In recent months I’ve noticed that gratitude has been gaining traction as the next “big thing” in pop psychology. Neuroscience even shows that a little intentional appreciation generally has measurable positive effects on emotional well-being.
But. This trend toward casually throwing around “gratitude” as the answer to our emotional woes is not something for which I am personally thankful.
Few psychological processes make me as dramatically defensive as “subscribing to shoulds” or “invalidating another person’s feelings.” And telling someone who is depressed, “you should be grateful for ______, and thus you should not feel the way you feel” is enough to make me
want to scream type a blog post on my phone while my husband drives us to Pennsylvania.
A dirty little secret of humanity is that sometimes, depressed or not, we get caught up in the crappy stuff, and we don’t FEEL grateful.
Another messy truth is that, not only is it not possible to talk someone out of their icky feelings in-the-moment, but attempting to do so will make those icky feelings worse (by adding a layer of inadequacy and guilt.)
Have you ever felt so flaming angry at your husband, only to have him say “What? It’s not that big of a deal!” Pretty sucky, huh? When not allowed to feel what you feel, one of two things will happen: Either actual fire will shoot from your nostrils into your husband’s smug face OR you will begin to question your own sense of self. Wait. AM I crazy?
Have you ever been GUILTED for an emotion? Imagine that a friend says to you, “How could you be angry that your husband woke up the baby? I mean he works so hard at his job!?” Again, your only reaction would be increased anger and/or self-doubt.
It is the same way with telling someone who does not feel grateful to just be grateful.
So, if we know that intentionally noticing positive aspects of life momentarily breaks an endless loop of negative thinking, but telling a suffering person to “just be grateful,” backfires, what are we to do?
If you have a friend who is feeling depressed and not-especially focused on the “good stuff”- or if this describes you- there are only two things to remember:
1) It’s always okay to feel how you feel, and feeling how you feel is not “wrong” or indicative of a character flaw. This means, instead of talking someone out of their feeling, just accept that their experience is their experience. Silence works. Imagining what it’s like to be them works. Hugging works. Pulling up a chair and sighing together works.
2) Crappy feelings are waves, and we need to ride through them in order to come up for air and feel moments relief. My job as a therapist is to challenge a person’s thoughts and behaviors after she has ridden this wave, not to talk her out of her very real experience while she is in the thick of it. As a therapist, I also ensure that patients don’t miss the moments when the waves break. I see those moments in little smiles on my couch and when patients’ eyes light up when they tell about tiny sources of pride or get a text from a special someone.
Ironically, riding the wave of feeling “ungrateful” instead of fighting your internal experience, will give way to brief moments of relief. And if you are too busy telling yourself how you should and shouldn’t feel, you might just miss those little moments.