When Gratitude Can BackfireNone By Dr. Margaret Rutherford
I often hear people who are struggling with depression say, “I need to find my way back to gratitude. I feel like I’ve got a target on my back sometimes and can’t get a break. But I know that’s in my own mind.”
They’re recognizing a vital part of healing from depression—and that is finding perspective and balance. That’s what gratitude can bring to everyone, but especially someone who struggles with daily sadness or an overwhelming sense of fatigue.
Gratitude can help you remember that there are still things in your life that are meaningful, as your depression is telling you nothing matters anymore, including you.
Gratitude can remind you of what feeds you emotionally, physically and spiritually, when depression feels like it’s sucking out all of your joy.
Gratitude can evoke a sense of connection with something outside of yourself, when you’re struggling with focusing only on inner turmoil.
It seems like finding gratitude would then always be a good, healthy place to be. And most of the time, it is.
But Can Gratitude Backfire?
There’s an exception. When depression doesn’t present itself in the normal way, when it’s masked by perfectionism, living in constant gratitude can act as another means of avoiding what is very real pain. You can immerse yourself so much in looking and feeling grateful that you deny what hurts.
The perfect-looking, smiling, very engaged and successful person who, underneath all of that, is despairing and lonely can use statements of gratitude as a shield.
I’ve called this phenomenon Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD). It’s not a diagnosis, but a syndrome of behaviors or characteristics that tend to be found together—kind of like salt and pepper. When you see one, you tend to find the others.
Wholesome versus Unwholesome Gratitude
Wholesome gratitude is gratitude that effortlessly comes at times when you realize you or someone you love missed being hurt or injured badly, when you bring a child into the world and they have all their toes and fingers, when the sun comes out after a long, viciously damaging storm—that’s when you can see and connect with hope and joy. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s awesome to feel.
It’s when gratitude is unwholesome—when it may sound sincere to others but comes from a place where you’re refusing to express a more balanced view—that gratitude can become unwholesome, rigid and unhealthy.
Let’s look at the above examples. If your gratitude was unwholesome, you’d be thankful you missed being hurt badly, but downplay or discount how you actually were hurt. When you became a parent, you’d be grateful for a healthy birth but then not allow yourself to acknowledge how hard the sleepless nights can be. If the sun came out and the storm was over, you’d not allow yourself to cry when you realized how brutal the job of rebuilding is going to be.
You struggle to feel true self-compassion. You may have been shamed as a child for feeling sad or you may have turned off your more painful emotions long ago due to trauma or abuse. The greater the lack of compassion, the more likely you’ll rigidly hide behind your mask of PHD.
So, if your depression is more of the classic variety, wholesome gratitude can be an important part of restoring your sense of balance and perspective.
Unwholesome gratitude, on the other hand, rarely allowing yourself to feel or acknowledge pain or hurt, can backfire, and you can become even more stuck in having to look perfect.
And looking perfect can be a lonely existence.
Dr. Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, has practiced for twenty-five years in Fayetteville, Arkansas., Her work can be found at drmargaretrutherford.com, as well as HuffPost, Psych Central, Psychology Today, the Gottman Blog and others. She's the author of Marriage Is Not For Chickens, a perfect gift book on marriage, and hosts a weekly podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Her new book, Perfectly Hidden Depression, will be published by New Harbinger in 2019.
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