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Here’s a common therapy occurrence. A client does something amazing like eat “normally” for a week, start a new job clean and sober, or divorce an abusive spouse and I ask them, “How’re you feeling about that?” and they start off with, “Well, I’m grateful for . . .”—and they lose me. It’s hard to pay attention to their gratitude overflow when I’ve been hoping they’d tell me how proud they are of themselves.
Just as long ago when I became a therapist during the “forgiveness” movement which seemed over the top to me, I now find myself feeling similarly put off by the “gratitude” crusade. Not that there’s anything wrong with forgiveness or gratitude. They are part of emotional health. But there’s a lack of balance and authenticity when forgiveness or gratitude are de rigueur and crowd out pride, one of the crowning jewels of emotions.
Gratitude definitely has its place: Getting ready to head to the airport at 6:30 a.m. on my recent vacation, I opened a cabinet and my aluminum thermos jumped out and socked me in the cheek. I could think only of the large purple bruise I’d have on my face (which I did) all week seeing friends and family I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. When a friend I mentioned the thermos attack to said, “Well, good thing it didn’t hit your eye or nose,” my mind immediately switched from vanity to gratitude and I felt much better.
However, I’m concerned when clients with horrendous childhoods tell me how grateful they are they weren’t worse. “But we had running water and electricity,” they insist. “But we didn’t have to walk to school barefoot,” they exclaim, negating all the pain and misery they did suffer. Seriously, we can all find people who are better or worse off than we are. Can’t we feel grateful for what we had and sad or angry about what we didn’t?
Rather than be grateful or overjoyed when people are nice to them—typical of clients with low self-esteem who feel undeserving of good things in life—they could be moved by and appreciative of their kindness. Rather than be elated when well treated, they could be tickled pink they’re the kind of person someone would go out of their way for.
Or they could simply feel deserving of all things positive, period. My major problem with gushing gratitude at every turn is that it gives others credit for good things happening when pride, on the other hand, gives us the credit. We deserve love, attention and care even at our worst. When wonderful things happen to us, it’s appropriate to give a nod to blind dumb luck or good fortune or to appreciate others’ roles in our happiness or success. But most importantly, it’s crucial to feel pride in ourselves because we did it!
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