Caution: Abusing Gratitude Could Be Life Threatening

Until a few years ago, I lived like every resource was about to run out. I worried I’d never have enough money, enough stuff, enough certainty, enough safety, enough strength, enough love, enough acceptance. Mostly, I worried I’d never be enough…

gratitude

Photo Credit: Jeff Kubina via Compfight cc

I tried to believe my worries were bogus—or, at least, a waste of time—but the knowledge wasn’t getting into my heart. So, a little desperately, I accepted a challenge. For two months, I carried a pocket-sized notebook around with me, and I wrote down everything for which I was grateful. My life became a series of moments in which I attended to the beauty around me and within me. I hoped the exercise would make me finally happy and content.

It did.

And it didn’t.

Because I discovered something both wonderful and disconcerting about gratitude:

Gratitude is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.

How We Abuse Gratitude

When we find ourselves in the midst of struggle and sorrow over which we have no control, a practice of gratitude is essential, because we need to be reminded of the rest of the story. We need to be reminded of the gifts we have in the midst of the pain we endure. We need to be blessed by the whole truth. It restores balance. It brings peace.

But when we turn to gratitude to feel quickly content within a misery we might redeem, we have made gratitude a method for accepting a crummy status quo. A practice of inertia. A discipline for safety. A way to avoid change:

Instead of leaving a toxic job, we tell ourselves to be grateful for our paycheck. Instead of challenging an abusive spouse, we’re grateful for our friends. Instead of asking the one we love to stop drinking, we’re grateful for the moments of sobriety. Instead of being honest about the wounds our parents inflicted, we’re grateful for the roof they provided. Instead of risking what we’re passionate about in the world, we’re grateful for the good-but-soul-numbing things we already have.

Most of us abuse gratitude. By making it a means to an apathetic end.

But gratitude is not only meant to satisfy us; it’s meant to send us.

Gratitude erases our sense of scarcity. It works the abundance of life into our bones. Not so we might enjoy perpetual abundance, but so our sense of abundance might strengthen us for the barren times. Gratitude is the sweet light we carry into the bitter darkness. Gratitude is the warmth we carry into the cold.

Which is to say, gratitude is a lot like autumn.

Gratitude Prepares Us for Winter

Autumn is here again, and there is red everywhere.

Red in the canopies above, red in the dwindling-slanting light, red in the shine of apples ripened by summer heat, and red in the rosy glow of school-aged cheeks ripened by the autumn chill. The world is turning red like a stoplight, commanding us, “Halt, attend, do not ignore me for another season. Behold the abundance and the beauty you walk within.”

The rolling orange hues of a pumpkin patch and the harvest moon and the deep bronze of fresh apple cider and maple glaze and the sweet smell of composting leaves and the slippery scent of pumpkin guts and the smoky aroma of fires warming hands in the night and the sharp odor of crisp outdoors on the skin and the tanginess of apples picked and pressed and pied and Thanksgiving tables overflowing with the flavors of the season.

While the days shrink, the sensory onslaught of autumn expands. And it needs to expand, because seasons change and we will soon be confronted by the cold, dark, barren winter that follows. The abundance of autumn imprints itself on our hearts so we might be empowered to carry a resilient sense of light and warmth into the darkest and coldest days of the year.

Autumn is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.

Just like gratitude.

Sent by Gratitude

The abundance and the beauty present in every moment is there for us to take in, not so we might settle in it, but so it might settle in us.

Several years ago, I took the gratitude challenge, and my world ceased to be a place of scarcity. Everything dripped with the light of our raging sun, the shimmer of leaf-shadows on my living room floor became a holy dance, and the laughter (and screaming) of my children became a sacred symphony. I knew I had more than enough, and I knew I was more than enough.

I quit being afraid of my loneliness, because abundance was keeping me company, even when I was alone. I quit worrying that if I spoke up, people would decide I’m a fraud and reject me. I quit worrying that if I stood up and stood out people would leave me. I quit worrying about the dark times ahead of me, because gratitude had lit a light inside of me.

Two months after beginning the gratitude challenge, I started writing, and I started this blog.

Gratitude fills us up with abundance so our fear won’t disable us and the unknown path won’t deter us. Gratitude fills us up so we can end olds ways and walk new paths and, on those new paths, discover who we’ve always been. It’s scary and uncertain and unknown, but it’s enough.

What if we all took the gratitude challenge?

What if we all got ambushed by abundance?

What scary-wonderful paths might we begin to walk?

Who might we remember ourselves to be?

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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We’ll be talking about gratitude as a practice that can return us to our true selves during this weekend’s Courtyard Conversation. To find out more about it, and to find out how to join the conversation, click here.

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Next Post: Yeah. Smile.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Michele R

    This is lovely and just what I needed to read. I’m at one of those crossroads trying to make difficult choices about my future. I’ll try gratitude therapy and see where it sends me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Michele, I hadn’t thought of the term “gratitude therapy,” but it’s a nice way to describe it. I suspect you will be able to make your decisions based a little bit less on your fears and a little more on where your heart wants to go. My best to you.

  • Mia k

    Bravo-and Thank you for your insightful thoughts. I look forward to reading your blog weekly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Mia.

  • Hedley

    I gain something every single time I read your writing. Thank you for deciding to stand up and stand out!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Hedley. It has gotten gradually easier to stand up because I’ve discovered more and more wonderful people like yourself who are so encouraging. So, thank you for that.

  • joan

    thank you. I am looking around my living room as I type and see all hte abundance I have. I live simply and still have so much. I think of the things in life I have plenty that others could only hope for. No bombs overhead nightly, a full family ( blended with 8 children), food in my fridge, running water out of a tap in my home, and on and on. You reminded me to once again do the gratitude challenge. I have done this before when I was coming out of a life-crisis….. and I think it truly changed every cell in my body to respond more positive on the world. I love you blog. You speak what I think, most of us want to express to others. happy Autumn and Happy Canadian Thanksgiving. 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Joan, you wrote something that is so true. It feels like a change at a cellular level. Autumn in Canada would be a great time to start a new phase of your gratitude challenge!

      • joan

        thank you for taking the time to read and listen to us all
        “out here” Walking the beach this am. with one of my brothers, and we were struck by the sounds, ( waves crashing in from the ocean) and sights (the foam both in the sea and on the shoreline) and feelings both physical ( windy out) and emotional ( a peace within) that is available to us here on the coast of Nova Scotia. I was truly in Gratitude.

  • Kathi

    I am an art teacher so these beautiful analogies of the colors of fall were refreshment to my soul. Thank you for reminding me of the abundance of God’s gifts to us – just to get our attention and our thankfulness – from a Father who lavishes it all, just because He loves us.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kathi, thanks for this reflection. And you’re right, it’s hard for me to practice gratitude in the midst of Fall color and not feel a deep sense of a Benevolent gift.

  • Beautiful, beautiful post. Thank you so much. I love this line “It
    works the abundance of life into our bones.” And I love the imagery – both internal and exernal. I have just learned about your blog a few months ago and now I’m waking on Wednesdays looking forward to starting my day with you. I’m grateful you are writing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cara, I’m really glad you’ve found us and I’ve so much enjoyed your contributions to the discussion here in the comments. Please know, you are noticed and valued in this space!

  • I have gratitude for your past and the profound wisdom within.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carolyn, thank you. One of my favorite quotes is, “All wisdom is borrowed.” I’m grateful to the people who have loaned me theirs. : )

  • Thank you again for a wonderful post. I’ve never heard of the gratitude challenge but I will take it up and see what happens. I desperately need to see things in that light as there are some challenging things going on right now (when not?!) Thank you for deciding to write and for sharing your light with all of us. I LOVE your posts!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks again, Jenny. I’m excited to hear what happens as you go through the challenge; please keep us posted!

  • I just got this in an email and thought it appropriate for your post:
    To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything God has given us – and God has given us everything.
    Thomas Merton
    Thoughts in Solitude

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely love Merton. Just started reading one of his books yesterday, but now Thoughts of Solitude is going on “the stack.” : )

  • Joanie

    Steeping in the richness of these words, images and insights. You’re an amazing writer, and this is my favourite article to date. Keep them coming!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Joanie!

  • Scott Lindsey

    I ‘m reminded of gratefulness breathing for 20 minutes every morning. On the inhale say softly to yourself “I gratefully receive all that you have for me this day.” On the exhale: “Today I walk into the world grateful for what is.”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Scott, you’re so good at giving us concrete disciplines for practicing some of these abstract ideas. Thanks for this one, and keep them coming!

    • I love this example, too. Thank you, Scott!

  • drkellyflanagan

    By the way, before I go offline for the day, I wanted to say thank you to each and every one of you who read, comment, challenge, and encourage me. You all go on my gratitude list.

    • Thank you, Kelly. You are such a gift. Thank you for sharing you.

  • Fuzzi Hendricks

    Just stumbled across your blog, signed up and downloaded my free e-book. You are an amazingly insightful person. You live your gratitude with honesty and integrity; your experiences and writing moves and inspires me towards greatness. Thank you kindly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Fuzzi. I’m glad you found us and the eBook. Welcome to UnTangled. : )

  • Molly

    Very nice post

  • Molly

    Just a question which I already
    know the answer but someone is telling me im wrong. how do you define spouse? can you call your commom law partner as spouse or just partner.

  • Betty

    This was a unique aspect to gratitude, the idea that we can abuse gratitude to excuse our apathy and complacency. I had never considered that before. Thanks!

  • Dith

    Fabulous. Thanks. 🙂

  • Nicole Justine Cavanaugh

    Beautiful said.

  • Will Jones

    Very true Doc. I’ll work on my Gratiude, never look at it in the way you put forth.

  • Four months ago I began a 90-day self-development course where we were encouraged to write down what we were grateful for at the end of each day. A funny thing happened along the way. I discovered that I felt uncomfortable expressing gratitude so regularly. Eventually, I realized I had feelings of shame around the abundance in my life, that I didn’t feel worthy of what I had. It was very eye-opening and led me to the doorway of understanding that I am indeed worthy, that I was born worthy and somewhere along the way, I forgot this. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sonja, this is a great observation of your inner world that could bear fruit for many. How much abundance do we reject because we don’t believe ourselves worthy of it? By the way, I still have your email and have every intention of responding! I hope you’re well.