How To Not Use Gratitude (or any emotion) Against Yourself

Nov 28, 2022

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Guilty gratitude. We’ve all experienced it one time or another. That thought that invades and tells you you “ought to” feel grateful. But you don’t. So you try to muster it up… but it’s not true gratitude. It’s only a form of guilt, layering a false emotion on top of your real one. Layering gratitude like this is unhelpful.

So what is helpful? Being honest. Not judging yourself for your emotions. Viewing them more objectively.  After all, what if some emotions simply feel better than others but that doesn’t necessarily make them somehow morally superior? What if we can learn how to not use gratitude (or any emotion) against ourselves?

“Can you also cultivate being grateful for not being grateful?... For not being perfect maybe? For having this wonderfully messy human life that we have?”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • Subtle judgment 
  • Improper uses of gratitude
    • Shoulding
    • Staying stuck
    • Tolerating
  • You are not your feelings 
  • Don’t cover, be real

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

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I'm Dr. Sarah Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician Podcast, episode number 42.

Welcome to the Stressless Physician Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. I am excited to be here. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, if you were listening to this the week after here in the United States. And I know last week I talked about gratitude and I was thinking more about it, because this comes up actually not infrequently in my coaching with clients, and I also notice it with myself as well. And it sort of goes back to something I've talked about before, which is I think a mistake, it's very common, but a mistake or a way that we use sort of, self improvement or self development or self coaching, but we use it against ourselves. It's this sort of subtle judgment or belief that if only we were different, we would somehow be better.

I think I've referred to it in a quote as sort of the subtle aggression against oneself, of self improvement. So what I wanted to talk to you about today was how to not use gratitude or really any sort of thought or emotion against yourself. And to sort of review the top three ways that I most commonly see and have done myself to sort of use gratitude against myself, sort of as a weapon against myself or certainly against my better interest in some ways.

So I'll start by saying, I think that gratitude, again, as I talked about last week on the podcast, is incredibly powerful. There are studies that show that it can not only cause a variety of improvements in health and wellness, but also improve our ability to be resilient, to meet challenges, and of course, importantly, it just feels good. When you feel grateful for anything in your life, genuinely grateful, it feels warm and comforting and pleasant. It feels better than a lot of our other emotions. But that doesn't mean that feeling grateful is somehow morally superior to any of our other emotions. There are just some emotions that feel better.

I realize now that I'm in the middle of a little rainstorm and my wind chime is right outside my window and it is going a little crazy, so if you hear it, apologies. Today, I usually unhook it and I completely forgot. So that is just a little caveat. If you hear the chimes of my wind chime, we're having a little rainstorm here, which we love in California. So sorry for that interruption.

So going back to what I was saying about gratitude or really any emotion is that I think often we think that it's better to feel grateful somehow morally better, or makes us a better person, versus feeling angry or feeling resentful, or feeling sorry for ourselves or anything. But I just wanna remind you that an emotion is just an emotion, right? It's a series of sensations in the body triggered by our thoughts that then cause a complex neurochemical cascade. And there are certainly some emotions that feel better, they feel more pleasant, some even just feel more comfortable.

But what if there's no value? What if there's no moral superiority to feeling grateful or any other emotion? So the top three ways that I see that people use gratitude against themselves, and you can substitute any emotion here rather than gratitude. The first is when you tell yourself you should be grateful, or any other emotion, as a way of trying to get yourself out of a negative emotion that you don't like or you think you shouldn't be feeling. So, say you're feeling angry about something. Maybe it's that the power has gone out and you're upset that the power has gone out. You weren't warned about it, you weren't anticipating it, but that rather than notice that you're having thoughts that are creating a sense of frustration or anger for you, you tell yourself, "Oh, I should be grateful. At least I have, whatever, hot water still or something else." Or it might be that you're at work and dealing with a lack of staff or some other issue that's going on, and rather than allow yourself to notice the thoughts you're thinking and how they're creating the emotion that you're feeling, maybe resentment or frustration or anything like that, you tell yourself, "Well, at least I should be grateful that I have a job, or at least I should be grateful that I have one medical assistant."

And that actually might be a thought that you do actually believe. And then if you were thinking independently of whatever else is going on would create authentic gratitude for, but you'll notice when you're doing this, when you're sort of telling yourself you should be grateful and trying to layer gratitude on top of a negative emotion, it doesn't really work. You aren't gonna feel grateful.

It's sort of like when my puppy gets the bathroom mat dirty, and I just flip it over so that it appears clean. The other side is clean, but the underside is still dirty. It doesn't like erase that at all. And so this idea of shoulding, like, "I should be grateful or I should feel appreciative, or I should feel however", as a way to try to cover up a negative emotion doesn't really work. And in fact, it stops you from really appreciating that the reason you're feeling whatever emotion in the first place, frustration or anger, resentment, is because of your thinking. You won't actually have any access to that.

So, in terms of this, I just wanna remind you that there's no prize, right, for feeling any particular emotion. Just notice if you think that there is some sort of moral obligation or moral benefit to thinking certain thoughts, or feeling a certain way. A lot of the time we think that it means, "I'm a better person if I'm someone who's grateful all the time". But what if no one emotion is more worth or better than another?

Some just feel better, and I would say some of those better feeling emotions probably will cause you to take actions and get results that you like. It doesn't mean that you don't wanna cultivate that, but just notice if you're putting a moral judgment on it. Make sure you weren't shaming yourself or judging yourself for a thought that your brain offers up and then telling yourself you should be grateful, as a way of trying to erase that original thought.

We don't have to erase those thoughts. We actually wanna look at them. We wanna shine the flashlight on what we're thinking, what our patterns of thinking are, and telling yourself you should feel a certain way isn't very helpful. Anytime you tell yourself you should think or feel something, one, it means you aren't thinking or feeling that, and it creates this immediate sense of obligation and shame. You'll feel obligation and shame because you're really creating a moral value here and then using it against yourself, that's the weapon against yourself here.

And from a practical standpoint, it's just not helpful if you're genuinely wanting to feel more positive emotion, or have different results in your life. So again, whatever thought you're offering, that you should be grateful because of X, Y, and Z, you might actually be grateful for those, but not as a cure or as a coverup for the original negative emotion.

So that's probably the main way that I see people use gratitude against themselves. The other two are really sort of related to each other. One is using gratitude to keep yourself stuck. And so I see this again as a way where you tell yourself you should be grateful as a way to deal with the real fear of change. It's a way that your brain sort of is sneaky in that rather than venture outside the cave, rather than staying safe in the confines of whatever life you're living now, if you've discovered that you genuinely want to create something new or something different, go outside your comfort zone.

Often one way of sort of staying safe is for our brain to offer us the caveat that, "Oh, we should be grateful for what we have. We shouldn't want more. We shouldn't expect more. We should just be grateful for probably being better off than the majority of the world's population." if you're someone who's listening to this podcast, likely you live in a safe environment, relatively safe environment, you most likely don't have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, whether you have electricity or hot running water, have a roof over your head, have a lot of benefits that a large portion of the population on this planet maybe don't have. And yet, you can be grateful for what you have, and still want to change. And so notice if you use gratitude as a way to tell yourself, you don't really know what you want or as a way to keep yourself in the same situation, to keep yourself stuck.

And the third way that I see a lot of my clients using gratitude against themselves is very similar to this. And it's using gratitude to talk yourself into tolerating what you no longer want to tolerate or don't wanna tolerate. And that's the idea, again, of can you be grateful for everything that you do have in your life, genuinely and authentically, and are you also allowed to want more or want different, or to want to change things? So just notice if, when you start scheming or dreaming or thinking about right ways that you would like to change your life not to feel better, but because you genuinely want to, you wanna experience something else, you want to challenge yourself or anything, you wanna just have a different experience, can you be grateful and want more and want different? Or does your brain then offer you the thought, "Oh, right, that's too much. You shouldn't want more. Maybe you're being selfish or maybe you are expecting too much."

You then wanna notice those thoughts. Those are the thoughts to look at, right? What are your thoughts you have? Where does your brain offer you that? I should be grateful, but look at those other beliefs those are the ones to look at.

And again, this goes back to what I was talking about in the beginning, the idea that being a person who is grateful is somehow better than someone who's not. And I think that's sort of a cultural thing maybe. And it certainly might feel better. And again, there's research on genuine gratitude, and the benefits of it. But notice if you're using it as a way to either quickly avoid or paper over a negative emotion, throw a carpet over a stain or something like that, or using it to keep yourself stuck or to keep yourself tolerating something you don't wanna tolerate.

So again, this work of coaching or coaching and personal growth and development, this work is about looking at your thoughts and feelings without shame or judgment. And if you have judgment, you'll probably notice it cuz you'll feel shame, maybe obligation or resentment. You wanna notice that too. Isn't that interesting? Isn't that interesting? Of course I'm feeling shame because I'm having thoughts that are judging my emotions and thoughts.

So what if it's not morally better to be positive or to feel more positive emotions, or to be grateful or happy? What if they're just all emotions and some just feel better than others? I do think, and this I would say, test for yourself, of course, that I think that the actions we take from more positive emotions, from gratitude, from contentment, from happiness, from engagement, from all of those are probably actions that are going to create results that we enjoy more than actions we take from feelings of scarcity, anger, resentment, shame. I think those are emotions that generally don't fuel a lot of positive action, so you can just notice that.

But what if no one emotion is more acceptable or better than another? Just notice if you have judgements about what you're thinking or what you're feeling. I just wanna remind you, I truly believe that there is no emotion or thought that means anything about you as a person. Thinking something doesn't make you a better person or a worse person, having a emotion like gratitude doesn't make you a better person than someone who's currently angry. They're all just feelings in our body coming from our thoughts, and what we wanna do is pay more attention to what's going on in our head.

So one practice is, can you also cultivate being grateful for not being grateful, for not being perfect, maybe for having this wonderfully messy human life that we have and sometimes not getting it right or not doing really as well as we would've liked? Can we be grateful for all of that? The key with all of this is to be honest with what you actually are thinking or feeling. Can you not try to make any thought or feeling unacceptable or mean anything about you as a person? Otherwise, if you can't be honest with yourself, you'll try to pretend or you'll try to cover up what you're actually thinking and feeling with thoughts and emotions that sound better. And that's, you'll notice, when you tell yourself you should be grateful or you shouldn't be angry, you should appreciate what you have. You should tolerate what you don't wanna tolerate. That's using this work against yourself, and that's what I really hope to share with you and just point out if this is something that maybe you're doing and not even realizing.

So all of this is the opposite of really being grateful for your life. Can you be grateful for all of it? Can you love all parts of yourself and your life and still allow yourself to want to show up differently, to wanna change things. And I think it's wonderful to be genuinely grateful.

It's an emotion that feels amazing in the body, right? And has a lot of other benefits. Just notice if you're using it against yourself in these very common ways. All right, love talking with you. I will catch up with you next week. All right, bye.

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