I had a lot to be grateful for. So why did I feel so isolated?
“Someone else has it worse. At least that’s not you.”
We’ve all heard variations of that refrain. It’s a common saying that’s meant to inspire gratitude for what we have. So I listened.
Whenever things got tough, I made it a habit to mentally list three things I was grateful for.
As I got older, it was no longer just well-meaning adults reminding me things could be worse. Altruistic Instagram gurus urged me to practice gratitude.
There’s also robust research supporting gratitude’s benefits.
It seemed like a no-brainer to develop a full-on gratitude practice. Before going to bed each evening, I wrote down three things I was grateful for.
Didn’t do well on an exam? Well, I had a home and was in school.
Went through a breakup? At least I had supportive friends.
And when I started developing chronic pain in my early 20s? I could still function most days.
I had a lot to be grateful for. So why did my gratitude practice make me feel so isolated?
I thought that being actively grateful helped put my worries in perspective. After all, these were small concerns compared to what other people were going through.
At the time, I didn’t realize how problematic this thought process was. My version of gratitude was just a way to invalidate my emotions.
Gratitude is a complicated thing. There’s a thin line between gratefulness and comparison, and it was only after I quit my gratitude practice that I realized how far I’d fallen on the wrong side of that line.
It’s hard to actually define gratitude. It can be understood as both a state of being and a personal trait.
Ultimately, it’s a form of appreciation, whether that’s being thankful for a specific situation or a wider life perspective.
According to Rev. Connie L. Habash, who’s been a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in Redwood City, California, for over 20 years, “When we practice gratitude, we shift our attention from what’s wrong or missing to what is here.”
This “shift” can be done through a variety of methods, including:
- gratitude letters
- gratitude jar or box
- the “Three Good Things” exercise
There’s a reason gratitude is so popular: It works. At least for some people.
In other words, it’s not a blanket cure for mental health issues, but it still largely leads to a more positive outlook on life.
Studies show that gratitude can:
It took me a long time to admit to myself that my gratitude practice just wasn’t working, despite all the proven benefits. In fact, it was making me feel worse.
My transition from gratitude-journaling devotee to breaking up with my gratitude practice happened in my early 20s. That was when I started experiencing chronic pain.
The thing about chronic pain is that it creeps up on you. You’re not fully aware of it until it’s well underway, like the analogy of the frog in hot water.
There wasn’t a day that I woke up and realized “I have chronic pain now.” Instead, my reality gradually changed over a couple of years.
This made it easy to write off my pain each night in my gratitude journal. I convinced myself that my health was relatively good, at least compared to others.
I didn’t think my pain was normal, but I also didn’t think I was in danger. I could walk, eat, work, and function relatively well.
I could no longer run, do yoga, or be as social as I used to, but I should be grateful for what my body was capable of, instead of focusing on what it couldn’t do… right?
I went to the doctor a few times, but I understated my pain. I did the same thing mentally each night in my gratitude journal.
The doctors recommended lifestyle changes, but I knew deep down there was something bigger that needed investigating. For years, I didn’t push it. Who was I to receive medical help for my small problems, when other people had it so much worse?
Looking back, it’s heartbreaking to see that thought process. I had somehow used my gratitude practice to convince myself I wasn’t worthy of medical help.
Instead of encouraging positive emotions and hope, I used my gratitude practice to invalidate my own feelings and experiences.
Who was I to receive medical help for my small problems, when other people had it so much worse?
Obviously, something had gone very wrong in my gratitude practice. By constantly invalidating my experience, I wasn’t giving myself the space to acknowledge what was happening and process my feelings.
“Gratitude shouldn’t be practiced in a way that compares ourselves to others,” says Habash. “It’s not about who has it worse or better. It’s about finding what is available to us, here and now, that we can appreciate.”
Being grateful for what I had in comparison to others led me to dismiss my own pain. In reality, other people having worse pain doesn’t mean my pain wasn’t equally worthy of help.
There’s room to acknowledge the bad and the good.
“It’s important when practicing gratitude not to invalidate your feelings of stress,” says Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist and author in Brandon, Florida, and past president of the Florida Psychological Association.
“You can have both: a strong sense of gratitude along with feelings of sadness, confusion, or anxiety,” says Hammond.
We’re told that just because something terrible happens in your life, that doesn’t mean you can’t also be grateful. But this rule applies in reverse. Just because you’re grateful doesn’t mean your negative emotions aren’t valid.
I quit my gratitude practice, fought for the medical care I deserved, and was ultimately diagnosed with endometriosis. This was the source of my chronic pain.
My mental health vastly improved once I stopped using gratitude as a way to negate my stress and worries. Instead, I embraced them.
Just because you’re grateful doesn’t mean your negative emotions aren’t valid.
With the onset of the COVID-19, my old feelings of “gratitude guilt” came creeping back.
During the pandemic, many conversations have shifted to comparing our circumstances to those of other people:
“At least you haven’t gotten sick yet. At least you don’t know someone who’s died. At least you have your job. At least you didn’t end up in the ICU.” The list goes on.
Everyone has a different version of this. They’re all riffs on that age-old adage of “Be grateful for what you have because someone else has it worse.”
Both Hammond and Habash have noticed a rise in patients struggling to practice gratitude since the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s all relative. Just because you have [a job or aren’t sick] doesn’t mean you don’t feel sorrow, loneliness, or anxiety,” says Habash.
Comparing our own situations to others can be harmful, especially during the pandemic. Just because someone else is in a different situation doesn’t mean we aren’t also justified in feeling stressed or worried.
I quit my gratitude practice, but that wasn’t because practicing gratitude is inherently wrong. I just needed to change the way I thought about gratefulness.
Here are a few ways you can adjust your own gratitude practice for your mental wellness.
This isn’t a fake-it-till-you-make-it situation. Pretending you’re grateful when you’re actually not will just serve to bury your feelings. You don’t need to force yourself to think about your life in a way that isn’t true to you.
Little over big
If you’re struggling to find things you’re authentically grateful for, then try to think little over big.
Habash recommends starting small, with examples like breath, birdsong, or just the flame of a candle. This might feel more real than trying to convince yourself that your life is perfect and you should be grateful for everything in it.
Validate, validate, validate
Practice validation alongside gratitude.
“Don’t think you must choose gratitude or being upset. Think of it as feeling upset and you also practice gratitude,” says Hammond.
Remember that your feelings are real, and you’re worthy of being upset or discontent.
Stay away from comparisons
Your experience can exist at the same time as others who “have it worse” and be equally worthy of receiving help. This doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful.
Getting help when you need it is a responsible way to care for yourself.
It’s OK to not replace your gratitude practice with anything if it’s harming your mental well-being.
After quitting my gratitude practice, I never returned to a formal journaling system. I needed to first relearn how to be grateful in a way that was emotionally authentic and free of comparison.
I found true gratefulness not through journaling or lists of threes, but through fighting for the medical answers around my pain.
I’m grateful for the life I was given, and I show it by standing up for the standard of living I deserve.
Sarah Bence is an occupational therapist (OTR/L) and freelance writer, primarily focusing on health, wellness, and travel topics. Her writing can be seen in Business Insider, Insider, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, and others. She also writes about gluten-free, celiac-safe travel at www.endlessdistances.com.