Must I Be Grateful? Toxic Positivity and Gratitude Shaming
November is the month of Thanksgiving; a month to look at one’s life and be grateful for what we have. Over turkey and the fixings, we are supposed to sit around a table Norman Rockwell style and get along famously because we have each other.
Reality differs greatly from fantasy in that lots of people do not feel gratitude for their family of origin or the circumstances in which they find themselves. Instead, they find themselves feeling guilty because in November because they do not get the warm and fuzzies at Thanksgiving.
In this article, we are going to focus on toxic positivity and gratitude shaming.
Toxic Dysfunctional Homes
Unfortunately, many of us grew up in homes that were highly toxic and dysfunctional. Holidays were just times of the year when we were forced to stay home from school and in with harmful parents and siblings.
While some fighting among family members is expected, there was constant conflict between our family members in our homes where the fight never ended, and the problems were never resolved. The primary cause of toxic dysfunctional homes is a corrupt parenting style where the parents are abusive, controlling, or neglectful.
Living in a toxic household does not only involve physical, sexual, and narcissistic abuse but also a constant state of war exists between the parents, which makes living in a toxic home a living hell for children.
Research conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2013 found that when children blame themselves for their parent’s fighting, they often develop anti-social behavior. They also found that other children in the home who feel threatened by the constant fighting develop depression or other mental health disorders.
Another study conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) National Survey of Health and Development measured the development and well-being of 5,362 people from birth to ages 60–64. The research that was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology highlighted how parenting has lifelong effects on a child’s social class, mental health, and personal traits.
The effects of living in a toxic dysfunctional home do not end in childhood but follow the child well into adulthood where they experience problems recognizing, forming, and maintaining healthy relationships.
You may not have heard the term toxic positivity before, but you will recognize it when you hear it. Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how bad or hard a situation is, you should maintain a sunny and rosy belief that everything will be okay.
Toxic positivity is not optimism when one engages in positive thinking, instead, it is a way of rejecting difficult emotions in favor of a falsely cheerful and hopeful facade.
Toxic positivity takes on many forms, including:
Someone tells you to stay positive or to “look on the bright side” after you’ve lost your job. While these people’s comments are meant to help, they shut down the expression of emotions and cause you to not talk about how you truly feel inside.
You express sadness and disappointment, and someone tells you that “happiness is up to you and is a choice”. Unfortunately, this suggests that you are feeling down and negative because you have chosen to be so and that all you need to do is choose to be happy.
Perhaps you’ve experienced a loss, but people are telling you that “everything happens for a reason”, or “they are better off in and in a beautiful place”. While people believe they are comforting, in reality, they are trying to avoid your pain.
The statements above and those like them are well-intentioned, but it is important to recognize how harmful they can be.
When something bad happens to you, you may grieve and feel your emotions and should gently reject those who would shut you down with positive platitudes that have no meaning. Toxic positivity is and will continue to be a problem in our “always think positive” society.
In our society today we are surrounded by positive sayings and quotes that are plastered everywhere, especially on the internet. Through this indoctrination to positivity, we are often left feeling guilty because we do not feel grateful. This is especially true during the holiday season.
While a healthy dose of gratitude isn’t harmful, gratitude shaming is very hurtful and undermines our ability to express how we truly feel.
Gratitude shaming is beating yourself or someone else up for feeling sad, angry, or any other negative emotion because you should be grateful. The belief is that if you aren’t the worst, such as the sickest person or the person who doesn’t have a car, you should be grateful because there are always people worse off than you.
While the statement may be true that you are better off than someone who has no car or is critically ill, saying so and shaming someone is doing irreparable harm to the person you are speaking to.
Shame, while it can be a good thing, is often toxic and if you load it with meaning, such as gratitude, you are dealing a double whammy to anyone who doesn’t seem to feel to you grateful enough.
Sometimes one needs to complain, to feel sad, anxious, and angry as emotions aid us in identifying where we are and what is going wrong in our lives, leading us to eventually consider what is going right. Expressing our emotions is how we know when we need to reach out for help and help us make changes.
To shut someone down because they are feeling and expressing uncomfortable emotions is both selfish and harmful. It would be better to walk away than to tell someone how they should be grateful instead of shaming them because they are not.
Ending Our Time Together
Living in a toxic and dysfunctional home is hell for children and has lifelong consequences for them. The constant conflict in the home that is never resolved leads to some children growing up to have mental health issues and other relationship complications. One outcome of living in a toxic home environment is the development of toxic positivity.
While a healthy amount of positivity is important to the mental health of any individual, that positivity can become toxic if used as a weapon or to escape dealing with someone else’s negative emotions.
Gratitude shaming is often the result of toxic positivity, of being always told to “always look on the bright side” or “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” Saying things like that to a hurting person is like throwing gasoline on fire only the flames burn on in the heart of those to whom they were said.
No one has the right to force you to feel grateful when you are not. In fact, a lack of gratitude and allowing oneself to feel anger or disappointment is healthy and allows us to come to terms with what has happened to us.
“You don’t blast a heart open,” she said. “You coax and nurture it open like the sun does to a rose.” ~ Melody Beattie
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). “Why family conflict affects some children more than others.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 May 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130508092835.htm.
Kuh, D., Pierce, M., Adams, J., Deanfield, J., Ekelund, U., Friberg, P., … & Hardy, R. (2011). Cohort profile: updating the cohort profile for the MRC National Survey of Health and Development: a new clinic-based data collection for aging research. International journal of epidemiology, 40(1), e1-e9.
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