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When Gratitude Isn't Enough

Be grateful. Isn’t that what we are often reminded when feeling sad, angry, frustrated? On being grateful, Oprah says, “I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.”


I believe in gratitude. Before I would go to bed every night I would list out all that I was thankful for in my life. It was my way of reminding myself that my world was rich with love, support, opportunities, and the basic necessities of life such as food, shelter, warmth, and my health. Even when I felt like I was drowning in the deep darkness of depression, I can look back now with gratitude for the strength it took to claw my way out of it. Gratitude is one of the tools I always have available to me anytime I feel like life is throwing curveballs my way; I remind myself of all that I have achieved and to trust my process. But, and you know there is always a but, when that voice inside us is telling us that maybe this isn’t all there is and we deserve more, is telling ourselves to just be grateful the right thing to do?


The motivational speaker and author Lisa Bilyeu describes her life at one point this way: “When someone asked how I was, I answered, “oh, you know, fine,” and I thought I was telling the truth. I certainly wasn’t doing bad. I had a roof over my head, food to eat, was married to the man of my dreams, and had puppies to scrum on. Who was I to complain? Sure, most days I felt a kind of numbing sadness that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but so many people suffer from so much worse than anything I was going through. How bloody ungrateful was I?” Bilyeu describes this feeling as “the purgatory of the mundane.” The thing is, if your life is basically ok but you yearn for more, being grateful can either shake you out of your current ennui (because the grass isn’t always greener) or it could force you to ignore feeling stuck so as not to appear ungrateful for your current existence.


The latter is what the therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab describes as “gratitude shaming”. She says, “humans have this habit of telling other people they “are not being grateful enough, when they complain when they find an issue with something. The solution is often ‘you need to be more grateful. Gratitude is not a solution. It is ok for people to want more, to want to change, to not want to be where they are and we don’t have to shame them because they are desiring to be or have something different. Gratitude is important but it is not the solution…Let people want more.”


Gratitude shaming is something people of colour are often subjected to. There is a sense that because we aren’t indigenous to the country in which we choose to live, we should be grateful for being “allowed” to thrive and we shouldn’t constantly expect more for ourselves or, horror of all horrors, when we criticise its politics. The same goes for the workplace. We are often taught by our parents to not rock the boat, to just work harder, and to be grateful for being given an opportunity. For our parents that mentality is understandable. They had to walk through fire to even get their foot in any door, to even be considered for a position, and once they were hired they had to work harder than anyone else to prove they deserved that job. For them, being grateful was about survival. So it’s no wonder they carry that with them and how it seeps into how they see their children having to navigate their way in this world. To be fair to them, their worries aren’t unfounded. I’ve had experiences where there was a sense of disbelief that I dared to stand up for myself. It’s as the American writer John Paul Brammer writes, “We are being asked to feel indebted, because debt is what maintains racial and social hierarchies…But this kind of gratitude is the enemy of self-assertion, the confidence it takes to make demands and empower oneself in their environment. That is by design. If we are made to feel like perpetual foreigners in our own homes, we will be less likely to advocate for ourselves and to ask for better treatment.” Basically, if we are made to feel like we should always be grateful for what we have we are less likely to want, no, demand more for ourselves.


I believe in gratitude as a reminder, as a way of keeping perspective when we feel ourselves spiralling in negative thoughts. I believe in gratitude in helping us shift our mental state. Making a gratitude list is a great way of centering ourselves and being mindful of all that we have, down to every breath we are fortunate enough to take. I also believe in the sentences not ending there. Everything we feel is valid. Our emotions are information about our current state and what, if anything, needs to change. I believe in saying all the things I am grateful for including all the things I am working towards, all the things I want for myself and my family in the present and the future. Being grateful doesn’t mean we rest on our laurels and not keep striving. Being grateful doesn’t mean we accept the status quo. It means we recognise what we have and we use it to propel us towards getting more of what we want. And there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t even think Oprah could argue with that.