How many times this week have you told yourself you should be grateful?

Gratitude is everywhere in the self-help world right now. Everyone on Instagram has a gratitude journal from what I can tell. And there are lots of great reasons to cultivate gratitude, but there are also a few ways I see women trying to use a gratitude practice against themselves in a way that isn’t helpful. So I want to talk about gratitude this week, including how to cultivate the genuine emotion and know if you’re mis-using it in a way that’s doing more harm than good.

Gratitude is essentially the feeling of being thankful. At its best, gratitude is a true appreciation of how lucky we are to be alive and have whatever blessings we have. If you’re reading this, chances are your standard of living is better than 90% of the world’s population. You probably live in a house where clean drinking water comes out of the tap all the time, whenever you want. I mean, talk about something to appreciate!

There are centuries of Buddhist teachings—and more recently, brain-imaging studies—that show us that cultivating gratitude for what we have can have powerful impacts on our mental state, mood, and even our physical health. It stands to reason, right? When you’re focusing on appreciating what you have, you feel warm and expansive. You feel lucky. But when you’re focused on what you don’t have and think from a place of scarcity, you feel constrained, desperate, and terrible.

It’s no surprise, then, that many women turn to gratitude practices as part of their self-improvement work. But it’s so important to understand why you’re focusing on gratitude and if it’s doing what you want it to.

What I see often in my clients is they try to layer gratitude on top of a negative feeling, as if it was a stain solution that would remove the upset underneath. They use gratitude as a weapon against themselves, responding to negative emotion by shaming themselves with the thought that they should feel thankful.

Let’s say you’re feeling angry your partner is going to be coming home late. Your thought is that they don’t participate in the household labor/life and they work too much, so you’re mad.

But instead of trying to get to know that anger—instead of sitting with it, examining the thoughts, and seeing if you want to keep them—you try to plaster over it with gratitude. You tell yourself you should feel grateful your partner works so hard to provide for your family, but that doesn’t work because you don’t truly feel it.

It’s possible if you really believed that new thought, you might feel grateful. But you can’t just layer it on top of your negative thought. You must deal with that underlying negative thought. You can’t shame yourself into gratitude—that’s not how it works. You’ll end up feeling stressed, ashamed, sorry for yourself, and you won’t even really know why.

If you want to experience true gratitude, take it down off its pedestal. It’s not a moral requirement or a spiritual obligation. And it’s not a work-around for managing your actual thoughts. You can’t try to spackle it on top of negative emotion to get rid of it.

You get to decide how you want to feel, and you don’t have to feel grateful. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself about what you’re thinking and feeling. Don’t make any thought or feeling unacceptable or mean anything about you. When you do that, you can’t ever tell yourself the truth, and you’ll try to mask your true experience with emotions you think “sound better.” And that’s the opposite of being grateful for your life and for yourself.

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