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How to stop gratitude shaming, according to a therapist

Like so many of us, I was bummed that I couldn’t spend the holidays with my family this year. In my 30-odd years of existence, I’d never missed my mom’s Noche Buena feast or the lazy Christmas Day that followed, when my sisters and I would sprawl in front of the TV while gorging on leftovers. As I Zoomed with my family from my undecorated apartment last week, I really missed them — at which point, my inner voice cut in, ripe with gratitude shaming. “At least your family is alive,” it said. “At least you’re alive. At least you can breathe.” I recalled footage of COVID patients hooked up to ventilators with a pang of guilt. That voice has been interrupting my thoughts a lot lately, usually amid nostalgia for pre-pandemic times, or exhaustion over all the precautions I need to take now.

Gratitude shaming is basically beating yourself up for feeling sadness, anger, or other negative emotions because you should “be grateful.” To understand how something as well-intentioned as gratitude can spiral into something that actually harms your mental health, and how to break this thought pattern, I spoke to Oakland, California-based therapist Alison Nobrega.

First, a disclaimer: In anxiety-laden moments when your thoughts keep racing toward the future, gratitude can help draw you back to the present and accept things as they are, Nobrega says. It becomes a problem when you focus only on what you’re grateful for, leaving no room for your experiences or feelings, not unlike toxic positivity.

You might tell yourself, “others have it worse.” Not only does this dismiss your feelings, "there's no price tag or limit on pain," Nobrega says. "Your pain is your pain." Plus, we all bring our own experiences and personalities to a situation, meaning the same thing can affect different people in different ways, hurting some and not others.

And this doesn’t have to be an either-or thing. “We can be grateful and recognize other people have it worse, but it doesn’t take away from our experience,” Nobrega says. I can be grateful for my family’s health and acknowledge that others have lost loved ones to COVID-19 — and I can miss my family. I can hold space for both gratitude and grief.

When you gratitude shame yourself, you don’t accept, validate, or normalize your emotions, including the negative ones, which are both warranted and healthy, especially now. Over time, this “could turn into a pattern of telling yourself your feelings don’t matter, your experience doesn’t matter,” Nobrega says. That internalized narrative can, in turn, lead to resentment, guilt, and low self-esteem. You might believe you aren’t allowed to have any emotions, let alone negative ones, and suppress them as result — until they bubble up in unhealthy ways.

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For me, that often looks like lashing out at whatever poor soul happens to be within screaming distance, or crying out of nowhere. Staying silent about my emotions and needs has also made me feel more alone at a time when we’re feeling disconnected enough as it is.

When it comes to overcoming gratitude shaming, Nobrega suggests exploring what’s preventing you from validating your feelings. Did a caregiver, colleague, or supervisor tell you that they don’t matter? Did you have a “tough love” upbringing, in which you were taught to muscle through hardship and that seeking support made you weak? Has society told you that parts of your identity don’t matter?

Indeed, Nobrega sees gratitude shaming more often in clients raised in families with oppressed identities, such as BIPOC and LGBTQ folx, and those who grew up in a lower socioeconomic status. “I think there is a standard of, ‘You have to be grateful for what you have. We worked really hard for what we have, to put food on the table.’” It’s not the caregivers’ fault — they’re just caught up in a cycle. “Do we want to repeat the cycle, or break the cycle? We can still work hard and provide for our families and still do it in a way different from our parents.”

For me, the pandemic has only exacerbated a pattern of gratitude shaming I developed growing up as the child of immigrants. Because of what my parents endured to build a life here, I often feel like I don’t “deserve” to need or want anything more than I already have. While the trauma of migrating to another country “is a very real and difficult experience, I think we have to recognize that was their experience, and this is our experience," Nobrega tells me. "It’s not like one is worse than the others." While digging into how your caregivers might have invalidated your feelings, she says it’s also important to recognize any privilege you have compared to them.

Journaling about where the inner monologue that invalidates your feelings comes from can allow you to rewrite it, Nobrega says. Jot down what you’d say to your childhood self if someone told them their feelings didn’t matter. By doing so, “you’re rewiring your brain to accept and validate and change the story you were told.”

Journaling can also be a way to get comfortable with expressing your feelings to yourself. If you have the means, practice this vulnerability with a therapist so you feel ready to communicate how you actually feel to a loved one when the time comes.

Another strategy Nobrega suggests is addressing yourself as you would a loved one, something that's made it easier for me to deal with negative self-talk in general. It makes sense. If a friend told me they felt sad about not being able to spend the holidays with their family, I definitely wouldn't respond with "others have it worse."

Affirmations can help, too, but they need to feel believable in order to work. “All of my feelings are valid” probably won’t cut it, so start small. Try one that begins with “I am okay with…” or “I accept…” and names an emotion or other part of yourself that’s easier for you to validate. For me, that could look like “I accept that I feel disappointed that I can’t see my family.” Ideally, I’d move toward accepting that I can feel grateful and disappointed at the same time, Nobrega says. You can even use something more general like, “I can accept that I was taught that my feelings were not important, and I am working on rewriting that narrative.”

Tailor the format of your affirmations to your learning style. Writing them down, maybe on strategically placed Post-It notes, might make more sense if you’re tactile or visually oriented. If you’re more auditory, channel Issa Rae and say them to yourself in the mirror.

Speaking to Nobrega reminded me that we contain multitudes. All of us — myself included — are allowed to experience emotions beyond gratitude right now, and we owe it to ourselves to express them. In what’s expected to be a long winter, maybe it’ll make us feel a little less alone.