Gratitude may be overrated, at least for some
January 27, 2019 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Not everyone's life is made better by focusing on things to be grateful for. Gratitude Lists Are B.S. — It Was an "Ingratitude" List That Saved Me is one person's account of how gratitude lists were making things worse, and how flipping it around was the key to healing, growth, and progress.
posted by dancing leaves (65 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis so much.

Telling someone who is suffering to try to compare themselves to someone who has it worse off just makes it worse - "my problems are hurting me, but they're smaller than that other person's problems, so I guess the ream problem is that I'm too sensitive and should suck it up, so this is my own fault, great."

No. It is not your fault if hurtful things hurt you. And other people trying to get you to "look on the bright side" or "at least you don't have X going on" don't have the right to rate your pain. There is not a universal standard problem scale; if you're being hurt by something, you're being hurt by something, and other people should help you with it instead of telling you it's not that bad.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:02 AM on January 27, 2019 [47 favorites]

I have trouble figuring out what to even write. I journal inconsistently but I do end with a “I am thankful for...” because that is what you are supposed to do. I don’t know if it’s my depression or a crap life but I struggle to write something.

Of course I love my kids and wife and I could put them down every time but what is the point of that. I have a warm, dry place to live and enough food and a job (for now). How does listing those same few things over and over help? It doesn’t seem to.

So then I reach for new things like, hey, I got mostly green lights on the commute today. So? Yay me, I guess?

Clearly I don’t understand the life affirming power of the gratitude process. Another reason I suck. *sigh*
posted by pixlboi at 6:24 AM on January 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

What helps me - besides working through personal stuff, and not shying away from grief - is really looking at and acknowledging the systemic issues behind our alienation and isolation. How systems continually pit us against each other and against ourselves. This may sound weird, but reading critical theory has done wonders for my mental health.

Not to discount meds and therapy - they can be lifesavers! - and of course nobody in deep depression is going to get anything out of sociopolitical studies. But once you‘re not in survival mode, try the big picture. Don‘t get bogged down in how you ‚should‘ feel about the world. Look at how your feelings might be a healthy, appropriate reaction to the world.
posted by The Toad at 6:30 AM on January 27, 2019 [47 favorites]

Back when I was on Facebook I used to hate it when #gratitudelist season would roll around. Maybe the practice is salutary for some when done in private, I dunno, but in the context of social media it always felt like conspicuous consumption for feelings.
posted by eirias at 6:37 AM on January 27, 2019 [21 favorites]

Gratitude journaling is for people like me, who aren’t depressed (any more) but are a kinda stressed out right now and need a little refocusing. They only work if your default mood is “hey, things are actually pretty great” and you’ve need a little nudge to get back on that track. If your default mood is anything else... gratitude journaling is not going to be able to catapult you over the wall that is depression. You’re most likely just going to beat your head against the wall until you hurt yourself.

(Not to say that it can never help with depression. But I suspect those cases are a little rarer and require a special kind of framing and approach to the process, and different needs.)
posted by brook horse at 6:37 AM on January 27, 2019 [23 favorites]

In time I hope she'll get to a place where both lists can be useful to her. It's easy to lose track of the ground truths in your life, be they good or bad.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:45 AM on January 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

I'm halfway through this and already three quarters of the way to tears. I spent--I needed--I went to therapy after my apartment burned down and my parents were being utter shits about my partner and my car got broken and I was trying to gamble my relationship on trying, right? I went for the first time in years and I was overwhelmed and I fucking needed to hear that this was hard, and my therapist kept trying to tell me that the problem was me. That I just need to find some fucking time to meditate in their special mindfulness room, like if I really wanted to not be miserable I should abandon my poor dog even longer and sit in a peaceful room with my feelings and reflect on how good I had it really!

I am so angry about this! I am so fucking angry about this mind over matter bullshit that tells us that we can be happy no matter how shitty things are going, like the only obstacle to our joy is ourselves even when things are objectively shitty!

I just needed room to be told by someone, confidently and objectively, that I was dealing with some bullshit and that it was understandable that I was struggling with that. I could articulate that to myself and I even tried to articulate it to a series of mental health professionals. And they were so fucking up their own asses with mindfulness and gratitude that they kept telling me that my stress and pain and guilt were my own fault, really, again and again and again. Because no one wants to admit that sometimes, the situation really is fucking shitty, and the person dealing with it really does have limited control, and all you can do is honor that pain and help them hold it.

I will never be able to forgive certain mental health mindsets for that failure to honor pain.
posted by sciatrix at 6:53 AM on January 27, 2019 [148 favorites]

Like, fuck you, world! Sometimes being depressed and drowning isn't my fucking fault, sometimes it's a totally normal response to external fucking stress, and if a therapist wants to give me some help coping with that she has to acknowledge that I'm dealing with it!

Oh, I am so angry about this still. Fuck gratitude journaling. Fuck everything that says that you should be able to be so resilient that you can just rise above things like a two year old cat slowly shitting herself to death with an incurable disease caused by a mutation in an endemic virus, or being abandoned on the side of the road by someone you were trying to stretch yourself to trust, or being told that every piece of friction in your life--including the stuff that you have good reason to believe is related to existing in an unfair world, the kind of friction where you don't know if it's sexism or heterosexism or ableist or just you--every piece of friction is really, when you get down to it, your fault for not taking better care of yourself.

Fuck that.
posted by sciatrix at 7:00 AM on January 27, 2019 [59 favorites]

I was wondering late last night about the difference between accepting that bad things have happened to you and that you are right to feel bad about them—which I now understand is important to your mental health—and something I was always taught was a cardinal sin, which is “feeling sorry for yourself.” Maybe there’s no difference. Maybe the important thing is how you act, how you honor and integrate those negative feelings into a full and honest perception of your life.

Gratitude lists are difficult for me as an atheist. I do my best to show gratitude to the people I’m grateful to, but I can’t feel gratitude for pure circumstance without a great amount of guilt.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:01 AM on January 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm in a better place now. But that doesn't mean I'm not furious at how badly I am and was failed by our existing mental health institutions, or frankly that I'm not furious at how they particularly fail marginalized people who have suffered systemic, institutional, and relational trauma.
posted by sciatrix at 7:07 AM on January 27, 2019 [30 favorites]

Those looking for a book-length takedown and exploration of the origins of all this positive thinking bullshit should take a look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided.”
posted by rockindata at 7:07 AM on January 27, 2019 [33 favorites]

I was told I should just decide to be happy after my mother skipped town when I was a toddler. I've considered the possibility that this was effectively child abuse.
posted by idiopath at 7:16 AM on January 27, 2019 [17 favorites]

Maybe the practice is salutary for some when done in private, I dunno, but in the context of social media it always felt like conspicuous consumption for feelings.

I’m grateful that doesn’t happen here :)
posted by Barack Spinoza at 7:30 AM on January 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

The problem with that kind of gratitude practice, for me, is that a lot of my negative self-talk duplicates my parent going on about how I should think of people who have "real problems." A lot of the stuff that's fed to kids is, even when it's positive, some kind of reproach that you are not doing more with whatever it is you've got. Along with a suggestion that whatever you've got is unearned and you are squandering it.

If it was about making lists of things that are going right, including with your own efforts and/or with help from outside, with luck or whatever-- and yes, as the author suggests, DESPITE roadblocks that are set in your path-- it would have a little less of that "think of the starving children" problem. And in fact I do sometimes remind myself to put setbacks in the context of things that are going right.
posted by BibiRose at 7:31 AM on January 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

Sometimes, as I understand it, depression can involve negative thought spirals. When that is a symptom that someone exhibits, having some tools to interrupt the negative thought spirals is important. For some people, that might be a gratitude list - as a component of an overall mental health and wellness plan.

Some people are not depressed or anything, but maybe they've been listening to too much sensationalist, fear-mongering "news" or politicians; or they are financially secure and doing relatively well at life, but only compare themselves to people better off than them, or are white and wealthy but think that violent crime by Black or brown or poor people is an immanent threat to themselves. For these people, gratitude journaling could be a component of developing a more reality-based understanding of their socio-economic position - along with education about how systemic inequality work and such.

One thing I've noticed in my years as an educator is that generally if you give a piece of advice or an extra credit opportunity to a heterogeneous class of folks, often the ones who don't need it will take up your advice or extra credit offer, and the ones who do need it will think it doesn't apply to them or will otherwise ignore it. Like, no, Very Anxious High Achieving Student, I did not mean that you needed to pay better attention in class, weren't effectively engaging in small group work, or need to spend more time reading or studying outside of class. I've also noticed that lots of both physical and mental health advice gets spread around social media as if it will apply to everyone or is a panacea for all ills. With similar results. I some reasonable conclusions are:

(a) If the advice or "solution" makes claims of universality or is recommended to you without any assessment of your specific situation, you can safely ignore it - and unfollow the friend who re-posted that stuff, change therapists, cut that judgy relative out of your life, etc.

(b) Don't give non-specific, panacea-type advice yourself. Just because it worked for you, doesn't mean it's appropriate for someone else. Relatedly, just because it wasn't for you doesn't mean it's not going to be useful for someone else.

(c) Burn that "The Secret" bs to the ground. Real problems exist. Collective and systemic problems, requiring collective rather than individual solutions, exist. They aren't the sum total of all problems and accurately assessed individual solutions are going to be an important component in specific individual cases, but they are a very large proportion of the problems
posted by eviemath at 7:36 AM on January 27, 2019 [32 favorites]

I am reminded of the description of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as "ways to convince yourself everything is okay and you're not hurting" which is probably cool if things are mostly okay

but if you're trying to cope with grief or trauma

it's a way to try to pretend that you don't have a limb caught in a bear trap.
posted by bagel at 7:38 AM on January 27, 2019 [30 favorites]

That's what I am being told, that I am hypersensitive, that I just need to look at other's problems to lighten up. It's really hard when you can't feel gratitude, aching from the inside. No one seems to understand.
posted by sophieJu at 7:39 AM on January 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

...and also if your first reaction is like "maybe for other people, but for me, it's absolutely definitely not literally a bear trap, or anything, I mean, it totally could have been worse, like, that's obvious and extreme hyperbole, that's totally unreasonable, I'm overreacting, you might not be overreacting but I am, it's not that big a deal, come on, calm down, don't worry about it, it really wasn't that big a deal, and it's not as bad as it was, maybe it sort of kind of meets technical criteria for the official term I guess if you insist, but not really, it doesn't count and I'm not going to call it that and you can't make me and and and and and..."

it is possible you're right, especially if you have only a small fraction of those thoughts. but I found it helpful to learn "to rugsweep" as a verb for minimizing and covering up problems, and a thing that is harder to stop if you're not naming it or acknowledging it.

also I hope my new therapist this week works out
posted by bagel at 7:55 AM on January 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

I love that the author finally found someone to acknowledge their pain. Just that simple thing seemed huge. I must remember that.
The Toad, could you share a get-started reading list?
posted by evilmomlady at 7:56 AM on January 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

Thank you so much for sharing this article. I'm partway through, and I find myself emphatically agreeing with every sentence. I particularly like this part:

Depression isn't a sign of selfishness or ingratitude. Smiling doesn't help. Thinking of how much worse others have it than you certainly doesn't help. I honestly can't imagine how it ever would. Why would thinking of someone else's more horrific suffering ease my own? It's like telling someone they have nothing to cry about because they're not dying of dysentery while working 14 hours a day in a third world sweatshop. You can still be depressed without being a subjected to constant torture in a POW camp.

posted by litera scripta manet at 7:56 AM on January 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

Oh, and this line, which sums up really well why being told to write gratitude lists can feel so oppressive:

Gratitude lists imply that those of us who are in pain are choosing misery and just aren't working hard enough and that if we just think happy thoughts we'll float up above our problems like the kids in Peter Pan.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:01 AM on January 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

sometimes the modern turn towards mindfulness in therapy seems to forget that mindfulness involves attending to what is actually happening. and sometimes what is actually happening sucks, and it's painful, and it's more than anyone should be asked to deal with.

in these situations, the point of mindfulness is to sit with the pain and maybe gain some insight into it, and to avoid magnifying it into suffering. it's not a solvent that makes pain go away.

the worst part of modern psychology glomming onto mindfulness is the idea that meditating will make you feel better, when what it will do is make you feel more skillfully.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:02 AM on January 27, 2019 [84 favorites]

sciatrix- everything- FUCK YES.

bagel- absolutely, CBT has been claimed as a panacea however the research itself on actual long term impact in PTSD and many other issues is debatable giving that 2 years is commonly what's referred to as "long term".

systematic review of randomized control trials of CBT in PTSD in 2018
"Due to the lack of control groups in the follow-up period in six of the eight studies included in this review, there is still no proper methodological basis to assert that CBT has lasting effects in the treatment of PTSD. Our study found serious methodological shortcomings and the need to fill this gap in the literature through the development of studies with robust and sophisticated designs."

I am going into counseling as a profession and one of my goals is actually more about advocacy against some of this harmful bullshit that is prolific and actively hurting people, not only in new wage/guru/enlightenmentinthreeeasysteps culture, but even in licensed therapy. It's heinous. And it needs to stop. I finally found a good therapist and basically a lot of what we wound up doing is chewing up and spitting out a lot of the bullshit that had been put on me by other licensed health professionals and that is festering in the mental health profession as a whole.
posted by xarnop at 8:06 AM on January 27, 2019 [22 favorites]

> I was wondering late last night about the difference between accepting
> that bad things have happened to you and that you are right to feel bad
> about them—which I now understand is important to your mental health—and
> something I was always taught was a cardinal sin, which is “feeling
> sorry for yourself.” Maybe there’s no difference.

I think there's a very big difference. The first is about what has happened, the second is about your own experience in response to it.

That said, "feeling sorry for yourself" is a rather snide way of describing taking care of your own emotional needs. If you feel shitty about something, feel shitty. There's no list of acceptable emotions.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:16 AM on January 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

Yeah, call me Catholic but “I’m thankful” and “I’m sorry” have always shared the same space for me. I’ve tried to be creative with that, because it’s pretty baked in. (Excuse me for the self link, but it’s pretty spot on)
posted by es_de_bah at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

It always struck me that maybe thinking about how miserable other people were, in order to make myself feel good, was basically forced Schadenfreude, which can't possibly be healthy.
posted by The otter lady at 9:06 AM on January 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

People who, out of the blue tell you to smile are doing their best to invalidate your experience. They feel good about that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:06 AM on January 27, 2019 [15 favorites]

It also reminds me of how I would mentally rail at myself for my depression, when I was a white cis woman with at least enough to eat and a room to sleep in, "check your privilege", and end up feeling guilty and like a fake liberal and a bad person as well as depressed.
posted by The otter lady at 9:09 AM on January 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

the otter lady, I absolutely hear you. It’s even beginning to affect my writing (... who wants to hear another story from an overeducated white lady, what’s the matter with you, wait where are you going, why can’t you finish this, you’re so useless, who wants ...)
posted by Countess Elena at 9:12 AM on January 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

Gosh yes Countess Elena-- I haven't been able to write much at least in part because I get bogged down in "ok so who is my main character-- a white woman? Who thinks SHE has problems? That's bullshit, you should write about a POC -- but HOW can you even think of writing about someone different's life experiences? You know NOTHING of the suffering they go through, and it's insulting for you to even try. You can't do anything except what you know and no one wants to read that."

This is why I end up writing about otters and rats and dragons instead.
posted by The otter lady at 9:18 AM on January 27, 2019 [19 favorites]

I was lucky enough to have a therapist point out to me at some point that lots of things were not in my control (age, cost of living, being female) and that it was important to acknowledge the very real obstacles I was facing at the time. That is incredibly important, bizarrely rare, and I am grateful, in fact, that I had that experience.

Until I took a Kaiser workshop on depression, nearly two years ago, no one had ever asked me to make a gratitude list. At that point I had been depressed for about a year and I was ready to do just about anything if it might help. So I started making gratitude lists. For awhile I did one every morning. It was a short list of just three things. I don't think the depression workshop told me when or how to do a gratitude list which is a good thing because fuck that.

Over the course of a week, say, my gratitude list often had the same things on it. I had bought a new SoundFreaq alarm clock, and it was often on the list because I loved it so much. Sunshine was listed for sure, and hummingbirds also appeared frequently. That was okay with me; I was about to move in the middle of winter to a much colder, darker place with exactly zero hummingbirds.

I don't do those lists anymore because I don't seem to need to. At the time, I found them useful. Humans appear to be wired to notice the negative stuff to keep us alive. If the negative is mostly minor, as it was in my case, perhaps a list to remind me that there were also good things in my life (as there were) was a helpful thing.

Luckily, nobody asked me to make that kind of list when I was attempting to survive super-shitty circumstances that I had not created but were holding me hostage, essentially. I think it's weird to think that a gratitude list will solve any serious problems. It's not like people get depressed because they are somehow spoiled, ungrateful brats who simply don't appreciate what they have. I think sometimes bullshit advice gets dispensed because all too often there is no individual solution to the cruelty and heartbreak dished up by extreme late-stage capitalism, the patriarchy, white supremacy, etc.

I once heard the rumour (which may well be completely bogus) that some therapists used to give some patients a diagnosis of bipolar disorder rather than borderline personality disorder because various medications were available to those with a bipolar diagnosis. So at least the patients walked away with a prescription and, thus, some hope. Maybe gratitude lists are meant to trigger the placebo response. Who the hell knows?

I was pleasantly surprised that this article was in Good Housekeeping of all places. I remember when women's magazines were basically all about making women feel shitty all the time. This was a nice change. Thanks for posting, OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:22 AM on January 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

I know better than to think I can rise above the injustice, cruelty, and unfairness of the world by willpower. The appropriate response to loss is grief, though grief never behaves appropriately and sometimes causes more loss. The appropriate response to attack is defense (or counter-attack, or escape, or whatever), though I often defend myself in ways that are harmful to me as well. When I need to despair, I allow myself some time to despair, because it might make me feel better, but if that doesn't work, I have to do something else. It probably isn't "make a gratitude list," usually.

I do use the occasional gratitude list when I actually know it's my own attitude that sucks, though, and it does help me sometimes. But I have a list of things to do when I just can't. One thing is that a severely depressed friend and I text pictures of our pets (her dog, my cat) to one another when we're overwhelmed. Another is I eat something I like, or I wash my face, or lie down for a while. I keep the list of things on my phone to try. It's 25 items long. And "make a gratitude list" isn't on it. "Tell myself something kind" is.
posted by Peach at 10:02 AM on January 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

This boils down to "people start to heal, the moment they feel heard". Makes sense.
posted by mazola at 10:04 AM on January 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

In my experience with being forced to do gratitude lists periodically (note: just got gifted with a "gratitude jar" and Post-Its to put in it oh, Friday), this only "works" as a "thing" to do if you have actual things to be grateful for, that you actually feel grateful for even if you weren't being forced to write a gratitude list.

If you are having a shitass life such as the writer of this piece, it becomes very difficult to actually do, has no emotional payoff and I don't think you get the benefits that you are supposed to be getting from it. Like if you absolutely hate your job and it makes you wish you were dead every day, putting "At least I have a job so I'm not homeless yet! Could be worse!" on your gratitude list is technically accurate and legit to put down, buuuuuuut is that really making you feel any better? Sure, sometimes "hey, it could be worse" helps a bit, but not always.

So I really enjoyed reading this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:08 AM on January 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

I just needed room to be told by someone, confidently and objectively, that I was dealing with some bullshit and that it was understandable that I was struggling with that.

god. GOD. There was nothing more emotionally and psychologically degrading, demeaning, exhausting, agonizing, even hateful, than dealing with severe chronic pain and being bombarded constantly with body positivity "learn to love yourself! learn to forgive your body for its flaws!" and other mealymouthed pusillanimous fucking garbage. GOD. Literally the only thing that kept me alive was rage. Fury, incandescent seething fury. Finding doctors who were like "what you're dealing with is, in fact, objectively fucking terrible! your tooth grinding is valid (although bad for your teeth)!" was the second most important thing for recovery; the MOST important thing was refusing to ever, even for a single second, forgive my body its flaws and subsequently deciding to correct them or die trying.

see also that "pain acceptance" article that got posted a while back and in which thread iirc i flipped the fuck out. accept this ice pick in your face 24h a day for 6 years and get back to me.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:32 AM on January 27, 2019 [31 favorites]

Oh thank god it's not just me.

Writing down generic large positive things ("I have enough food to eat. I have a roof over my head.") was simultaneously a really low bar for positivity and also a trigger for feelings of guilt because yes, many people don't have those things and who am I to not find those things to be enough.

If I wrote down trivial positive things (e.g. "I had a nice bagel for breakfast") it just felt really un-compelling when faced off against "My health is crumbling. My dog died. My mother is emotionally abusive and gas-lighting me. I've been forced out of my job and on to sick leave. I've fallen down some stairs and now I'm on crutches. My best friend is suicidal and isolating himself. My cat is sick. Oh wait, now my cat is dead. Medication side effects are terrible. The roof AND the foundation of my house are leaking. My cousin has tragically drowned while on vacation...*" Like, fuck bagels. Who cares about bagels?

But if I wrote down the scant handful of specific-to-me large positive things (e.g. my relationship with my boyfriend) over and over again it just made me more aware of how lost I'd feel/be right now without them. And sure, what are the odds I would lose them? Maybe about the same as the odds that my cousin would drown in Mexico while on a yoga retreat?

TLDR; I decided gratitude lists weren't for me.

* Note: Incomplete list.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:33 AM on January 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

@eviemath; All good points. Seems like so much of this kind of crap behavior mentioned in this thread is people "failing" at the basic job of being people. I struggle with hoping they get better at this and sorry/sad that they're so bad at it (now).

(And of course that's not talking about the ones who've turned that kind of stuff into their own way of being assholes. )
posted by aleph at 10:39 AM on January 27, 2019

My experience as a therapist wasn't that people were depressed because they were ignoring the good in their life. It was that they were depressed because they weren't allowed to be angry.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:02 AM on January 27, 2019 [33 favorites]

So, make them angry with the stuff sciatrix had to put up with as therapy?
(bad joke, please don't kill me)
posted by aleph at 11:28 AM on January 27, 2019

I was an angry kid. A lot of bad stuff happened to me from an early age, and it wasn't about how I chose to look at it. It was just bad. No matter how grateful I was. And I was grateful for a lot of things.

In my teens and twenties I saw "gratitude" as a command to bury my misgivings, self-soothe and self-satisfy, tuck my head down and keep producing and consuming instead of demanding a better world. My mom wanted to know why I was so negative. At the time, I hated her cowardice, but she was just trying to survive. She'd been a hippie once, and gone to women's protests. She stopped when her friends got arrested. After all, she had children to think about, and no money or support network to protect us, should the same happen to her.

She didn't try to make the world better anymore, but she tried to make our day to day life better. She tried her best to tamp down her anger and resentment at the unfairness of everything, so we wouldn't have to stare our mother's suffering in the face all the time. It must've been so hard. Her father died when she was a toddler. Her mother was an alcoholic and her stepfather was, by all accounts, evil. But she had someone else to set an example for. She felt, I think, that she had no choice but to find stuff to be grateful for. Maybe I wanted her to tell me, "It's terrible to be at the mercy of this world," and it would've hurt her to have to acknowledge it. Maybe thinking her suffering wasn't real, that she just needed to be more grateful, was what got her through.

I don't know where I'm going with this; I guess I want to say we were both right, and doing the best we could. It's hard, living a life, and I'm glad you're all still here-- still trying, in whatever way you can.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2019 [14 favorites]

>Writing down the things that made me miserable and furious didn't make them go away either, but it helped me focus on the things in life that I wanted to change because they caused me suffering over and over again. My ingratitude lists gave me direction, focus and helped me move away from shame and toward acceptance and action.

I think this here’s the key. Reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, about changing what you can, accepting what you can’t, and wanting the wisdom to know the difference. Sometimes you get locked into thinking you’re stuck and forget you have options. Or you’re so ground down, you lost the energy required to imagine other options. Or you get suckered into rationalizing yourself into staying in a bad situation thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. Your horizon of expectations shrinks, you become resigned.

If building ingratitude can lead to understanding and accepting real limits and opportunities, and generating enough dissatisfaction to act, that’s a useful thing.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:39 AM on January 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

I am grateful for Metafilter and this post and comments. I tried a daily gratitude list. It didn’t last, for many of the same reasons others have posted. I do like the idea of an ingratitude list. One thing I do try to list daily is “what have I noticed today?”. This may be the abscence of deer in the yard, the elaborate embossed nails on the receptionist, the color of the leaves on the trees on a walk, etc. Noticing and remembering to write it down, sometimes points me to a direction I might want to pursue, especially if I can see a consistent pattern.
posted by Sunday Morning at 11:49 AM on January 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

Despite having a lot of really good family and friend support, I had a hard time after my first pregnancy loss. It was a traumatic, second trimester loss of a much wanted pregnancy after years of infertility. To top it all off, our cats had both died in quick succession afterwards.

After encouragement from my partner and friends, I went to a counsellor. She seemed very uncomfortable with my grief and, after I told her the bare bones of what had happened--maybe 3 minutes of recounting it, tops--wanted to talk about CBT methods to help me cope. I felt worse than before I had talked to her.

So, I will never forget the enormous relief and validation I felt when I went to a new counsellor who, on our first session, asked me to tell her what had been happening on my life. She let me talk until I was finished--probably at least 20 minutes solid. On hearing my story (years of infertility, followed by a much wanted pregnancy that ended traumatically in the second trimester, followed by all our pets dying one after the other in rapid succession), she just said quietly, I'm so sorry all that has happened to you. It's a lot of loss and trauma that would be hard for anyone to deal with.

That's all I wanted. I wanted her to say, wow, that is horrible and your response is really understandable. You probably need to talk some more about it. But why is that so hard for trained counsellors to understand? Heck, my untrained friends and family were better at helping me with my grief than that first counsellor. And from what I've heard, she's not exactly an outlier.

And don't get me started about the idiots in our bright-sided culture who think we should be grateful for grief and loss because they teach us important life lessons. I'd rather have skipped those life lessons so I could be a mother, thanks. I'm not at all grateful for those experiences, because they SUCKED.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:03 PM on January 27, 2019 [28 favorites]

I have found focusing on things to be grateful for beneficial, from time to time, in breaking out of negativity. But I do it when I want to, not as some kind of daily chore that someone told me is good for me.
posted by thelonius at 12:06 PM on January 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm grateful (HAH!) that when I was in therapy in high school to try to survive my alcoholic, homophobic family and graduate high school, all this "gratitude" and "mindfulness" bullshit hadn't started trending. What I needed then was to have an adult tell me that the shit going on in my life wasn't my fault. If my therapist had told me to count my blessings, I would have dropped out of therapy. When I was in therapy years later after the cops shot me, my therapist tried to teach me deep breathing techniques that were not at all useful.

Now as an adult with chronic biochemical depression and chronic pain, what I find most useful is medication. The whole "think of people who have it worse" may be good for some people, but my literal job is in disability advocacy - I spend 40+ hours per week trying to make life better for people who are having a really hard time. Having a job where I get to help people who need it and who have interesting issues is great, but it doesn't make me less depressed and it doesn't decrease my pain and it doesn't make it easier to sleep.

In general I feel that the whole mindfulness / gratitude thing is massively victim-blaming and ableist, like, if we're not all going on about how grateful we are for things not to be worse, then we're the bad kind of disabled person, the kind that isn't inspiring to abled people, and that by being willing to say "this is ass and I'm sick of it" we're choosing to be unhappy. As though anyone who had a choice would opt to be unhappy.
posted by bile and syntax at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2019 [21 favorites]

I hope I never again hear someone say that "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger," because that is just so wrong. Not always; I know there are bad experiences that do strengthen you, but there are tons of non-lethal experiences that leave you a diminished person. They are not strengthening.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:40 PM on January 27, 2019 [15 favorites]

Some techniques (breathing; others) can be useful. I first encountered them in the little bit of martial arts training I did. They are certainly not a large help to what you were going through. A lot of times therapists get caught up in the few (inadequate) tools they know. But all of these stories seem to really be about the deficiencies of the therapists. And I don't know if doing "better" is a rare occurrence and has more to do with the therapist as person rather than their technique. There are professionals in this thread. Maybe they could speak to how much the profession is person vs. taught techniques.
posted by aleph at 12:42 PM on January 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kirth Gerson: And enough trauma will break anyone. Even if they are "technically" still alive.
posted by aleph at 12:44 PM on January 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

The pseudo-religiosity of it has always rubbed me the wrong way. Who or what are we supposed to be grateful towards? Are they there to take responsibility for our defeats too, or just the victories? Thanks for nothing, then.
posted by rodlymight at 12:52 PM on January 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

I experienced a second wave of crippling trauma just as I was finally thriving after another. Cat suddenly died of cancer, car wrecked shortly after, took a risk on a job only to be fired less than a year in, had my heart repeatedly broken by someone who got their hooks in me and seemed desperate to eradicate my last shred of innocence. My negativity during my recovery was, according to my friends, mythological. And even as early as last autumn I wondered if I would ever feel happiness again. But I knew from experience and research that heart break and grief simply take time and the worst strategy is to deny feeling it. Eventually you wake up feeling better with time, sometimes with professional help. And I’m finally feeling a bit better, two years out, if not changed. But I never thought to make a gratitude list simply because I wanted my anger and sadness to work itself out honestly.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:59 PM on January 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Gratidtude lists and self-care and any other kind of rehab through concerted mental effort are just booby prizes for having a society with a poor social infrastructure.

We are a lonely nation that looks on its people as economic instruments, then abandons them to shitty self-help generalizations or, past a certain age, near-total disregard. We are fairly good at moving goods and services and awful at arranging life for general well-being. So this is what we get.
posted by argybarg at 1:33 PM on January 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

I loved the article, but MAN am I amazed at how much support it's finding on metafilter. Normally, I see DBT touted constantly here, and DBT is basically just one big glorified/codified Gratitude List. Trying to manipulate people into not having the feelings they have or thinking the thoughts they think, because there are these better, more adaptive, virtuous thoughts you *should* be having is not helpful to many (most) and just adds a layer of guilt and anger on top when you continue to be yourself underneath and think what you think and feel what you feel.

I'd love to ever once tell a friend or family member when I am hurting and have them care to listen to why --really LISTEN--rather than trying to minimize or strong-arm me into "getting help" or putting on a smily face. For me, the only help there would be would be to feel less alone. And that can't happen when no one will even listen and acknowledge how I feel and why, and that it's totally understandable.

Our society is baked in a number of ways. I'm so glad to see this insanity called out for what it is for once, and in a mainstream article no less!
posted by nirblegee at 5:03 PM on January 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

Most people can't deal with someone going through whopping shit, or in despair or having no hope. They want you to cheer up immediately so they don't have to deal with your pain.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:26 PM on January 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

They want you to cheer up immediately so they don't have to deal with your pain.

I really think that's the crux of the problem.
posted by sciatrix at 7:04 PM on January 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

so much truth about cult of positivity. i do love gratitude journaling but i was very happy to discover "conscious complaining" and various other outlets for anger et al. i was stuck in positivity rut myself for a while and coming across various literature/practices around honoring/expressing all emotions unstuck a whole ton of stuff for me. a teacher i took a wonderful weekend workshop with likes to say "joy is the matriarch of the emotions and she won't come into your house unless all her children are welcome." i gotta say personally i've been way happier since i started getting sad and angry more often!
posted by danjo at 7:50 PM on January 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

eh, it works for me :)
posted by soakimbo at 7:55 PM on January 27, 2019

the only help there would be would be to feel less alone. And that can't happen when no one will even listen and acknowledge how I feel and why

Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half on depression (part 2) nails this: her fish are dead, but people around her suggest solutions like "Look for the fish, I'll help!" and "Think happy thoughts about fish!" and "Let's turn them into finger puppets!" and she tries to explain that these are solutions to a problem other than she one she actually has. And then she yells "WHY CAN'T ANYONE SEE HOW DEAD THESE ARE?" So yeah, I call this The Dead Fish Problem.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:04 PM on January 27, 2019 [14 favorites]

Yeah, call me Catholic but “I’m thankful” and “I’m sorry” have always shared the same space for me.
I'm so grateful (...ha?) that it's not just me. Growing up in my devout family, any expression of unhappiness or pain on my part was met with "You should be thankful. At least you're not [insert egregiously tragic and unrelated situation ]. If it's that bad, offer your suffering up to God."

The implication that I had no right to feel anything other than cheery resignation to my sinner's lot -- and that even the Divine would roll Their eyes at my hurt -- did a whole lot to convince me that my feelings were a huge character flaw and were never worth value. I stayed in shitty relationships because I honestly thought I didn't have a right to feel miserable and guilty -- you know, since I was screwed coming and going anyway, for what I have done and what I have failed to do.

(And now my mother, post her own therapy, wonders why I do not allude to any time I was suffering, sad or scared until I've had decades to process and resolve the pain on my own, so I can no longer be hurt further by her usual "at least [incredibly unlikely and horrible thing] didn't happen to you" idea of comfort.)

Gratitude is a practice I've had to work hard to divorce from its weaponization via the Catholic clergy and relatives in my life.
posted by sobell at 9:29 PM on January 27, 2019 [10 favorites]

Here's a challenge, though: my opinions of things tend to shift wildly over time and even over the course of a day. I could wake up in the morning and vow to finally write that article I'm planning on writing, and then a stranger cusses me out for bumping into them; now as far as I'm concerned, I'm trash, I should watch where the fuck I'm going, how would I write an article if I can't even see what's right in front of me. Then I could go home, write down how angry and sad I am, and by the next morning, be totally embarrassed that I was ever thinking that way. It's made therapy a lifelong challenge; I often seem so bubbly in the session that it's hard for me to even remember that I was ever sad, even if the night before I was sobbing uncontrollably.

When you've got this kind of constant roller coaster, what then? It's been very valuable for me to recognize the things in my life that actively make me unhappy, but it's kind of like trying to find the horizon on a rolling sea. I've made some progress, and I've learned to stop doubting my own intuition so much (part of why my last relationship ended is because I'd been lying to myself for years about it). But again, when things shift so often, it's hard to find a sense of stability from either a gratitude list OR an ingratitude list.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 9:38 PM on January 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

I have so many thoughts and feelings about this. Thanks for posting, dancing leaves.

CBT was useful to me at one time - I think I went for my first round of therapy when it was all the rage - but it is not a panacea. As eviemath posted above, nothing is a panacea. Not for all people at all times.

For me, who has moderate depression + an objectively fine life most of the time: gratitude-listing feels like my upbringing, when there was one correct way to feel (exuberantly fawning and, yes, thankful), and I either had to twist myself into that or blame myself for failing. It also kind of played into the indoctrination that I can't blame anything extrinsic for anything that happens; my parents consider themselves absolutely perfect, so everything had to be my fault.

It just upheld the problem I already had, is what I'm saying.

For me, my work seems to lie in figuring out what I actually think and feel about a situation. Not what I'm supposed to think and feel. Not what I think others want me to think and feel. Not what A Good Person or A Progressive Person* would think and feel. Where I actually am. It starts there.

* Knives away, please. If I find myself too far off what I think is right, then it's time to start learning and growing. Ex.: I have accepted that I'm not sex-positive enough to be a True Progressive. I'm working on figuring out why that is, from the root. Just denying it with doublethink did not work.
posted by cage and aquarium at 4:29 AM on January 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have found gratitude lists personally helpful, and the one I remember most was when I was just starting to come out of a very deep, very dark place with depression and PTSD and felt like I had nothing, and it was calming/grounding/whatever to remind myself that I did have things and people and a cat that I could rely on; even if it maybe didn't quite feel like enough, it was a nudge to my brain to move into problem-solving mode with the horrible stuff.

I also know that when I'm in non-depressed mode, I tend to feel gratitude a lot, so doing things that encourage me toward gratitude helps me feel like me. My non-depressed gratitude is more like "I saw a beautiful hummingbird today" or "I love my cats" or "The sunrise this morning was gorgeous" -- more like noticing, I guess. Even just thinking about gratitude for big survival-level things like having a job or a roof over my head brings up the same guilt people are talking about here.

When I've suggested gratitude lists to clients, though, I've always introduced them with a quick explanation of why they might be helpful and also that sometimes people find they make them feel worse (for the reasons mentioned in the thread, that people write down good stuff and then start thinking, "I'm a horrible person for feeling bad when I have good stuff in my life,"), and told clients that if they find that happening, stop immediately. As eviemath said, not all techniques work for everyone in the same way.

And with therapists in general -- there is a reason I tend to suggest that people dealing with loss/grief/trauma make sure to look for therapists with training and experience working with trauma. It's not a guaranteed protection against therapists who will insist everything's all in the client's head, but in my limited experience, therapists working with clients going through trauma at least develop the humility to understand that bad shit happens whether you're thinking positively or not, and people need to be (figuratively) held while processing the normal emotions that trauma or loss brings up. You can (and likely should) layer cognitive techniques/insight-oriented techniques into that over time, but you have to start with "That sucks, and it makes total sense that you feel what you're feeling," before you even think about shifting someone's thought patterns. And half the time (probably more than half the time), the person shifts their own thought patterns once they start to feel heard.

(I will say, though, from "the other side of the couch," that sometimes therapists get stuck in fix-it mode because there is a significant minority of clients who come into therapy thinking that all they do is sit there, and the therapist will somehow do the work to fix them, and as a helper-person, it's really hard not to get sucked into that dynamic when you have a hurting person sitting across from you. It's not an excuse for the "Here do this" type of therapist, but it is part of the explanation. The other part may be that sitting in a room all day in which the only people you really interact with all think that you have all the answers can be warp your ego in weird ways.)
posted by lazuli at 9:27 AM on January 28, 2019 [9 favorites]

Gratitude has always been useful to me as a very small coping tool in the midst of a crisis, and that's all. It's just a wee small mental pat of consolation to myself, reminding me that no matter how dire the crisis du jour, there are worse things (and I've pulled through some of them previously).

But that's all it's good for when I'm being crushed by circumstance. It's not worthless, but just as you wouldn't use a screwdriver to move a pile of manure dumped in your driveway, you can't use a minute of thankfulness to obviate the entirety of the shit you're currently in.
posted by Lunaloon at 9:48 AM on January 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

that I've had to give up my dog

this was so hard for me and even harder was the tacit disapproval and shaming i got for admitting that i could no longer take care of a living creature with regular daily needs involving physical exertion on my part.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:00 PM on January 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm genuinely grateful that I have a home, at least some financial stability, food, a great dog, blah, blah. But it gets so fatuous and smug when you are pushed to be grateful but your heart is pierced and you can barely breathe. I love the saying Be kind; you never know what burdens someone may be carrying because some of us are pretty great at acting like things are okay, but we get to the car and cry. Yeah, I'm grateful to have a bed to not get out of.
posted by theora55 at 6:42 PM on January 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

I posted this article in the gratitude channel of the mental health chatroom I hang out on and people got mad at me haha.
posted by Valued Customer at 4:49 PM on January 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

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