Do you feel guilty for not being more grateful for the good things in your life? Read on for ideas on how to practice gratitude without feeling bad.
It’s Monday morning. I didn’t sleep well last night. My doctor’s waiting room is freezing, and the magazines are ancient. Traffic was worse than usual, which is saying something because it’s always dreadful. Worse, I left my coffee in the car.
I am deep into daydreaming about moving to a small, dusty town where there are more cows on the road than cars when I hear women’s voices. I turn and see a cancer support group in the adjacent waiting area. The women are laughing, obviously delighted to see one another. They look and sound very much alive, though noticeably ill. Some are bald. Others wear scarves of brilliant turquoise or bright magenta tied around their heads. One of the youngest women walks with a cane. I turn away to give them privacy, but can’t help but hear snatches of their conversation:
“The chemo seems to be working. I feel better in the last month.”
“The longest I’ve been in remission since 2008 is nine months.”
“Look at you! It’s almost beginning to look like an intentional hair cut!”
“I miss being able to take walks. I have no energy to do anything.”
I slump in my chair, chagrined. Traffic and fatigue suddenly seem quite manageable. I feel guilty for complaining about anything. I should be grateful.
Then I hear it – “Should.”
“Should” is a loaded word – a command to do something or stop doing something. I’m telling myself to be grateful, but I’m also telling myself to stop having other feelings. I know that never works. The truth is, I’m feeling grateful and grouchy. I feel deeply thankful to be sitting in my chair, rather than in the circle of chairs behind me. And, I’m frustrated for understandable reasons.
The practice of gratitude can be tricky. Research shows that gratitude is good medicine. It increases happiness and is a powerful mood booster. It is also a spiritual practice that is shared by most religious traditions. Undeniably, it’s essential to be grateful for the good things in your life.
But what about the things that aren’t good? What do you do with your less “positive” feelings? If you’re like many people, you feel guilty for having them. You sternly remind yourself of all the fabulous things in your life.
Appreciation for your life is uplifting. But when gratitude is used to deny other feelings or avoid needs, it becomes counterproductive.
Reminders to be grateful are often embedded with a message to stop having other, less desirable emotions. Yet trying not to feel something generally makes the feeling stronger. It’s a bit like trying to submerge a beach ball under the surface of a swimming pool with your hand. It might work for a minute, but soon the ball slips and shoots into the air with more force than it had before you submerged it.
Despite your efforts, suppressing “negative” feelings won’t make you a more positive person. Many well-meaning people who are striving to be grateful have very negative self-talk: You are lucky. Stop whining. You should be grateful. Your complaints are First World problems.
The phrase “First World problem” is a shaming device. So is the word “should.” Moreover, they are sure signs of spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by psychologist John Welwood to describe the use of spirituality to bypass developmental needs, painful feelings, and unresolved wounds. It’s a common practice in our culture, and most people do it without realizing it. Spiritual bypassing blends beautifully with our society’s preference for feeling good, quick fixes, and pain avoidance. It’s a culturally sanctioned, almost revered, defense mechanism that is so universal we often don’t recognize it.
Robert Johnson Masters, in his book Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, describes spiritual bypassing as “avoidance in holy drag” and “metaphysical valium.” It’s the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to “transcend” or deny problems rather than understand them. It’s employing spirituality as a distraction, or a short cut out of pain or discomfort.
Spiritual bypassing is appealing because we don’t like to feel bad. We are biologically wired to avoid pain, whether it’s emotional or physical. As such, when we turn toward discomfort, we are going against both our wiring and our preferences. It doesn’t seem natural. Spiritual bypassing, on the other hand, feels natural because it feels good. It makes us feel happier, at least in the short-term. But it has consequences.
Johnson notes that spiritual bypassing leads to:
- Repression and denial of emotions and thoughts that don’t “elevate.”
- Phobia of negative emotions.
- Judgment of negative emotions as inferior to positive ones.
- Development of the delusion of having arrived at a higher level of being by not having certain feelings.
The problem is, Spiritual bypassing so embedded in our culture you may not even realize you’re using it. (#TooBlessedToBeStressed).
Paying attention to gratitude can increase your awareness. Gratitude, a pervasive value for many people, is ripe for spiritual bypassing. It looks good, sounds good, and feels good. What could be wrong, you may wonder? Nothing, at first glance. But look closely, and you will see that gratitude is often used to bypass problems, feelings, and needs.
It comes down to intent. How and when do you use gratitude?
Gratitude can be harmful when:
- You use it to suppress uncomfortable or painful feelings. What we resist persists. Suppressed emotions can grow more intense, begin to masquerade as other feelings, or morph into physical pain or somatic symptoms.
- You use it to distract yourself from problems you need to address. This keeps you stuck. Troubles run on a circular track.
- When it comes with a side of guilt or a heaping of “should.”
Gratitude is constructive when:
- *You use it to focus your attention on things you appreciate. Research shows writing down what you’re grateful for increases happiness.
- *You use it to shift a bad mood into a better one. (Note: this practice is not constructive if your foul mood relates to a troubling problem or relationship in your life. In that situation, listen to your feelings long enough to hear what they’re telling you. Is there something you need to understand or address? Make a note of it first and then practice gratitude. In this way, you don’t miss the information your mood is trying to give you.)
- *You follow it with an “and.” “And” is inclusive and non-shaming. For example:
“I have a lot to be grateful for, and the holidays are stressing me.”
“I’m happy to have a job, and I’m bored and dissatisfied at work.”
“I’m thankful I haven’t lost my house in a California fire, and I’m feeling down today.”
Remember, trying not to feel something rarely works. It usually makes things worse. So, save yourself some time and suffering, and let yourself have all of your feelings. Gratitude and all.