Gratitude can be a tool for combating negative thinking. It can help one appreciate the little things. It can also be a tool of entrapment. I think there are three main types of gratitude: practiced, spontaneous, and coerced.
When I left my ex-husband I had a broken ankle, a sickly newborn, and I’d moved back with my mother. To keep myself from sinking under the weight of everything going bad in my life, I concentrated on the good by practicing gratitude. Each day I wrote out five things I was grateful for – my mother’s house to stay in instead of a shelter, Medicaid to cover my baby’s many pediatrician visits, marijuana to treat my ankle pain.
It helped. A little. For a time. But the fact was my life wasn’t stable. My mom didn’t want us staying forever. My ankle never got medical attention. I had undiagnosed PTSD and desperately needed real therapy. Focusing only on the good made my problems harder to recognize and resolve. But it also got me through the weeks immediately after ending my marriage without suicide attempt.
Spontaneous gratitude is my favorite kind. When life and my brain cooperate, I don’t need to do gratitude as an exercise or practice to feel it. I look around me and am grateful – for my son, my cat, our apartment, my friends. Spontaneous gratitude is harder to use against me.
Coerced gratitude is the worst sort. Frequently this type uses the spectre of someone “who has it worse” to manipulate or pressure someone into expressing gratitude they might not feel at all. This is the force at work when starving people are told to be grateful for food pantries.
Now my problem is not with being grateful for food pantries but with being required to be grateful. Many food pantry recipients are grateful, spontaneously or as a matter of practice. Most will verbally express this gratitude in the form of a thank you.
But some charity workers will push for more. Not only must the hungry be grateful for the food, they must not be picky or complain or have foods they don’t like. “Beggars can’t be choosers! Be grateful! Someone else has it worse and they’re not complaining!”
Coerced gratitude requires that gratitude be the only feeling expressed or permitted. I can’t tell you how many college-educated middle-class homeowner social workers have suggested that my attitude – and not my poverty, disabilities, and over $40k in back child support I’m owed – that keeps me poor. That if only I would be grateful for scraps, they’d be enough.
Coerced gratitude is also sometimes a threat. Black people facing police brutality in the north are told to be grateful lynchings were a southern thing. Atheist women complaining of sexual harassment were told to be grateful, because atheist men could always treat us as badly as the worst sects of Islam treat their women. Sometimes it’s really saying “Be grateful, or else.”
Gratitude is a tool. How it’s used depends on who wields it and what their goal is.