A gratitude practice is a daily habit of identifying and naming several things you are grateful for each day. Most people use a gratitude practice as a part of therapy or self-help to work on developing a more positive outlook. Gratitude practices work well with cognitive behavioral and positive psychology approaches to therapy.
When a gratitude practice is well thought out, and individualized for each person, it can be an effective vehicle for personal growth and outlook change. When it’s thrown together without thought, I believe a “gratitude practice” can become a vehicle for resentment, continued low self-worth, and even in some ways, self-harm.
As a therapist, I have often used gratitude practices with my clients, sometimes as a journaling exercise and sometimes as a check in for group or individual therapy. I started to notice that there was a theme, especially with my clients who struggled with feelings of low self-worth. Everything they were grateful for was something outside of themselves- and often was something they had no control over.
“I am grateful for another sunny day!”
“I am grateful for my mom, and all of her support.”
“I’m grateful for my program/ job/ person/ dog.”
These are all awesome things to be grateful for, and we should not dismiss these sentiments. But we must be careful that statements such as this don’t become a part of discounting our own positives, or a tool for emotional self-harm.
“I’m grateful for another sunny day!” Because I can’t think of anything good in my life, but I’m expected to do this gratitude thing.
“I’m grateful for my mom.” Because I’m not capable of doing this on my own.
“I’m grateful my brother is a mechanic and will fix my car.” Because I’ll never make enough to get a better one.
Some people almost shame themselves for feeling any anger or resentment because that means they aren’t grateful and therefore aren’t progressing. Or they will shame themselves for not being grateful enough for the support and relationships they have with others. These people often struggle to find anything of value in themselves, and so the gratitude practice can become almost a way to compare themselves to others, and to subconsciously put themselves down. The gratitude practice can also become a way to “hide” in treatment by saying things which are expected without doing the internal emotional work.
These concerns can be compounded by beliefs that “positive thinking” will somehow cure your depression or other life problem. These beliefs are often echoed by people around us when they encourage us to “put the (x) thing in the past” by thinking positively and avoiding the negative. We often feel the “fakeness” of this kind of helpful advice without being able to recognize the ways that we ourselves perpetuate this same fakeness in our own therapy.
The truth is that learning to think positively can impact our mental health in helpful ways and learning to be grateful and to see the awesome things this world has to offer can be an amazing gift. But it can also be taken to extremes when we actively seek to avoid anything we perceive as “negative’ as a means to avoid any potential setbacks. When positivity is used to shame people for circumstances beyond their control, or as a vehicle to victim blame. We have a range of emotions for a reason. Our feelings tell us things about our relationships and our environment and give us clues about how to behave and think in different circumstances. All of our feelings are valid and have purpose for our development and continued growth. Some positivity practices would have us believe that any stress or struggle in our life is a sign that we aren’t doing something right, and that through the power of positive thinking all of our problems can be solved.
Just as some people can get stuck in a web of toxic positivity, others can get mired in negative thinking. When we become accustomed to certain thinking patterns and to feeling certain ways, they can become a part of our identity- and that can be really hard to change. The key is not to swing the pendulum too far into the positivity racket, but rather to make simple, measured changes in their daily habits and in the ways that they think about and talk to themselves.
So I ask my clients to stop doing gratitude practices. Or rather, to change how they are practicing gratitude. In therapy, we work on creating an environment where clients can learn to be grateful for themselves and for their progress. I insist that clients choose personal traits or behaviors to list for gratitude.
“I’m grateful for the way I stood up for myself at work yesterday.”
“I’m grateful to myself for setting that boundary.”
“I’m grateful for the way I’ve been taking care of myself- yesterday was hard but I made it.”
“I’m grateful I stuck to my commitment to complete the program- I can achieve my goals and I just taught myself that.”
If clients struggle to identify good things about themselves to be grateful for, we come up with some together, and even write them down on notecards or post it notes to refer to later when their mind draws a blank. It is a practice after all, and change takes time and repetition. A gratitude practice that focuses on the productive, positive, and life affirming individual thoughts and behaviors of clients will help them to learn to trust and care for themselves and their own opinions as much as they value that of others.
This concept can be difficult for clients who are not used to thinking about and acknowledging their own merits. Some people may feel that this amounts to a type of bragging. And the argument can be made that it is okay, actually, to be grateful for your mom, or your program/ job/ person/dog. So, whenever I ask a client to engage in a gratitude practice, I ask clients to remember the 2 to 1 rule. It works like this- for every one thing that I am grateful for outside of myself, I must think of two things that I am grateful for that pertain to me or that I have control over.
“I am grateful for my mom, and all of her support.”
“I am grateful for myself, for making the choice to enroll, ‘cause it was scary.”
“I’m grateful for setting that boundary, I feel better now that I did.”
The trick is to choose things that are a part of your character, not your appearance or things that can change suddenly, like income or status. This practice will help you to identify and further develop those parts of your character as well. A good gratitude practice is targeted to desired outcome. If you are practicing gratitude to learn to be happier in your life, then try target it towards those areas of your character that you want to explore and develop. Even a short amount of time on a regular basis can make a real difference in your outlook.