When Gratitude Can BackfireBy 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.