The Gratitude Myth

Following Jay Shetty’s appearance on The Ellen Show, this week’s viral video clips on social media have been all about Gratitude. The popular concept of Gratitude is not new, but we’re apparently cycling through another phase of awareness. Years ago, we were bombarded with the ubiquitous #blessed and #sograteful hashtags attached to statements and images on social media. We were all so seemingly “blessed” by everything and everyone in our lives. And yet, so many of us were and continue to be miserable, uncertainty filling the constant void of joy in our daily lives. For all the blessings we seem to have, media reminds us time and again that insecurity and misery are not that far away. Kids are being bullied, parents are being shamed, we’re broke and in debt, people are lying and cheating, relationships aren’t working and people are dying.

Life hurts.

It hurts so much.

Yet Gratitude tells us, while life hurts, there are so many things for which we should be grateful. The sun, flowers, kind gestures, rain, food, friends, family, art, laughter, music, silence, a bed, our health, and if we have any of these in abundance, then all the better. #blessed

Studies have shown positive mindsets help. According to a Harvard study, “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”[1] Even the Law of Attraction touts positive thoughts. Remember “The Secret”? It wasn’t really a secret. It was merely Law of Attraction in practice.

But I struggle with Gratitude. When I see the viral videos and hear the conversations, I cringe, because while I am cognizant of the benefits of Gratitude, I am extremely wary of how it’s being sold to the public. Not because it doesn’t work (although more often than not it kinda doesn’t since it requires a certain wiring that many don’t have), but because for most, it ends up masking their deepest issues and pain, denying the opportunity for real healing because they’re too busy focusing their minds on their gratitude lists.

And if those deep issues remain unhealed, no matter how grateful we are for the good albeit small things in our lives, our issues will inevitably come crashing down like a huge wave to wake us up. Depending on how long we’ve ignored or avoided them, the dissonance that awareness of our pain and issues brings can be extremely jarring and even disturbing. We may not have wanted to remember hurtful episodes or trauma. We may have demons buried so deep that uncovering them may feel like a death or throw us into a spiral of depression.

And trying to feel grateful for anything while in this state is, at a minimum, disingenuous and, at most, a stage of self-denial, which is unproductive.

We’ve long denied our emotions. We’re taught to suppress our anger. We’re told that crying is for the weak. We’re addicted to things that make us happy or at least a little (or a lot) less unhappy. To survive our world, we’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms and fine-tuned them over the years to make them socially acceptable. We haven’t really improved our states of being. Rather, we’ve hidden them behind beautiful masks which we put forward in our daily lives and on social media.

Gratitude is one of those masks, a coping mechanism in a world in desperate need for Compassion. It tells us to look at the positives while we still need to tend to the negatives. It compels us to remain on a spectrum of good and bad, a spectrum of polarity that in a world of true Compassion, cannot exist. Because Compassion is about being in step with others, and in step with ourselves. Without thinking or rationalizing or justifying any of it. It means holding everything — from others to experiences and who we are — in complete and holistic integrity. And in this state, everything just Is. No matter how well-intentioned Gratitude is, it must come from Love. If it doesn’t, it lacks integrity. But the trick is that Love cannot be accessed through the mind.

So how do we get to Love if Gratitude isn’t the key?

To get to this space of Love, where we are conscious that our entire existence is Love in its purest form, we can only come at it from a place of Compassion. This is accessed through the Heart.

Our capacity to love is measured by how much we love ourselves.

How many can honestly say they Love themselves? Not the narcissistic kind of love measured by outward success or money or the kind of sacrificial love expected of parents and caregivers. But real, unconditional, unequivocal Love.

Not many.

Perhaps the Enlightened peddlers of the Gratitude Myth. I can see that. I can understand that there are some who have attained that holy grail of human existence. But most of us haven’t. Most of us really struggle to muddle our way through the grind on a daily basis. Most are stuck in their homes, in dead-end jobs, in relationships, in debt, in endless cycles.

When we’re conditioned to believe our worthiness comes from outward approval and validation, Love will elude us. It becomes the rabbit at the dog track. We chase it but never get it. If we rationalize love, then it ceases to be Love, but a concept in our minds to be attained. Love is not something to be attained, however, because it’s within us. It’s within each and every one of us.

It requires that we look inside ourselves. That we sit with our emotions. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. No emotion can be denied without consequence. It will crop up until it’s tended to. Perhaps it’ll manifest in a relationship or at work or in our physical bodies. However it presents itself, we must acknowledge it. It wants our attention.

Sadness, disappointment, anger all want and need our attention because they are blocks to Self-Love. And Self-Love begins with Emotional Consciousness. Emotional Consciousness is not from the conscious mind, but the conscious heart.

A conscious heart is an open heart. One that is capable of experiencing all emotions. When we achieve Compassion, we can allow these emotions to flow harmoniously, wherever they may fall on the emotional spectrum from happiness to sadness, and anywhere in between. Not a single emotion would have to be avoided because when we are in Love with ourselves, that is, when we recognize from within that our existence is purely Love, then nothing can shift that.

Naturally, we can still feel angry or sad or disappointed. I felt angry the other day, and it stayed with me for a few hours. It was productive because it helped burn through the problem that made me angry. It gave me a great deal of clarity around the issue and allowed me to channel that emotion where it needed to go. It didn’t cloud Love. Love was still there, channeled right along with the anger. I didn’t deny it. I didn’t tell myself to be grateful that I wasn’t directly impacted. Instead I allowed it. I allowed the emotion. I gave it room to breathe, to take up residence in my heart for however long it needed to be there and then it went away.

If it didn’t go away, then I’d know there was something wrong. That the feeling was showing me an unresolved part of myself that was triggered by the event. A fear that belied the feeling I couldn’t see before. And that’s what I’d have to get to. This part isn’t easy, which is why we so often dive right into our coping mechanisms before we can get to the core of our issues. To numb us from our sadness or disappointment or pain. Because it hurts to look at ourselves, our imperfections, our flaws, those things that made us feel small, that clipped our wings before we had a chance to fly. It hurts to acknowledge how we sold ourselves short, diminished ourselves and our light to fit in and be accepted by our peers. It hurts that we were never chosen by someone we liked or even loved or rejected for our ideas by someone or an institution we respected.

The reality is that our hearts have been broken time and again and no amount of Gratitude will glue them back together. At most, it’ll make us feel a little less broken without having to fix anything.

Owning our emotions is the first step toward true spiritual and emotional maturity. All of them, all of them, all of them.

Transformation requires seeing that our hurts created a sort of glitch that threw us into a loop where everything and everyone in our lives mirrored back that issue, staying with us until we reach that Aha! moment.

So instead of diving into our coping mechanisms, we need to dive instead into our emotions, our hurt. We need to go deep until we reach that core issue that actually has nothing to do with our friends or families or situations, but really with our separation from ourselves. That moment when we fell and didn’t have the wherewithal to pick ourselves up from it. The moment we came to believe that we were not Love.

I won’t advocate this method as a practice for everyone. We all need to discover what works for us. There are a multitude of pathways to come into Love. Some may begin with the mind, like meditation. But they do not ever end there.[2]

Rather than sell you on the Gratitude Myth or the Happiness Scale, I’d prefer to promote benefits of Loving Yourself, how coming to Love yourself and seeing yourself as the Divine Expression of true and immutable Love is the antidote to your misery, shame, and sadness. Not the love of another, but the loving relationship you can develop within yourself. To me, that’s the Enlightenment that eludes many of us. And yet, we have the power to get there because only we can Love who we are. No amount of Love from another person will transform, heal or save us. No matter what the media or social media tell us. We just have to remember what powerful beings we are.

The first step takes Courage.

Courage to acknowledge and own who we are. Courage to ask for help if we cannot do it ourselves. Courage to admit when something isn’t working. Courage to confront those emotions and behaviors that do not serve us. Courage to believe and have faith in ourselves. Courage to ignore the well-intentioned theories and practices of others and find that which really works for us. Courage to not measure ourselves or be shamed by the judgments of others. Courage to wake up and go to bed every day with a sense of purpose.

What we need more than Gratitude is Courage.