The Role Practicing Gratitude Plays in Mental Health Stigma
While practicing gratitude can be a great way to encourage positivity during a mental health struggle, it can also play a role in mental health stigma. It may not seem like it, but there are ways gratitude can negatively impact someone who is struggling with a mental health condition.
What Is Practicing Gratitude and How Can It Help (or Hurt) Those Struggling with Mental Health?
Let's begin by clarifying what practicing gratitude means. This is an exercise in cutting through the negative thoughts and feelings brought on by mental health struggles by counting the good in your life and feeling grateful for those things. It's a way to remind yourself that things aren't necessarily all bad, as mental illness or dark thoughts would have you believe ("Practice Gratitude to Feel Better About Yourself").
It's often a great way to bring people back from the edge. But it can also backfire.
I'm one of those people for whom practicing gratitude backfires.
Listing all the good in my life when I'm struggling mentally doesn't act like a balm, but rather a bomb. Instead of soothing, it brings up feelings of guilt. My thoughts turn to, "How can I be struggling when I have these good things?"
Does that sound familiar?
Practicing Gratitude Backfires for Me
To me, those thoughts brought on by practicing gratitude echo someone else saying, "What do you have to be depressed about? Your life is amazing!"
I feel we'd be hard-pressed to find someone who says that's not mental health stigma. I know I've personally spoken out against this kind of statement and many others have, too. In light of this, it stands to reason that when practicing gratitude brings on these thoughts, it's also feeding into and playing a role in mental health stigma.
Practicing gratitude has a role in mental health stigma by ignoring that mental struggle and mental illnesses happen regardless of your life's circumstances. While negative situations can trigger and exacerbate the struggle and symptoms of mental illness, they don't always have a role to play. Even those who would describe themselves as happy can experience mental health struggles and mental illness. I'm one of those people, too ("Suicidal Thoughts Can Happen When Life Is Good").
Find Mental Health Coping Strategies that Work for You
I don't think we should kibosh the suggestion of practicing gratitude entirely since it is an effective mental health coping strategy for many people. I do think it's important to keep in mind the role it can play in mental health stigma. This can perhaps help with a better understanding of why it doesn't work for some people.
If you're like me and you are the person negatively affected by practicing gratitude, know that you're not alone. When you come across tips like this that don't work for you, my biggest piece of advice is to move on. It just means it's not meant for you and your time is better spent discovering what does help you. There are plenty of mental health coping strategies to choose from, and it's okay to explore those other options.
Does practicing gratitude help your mental health or hurt it? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Barton, L. (2020, January 13). The Role Practicing Gratitude Plays in Mental Health Stigma , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 26 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2020/1/the-role-practicing-gratitude-plays-in-mental-health-stigma
Author: Laura A. Barton
I really get what you mean when you say that practising gratitude encourages stigma. There are very many many of these phony or false ideologies, out there. I would liken it to the power of positive thinking, which I’ve practised at times, and found hasn’t helped my mental illness, but instead made it worse. Being grateful for things when life seems bad doesn’t seem to help. Having some control of your emotions is what I aim for and I have found that the best way to do this is to change what you believe in till it’s something that generates confidence, control and feelings of self worth. Telling yourself to be grateful for your lot does nothing for me and is a bit like telling yourself to believe in instant karma (i.e.,you get what you deserve) or telling yourself that the problems you face are the result of you, not deep down, really loving yourself. All these ways of thinking bolster stigma and encourage it’s growth leaving the practisers feeling worse in the long run. Another phony ideology is telling yourself to smile all the time or take a positive attitude when things aren’t going right. People say that that all you need to do is stay positive and this, too, fails after a while, causing your anxiety and feelings of worthlessness to escalate. It works for a while and then falls in a heap. I used to practise not being self conscious and that worked for a while and then fell in a heap. If these phony ways of thinking worked then the waiting rooms of large psychiatric hospitals would be empty and there would be no suicides or self harm, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we have legions of examples to refute this picture and paint another more sobering story. People mean well when they encourage the use of these phony or false ideologies, but their good will is wasted in advocating something which is about as useful as an ashtray on a motor bike
Hey there Matt. First off, I just want to say your last analogy about the ashtray on a motorbike gave me a laugh. I hadn't heard that one before, but it paints a perfect picture. I think you're right that a lot of things can work for a while and then fall away, and I think it goes to show that in addition to awareness of how various pieces of advice might impact a person, we also need to be adaptable to what may or may not help us even in terms of what we try. I know some of these things work wonders for many people, but I think the important part is in acknowledging that it may not work for everyone, even when we're thinking of how it may help or hinder us. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and then share your thoughts. :)
Laura, I enjoyed reading your article. I do not agree totally, however. I think mental illness can affect rich and poor alike and requires medial attention by way of therapy or drugs to support and gradually eliminate the problem. If someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts they need support.
If one is experiencing emotional issues, I think from my experience gratitude will help.
Sometimes when we are experiencing emotional problems we cannot see our way out. Dr. Joe Dispenza says, "Thoughts are the language of the brain. Feelings are the language of the body.” We can reprogram our brains to be a map of the future instead of a record of the past. For me thinking grateful makes my body feel good.
Hi Harriette. I appreciate that you've taken the time to read my blog and leave your thoughts. :) I'm totally on the same page with you about mental illness affecting rich and poor alike and the power of support and therapy to work through struggles. If I came across anywhere in the above piece that I don't believe that, it was certainly not my intention and I'd like to revisit it.
I'm glad to hear that practicing gratitude is helpful for you! I know how difficult it can be to find something that does, so I'm sincerely glad that you have this in your toolbox. I've definitely heard of the power of positive thinking and know that for many if can make a big difference. That's why I write about how it's important to find what works for you, including if that means practicing gratitude. My goal with this blog was to highlight how even something that's positive for many people can have negative effects for others and potentially contribute to the stigma that's already being felt. I like putting things into different perspectives. :)
I'd be happy to chat about this more if you'd like!