Gratitude traps: why we should be critical of gratefulness

Gratitude is an efficient way to increase the appreciation we have for the things that we could otherwise take for granted. Practising gratitude might make us feel more thankful for the circumstances we find ourselves in, such as where we live, the work we do, the people we have in our lives, and the gifts we receive. 

However, things are not that simple. Although practising gratitude is generally seen as a positive practice, forcing gratitude could lead to what is known as gratitude traps. These traps could have a detrimental impact on your wellbeing, especially if artificially induced positivity causes you to deny yourself from experiencing a full spectrum of emotions.

The pitfalls of gratitude

Practising gratitude consists in finding ways to appreciate experiences that are valuable or meaningful to you. This might include feeling thankful for a job opportunity that arises, appreciating someone else cooking a meal for you, or the relief of commuting to work without hitting rush hour.

Many psychologists agree that practising gratitude can foster positive feelings which will boost our sense of wellbeing. But recent research has revealed that looking on the bright side can also have its pitfalls.

If you feel that you should be thankful by default, you may be at risk of others exploiting your grateful nature. Psychologist Alex Mathew Wood and colleagues have written about the dark side of gratitude. They have raised concerns that the benefits of positive, personal gratitude can be outweighed by the exploitative behaviour of others.

For example, if you feel that you should be grateful to your boss for giving you a job and allowing you to support yourself financially, this emotional reasoning may prevent you from even contemplating that their controlling nature is concerning. While you focus on trying to be thankful, you may become blind to the ways in which they harm you.

Dr Ruida Zhu and colleagues reported that gratitude could also lead to what is called moral violation: those who are grateful to someone may be more “willing to violate the norms of honesty and justice”. In the above example, being grateful to your boss could increase your willingness to lie for them if it might protect them or the business from harm.

Furthermore, Dr Inna Ksenofontov and Dr Julia Becker found that when low-power group members are grateful to high-power group members, the power hierarchy becomes solidified. If someone in a high-power group behaves badly but then offers thanks to someone with less power, this expression of gratitude pacifies those with less power.

The least powerful are then less likely to protest their poor treatment. In this case, the expression of gratitude leads to the justification of bad behaviour for those who hold the power.

The three types of gratitude traps

Gratitude traps come in many forms and shapes, but there are three big categories of common ways they can occur. 

1. Inauthentic gratitude. Inauthentic gratitude describes the display or feeling of gratitude for something that you do not truly feel grateful for. If you feel that you should be grateful for a gift that was thoughtlessly chosen, you risk belittling your own sense of self-worth. Subjectively accepting that you are worthy of someone’s time and effort will improve your sense of wellbeing more than forcing feelings of gratitude will. 

2. Shame-based gratitude. This type of gratitude trap occurs when we feel that we ought to be grateful for something. For example, you may tell yourself that you should feel grateful that you have a job and therefore a steady income. However, if you are facing workplace bullying or feel chronically stressed, focusing on the positives does not leave room for interventions to improve the situation or your personal wellbeing.

3. Comparative gratitude. By comparing ourselves to others, we attempt to force gratitude. By internalising statements such as “it could be worse”, or “at least I still have a roof over my head” we forget about the satisfaction we have in life and instead focus on feeling gratitude for not being in an even less desirable situation. Comparative gratitude is an attempt to make us feel better about ourselves, but it does not help us to see the positives in our lives.

How to avoid gratitude traps

Gratitude has many benefits, but you want to avoid falling prey to its potential pitfalls. If you use gratitude to boost your wellbeing, it is important to take steps to avoid gratitude traps that could have a detrimental impact. 

First, embrace a variety of emotions. Throughout life, it is natural to experience a full range of emotions, from happiness to grief and even to despair. If we try to look only for the positive in every situation, we may be forcing ourselves to swallow our true feelings. Leaving such emotions unresolved can negatively impact our mental health. 

Dr Jainish Patel and Dr Prittesh Patel recommend exploring one’s true feelings to help regulate emotions for greater emotional stability. They reported that “expressing one’s true emotions is crucial to physical health, mental health, and general well being, while a reliance on concealment gives rise to a barrier to good health.” 

Then, Clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Kenner recommends finding the root of our “unearned guilt”. This is the guilt that you feel when someone else tries to induce it in you, rather than guilt for something you have done and want to make amends for. Dr Kenner explains that self-reflection and questioning the motivation behind your gratitude can help to reveal unearned guilt. 

You should also question the source of your gratitude. As we have seen earlier, gratitude can increase the risk of exploitation or moral violations. If you are attempting to feel grateful for something, question your motivation for doing so. If you do not truly feel grateful for the gesture, gift or experience, or your gratitude is based on obligation, guilt or shame, then your gratitude may be misplaced.

Recognising when your gratitude is misplaced is already a powerful first step in managing gratitude traps. However, if gratitude traps are prominent within your life, you may benefit from cognitive restructuring. Research suggests that those who emotionally involve themselves in the honest expression of their feelings will reap long term physical and mental benefits, and those who enlist the help of a counsellor or therapist in exploring emotional or distressing events will benefit the most.

Practising gratitude has become a popular way to develop a deeper appreciation of your life. However, gratitude traps can negatively impact your mental health. If you feel grateful, or think you should feel grateful for something, it is important to critically investigate whether the gratitude is well-founded.

The wide range of human emotions should be embraced, and frustration, anger, and upset should not be stifled in the pursuit of thankfulness. If your gratitude is inauthentic or based on comparison or shame, then it is wise to seek guidance from an expert in cognitive restructuring.

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