Gratitude: the friend who just doesn't get it

If one more effing person apologizes after sharing a sad, difficult, upsetting part of their lives with me, I’m going to scream. And my shriek will leave a tiny crack in the shell of robotic positive thinking that our happiness-obsessed culture shrouds us with.

I’ve written about this before, and it’s no surprise that I’m feeling it again a year later.

It’s winter. Trees are bare, skies are cold and dark, the world around us is not bursting forth. And yet.

And yet. We expect the eternal fruits of summer from ourselves. Regardless of season or circumstance, we should keep our chins up, find inspiration and, my personal favorite, be grateful.

Gratitude can blow me.

Here’s why: it’s become the well-meaning friend who just doesn’t get it. She’s trying to help, for sure, but here’s how good old Gratitude misses the mark: She’s only makes it worse if you use her to avoid difficult feelings.

Dark side of Gratitude Mask

Which is how A LOT of people like to use her these days.

It’s the polite and sunny way to end a particular kind of conversation.

I’m so sorry about your favorite grandmother who is dying. At least you can be grateful for the time she had.

Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for bringing up the whole dying grandmother thing. I don’t mean to be such a downer.

Why are sadness, grief, anger, fear, or disappointment so disturbing to us that we literally apologize for sharing them? We wish we hadn’t done it. Sullied the moment, spoiled the conversation.

It’s hard to hang out with pain that we can’t instantly fix.

And yet. And yet.

Hanging out with it, with a person in grief, with a bitter sadness, can actually be sublime. There’s a deep sense of wholeness that comes from letting the dark winter simply exist, without trying to jack it up on silver-linings of gratitude.

That’s why I feel–wait for it–grateful when a neighbor admits in a casual conversation over the fence that her cancer came back. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I know this is really heavy.”

Quite the contrary. Sharing your heavy reality creates more room for my particular mess.

So please. Bring on the downers. What stray puppydog facts and feelings of yours get smothered by the eternally sunny, productive and happy waters we’re all swimming in?

Make my comments box your own personal repository for whatever downer you’re sitting on.

I’d be most grateful.

14 thoughts on “Gratitude: the friend who just doesn't get it

  1. Amen. I think our cultural obsession with “positivity” is in a way, a kind of violence. A refusal to accept what is. It’s our poser way of pretending we’re all so enlightened or something when in fact we’re in denial. Excellent post.

  2. It’s interesting, because I think that American culture (maybe, particularly, California culture–on the East coast things were a little different) does ask us to always be sunny and grateful. On the other hand, we make our small problems a big deal. When we lived in Norway (and, granted, there were many fewer things to worry about in a nation that, you know, believed in climate change and gave you health care, ahem), people were sort of more stoic and less dramatic about some of the shit that really snows us, here. I don’t know if I can really say why.

    My personal FU to gratitude came with some recent great news I got that for whatever reason felt like an absolute tragedy to me. Some close friends could dig it, but I could feel judgment from a few others who clearly just thought I should be happy for what I had and shut the hell up and move on. I wanted to just say, can’t you just imagine for once that the human condition is strange, that strange feelings arise sometimes that you really can’t explain? It’s been interesting for me to feel a taboo feeling–depression, grief, intense sadness–when I basically have good news that everyone just thinks I should be grateful for. Anyway. Appreciating this post.

  3. I so so needed to hear this today! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and being really honest about our inability as humans to be OK with not being OK.

    I realized recently that I have a significantly large emotional hole in my life, and I think it’s mainly due to the fact that the past decade of my life I’ve had a lot of emotional needs that haven’t been met by my family. I’ve been waiting and hoping for those needs to be met for a long time, and I’m finally coming to the realization that that will probably not ever happen because of a lot of brokenness.

    Today was one of the first days I’ve let myself grieve that, and reading your article was just what I needed to not feel bad for being a “downer” recently. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for this, Kimberly, and for bringing your downer here. Being allowed to simply grieve is so damn important. Here’s some space for you to do that anytime you need to –> (( ))

  4. Yes. I do think there is a very strong cultural element to this. Mediterraneans tend in the exact opposite direction- as soon as they get together they begin unloading shit. And there is no counter-tendency to see the “bright side”. But I think that it may be about being TOGETHER. In the US, there is a great premium on being private, especially with the bad stuff.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! After having some severe medical problems ten years ago, we lost our first daughter. I’ve been around wonderful people who let me talk about it and people who pretended it never happened (and even said, “i know that God has a plan” …), and let me tell you: I very much appreciate those who let me be sad.

  6. I’ve had a confluence of shitty realities recently. My tendency to politeness makes my announcements wimpy and ineffective. I apologize to my best friend about my pain, and about sharing it, which serves neither of us. Thank you for writing this.

  7. I feel this so much! I really resented everyone who told me to try to remember the good times with my dad and focus on that instead of grieving his loss after he died. We had a complicated relationship. I’ve spent much of my adult life grieving that loss and processing what it means to be his daughter. Which parts of him get to live on in me, and which parts don’t?

    Silver linings are never going to be found here. I lost my dad. There’s nothing good about that. Gratitude is something I feel sometimes, but the things I took away from my relationship with my father that are amazing and awesome and made me stronger–they all came with a price. They didn’t come freely.

    Being asked to express gratitude when these things didn’t come freely feels like entitlement to me. As if someone else is entitled to ask me to feel a certain way about something so deeply personal just to make them feel more comfortable about it. The flip side to that is the recognition that the demand for gratitude is more often than not a masked plea for reassurance that perhaps losing a parent isn’t as tragic as it seems–and I can’t give that either.

    The loss of a parent, no matter how good or awful they were, no matter how wonderful or complicated the relationship was, is always a tragedy, and it always happens far too soon. I was 20. My same-age peers will largely be far older when they go through this, and it will still be too soon. There will always be unfinished business, and things you needed to hear your parent say again, and things you wanted to do together. There will always be things you wish you could share with them, and things you want to yell at them, and hugs you still need to receive.

    And as much as I needed a lot of space to say all this, I’ve seen how sharing it over the years has given others space to share their own tragedies. You feel what you feel, and sometimes it shines a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth for someone else. But you still feel what you feel, and you learn to sit with those uncomfortable truths when others share their own tragedies.

    I think gratitude is often more appropriate for the listener than for the sharer. I don’t know that I’d have wanted to have heard right away that someone was grateful that they still had their dad, but I think I would have at least felt heard and validated. Gratitude for what you haven’t lost is recognition of what someone else did just lose, though perhaps it’s best not to express it while someone is in the throes of grief.

  8. The problem with gratitude, as it seems to be used here in sunny Los Angeles, is that its akin to a religion, its a form of worship- and the problem with that is that its another way to mask the guilt that we feel for all the things that we have failed to accomplish or do. My professor in my psychology of motivation course said recently that keeping a gratitude journal is scientifically shown to make people happy. As in, if you keep a gratitude journal, you will find joy. I can tell you, I was a life coach, and there is power in gratitude and journalling these things, but its more likely that a person finds joy in the gratitude journal, because they are LOOKING for joy. Put your attention on any one thing for a day or a week, and be amazed at all that you see of it. And while I appreciate a short-cut as much as the next girl, you don’t need one for gratitude. Consciously choosing to be present in anything is part of experiencing gratitude. And that includes being present in sadness, pain, and grief.

    To Erin O – embrace your grief like the father you have lost and you will find your way through it faster. There is no easy way to suffer grief, but I do believe that allowing it to be strong and real when it feels that way, will get you through it quicker. Put your attention on it and say a thanks to anyone else who is too uncomfortable with your grief to help you and sit with the friend who can hold your hand while you cry.

    My personal FU to gratitude, as Susie M so awesomely put it, was when I realized that every time I started documenting gratitude it was because of overriding feelings of fear and guilt I was experiencing. It was an analgesic to protect me from those things that have no easy way to fix, that must be lived-thru to get past, or just be carried around with us- because some things will always make us scared, like the thought of our children getting hurt. I believe in gratitude in that I believe we should breathe in beauty and happiness and life, taking the time to witness small moments and relish them. If someone expect you to be grateful for the good thing instead of experiencing the bad thing, then they have a problem of their own. Life is scary and painful sometimes and we need to live it.

    (I just felt an “I’m sorry for my rant” creeping up to my fingers, it’s such a natural thing for us to do, to apologize for being human.)
    no apology.

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