okay.
Try to recall that your emotions and gratitude can coexist no matter what you are feeling. Most of all, remember that you are not alone in your struggles to find happiness as the entire human race is striving to find the same thing.
“Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend…when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present.” Sarah Ban Breathnach
Chowdhury, M. R. (2020). The neuroscience of gratitude and how it affects anxiety & grief. Positive Psychology.