The Big Problem with Gratitude

by lizclark on October 27, 2014

big problem gratitudeNovember is right around the corner!

It’s sure to be full of everything we’ve come to know and love about the month:

  • even more pumpkin
  • culturally irrelevant graphic and interior design (does anyone actually relate to cornucopias?)
  • The BEST HOLIDAY (Thanksgiving!)
  • Facebook feeds and blogs overrun with “gratitude” and “thankfulness” posts.

The driving idea behind these posts are absolutely wonderful.

Many of us do get caught up in our relatively small troubles and forget to “count our blessings.”

I’ve spent more than 25 years looking for the positive things for which to be thankful, even in some pretty awful circumstances.

One example comes to mind. In 2008, my husband was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Our four kids ranged between the ages of 2 and 8 that year. I was working full time. It was an incredibly stressful year.

The kids missed their dad (as did I) and sometimes the smallest, most mundane thing would become the catalyst for a meltdown (for them or me).

One day, in a moment of total frustration and exhaustion, I asked (maybe ordered?) them to tell me things they were thankful for. That went over like a lead balloon and resulted in that wide-eyed “uh-oh-Mom’s-upset-about-something” stare.

I took a deep breath, apologized for my anger and said something to the effect of: “Can you just tell me at least one positive thing? Let’s make it a game. Finish the sentence: ‘At least _____.’ I’ll go first, “At least it’s not raining!”

And so was born the Clark Family “At Least Game.”

My sniffling kids all took turns playing and within 3 turns everyone was feeling happier.

I chalked that up as a parenting win! We were all in desperate need of happy thoughts and perspective to make the chaotic, crazy life we were living seem “not that bad.”

We played the “At Least Game” a lot that year.

I came to realize that I had been playing a subconscious version of this game all my life.

I played it to avoid issues in my marriage: “At least my husband loves God and loves me. I am grateful to be married.”

I played it to avoid taking responsibility for my workaholism: “At least I have a job. I am grateful to have a steady income.”

I played it to keep myself from growing as a person: “At least I’ve survived so far. I am grateful to be alive.”

Don’t get me wrong: genuine gratitude in and of itself is a wonderful thing.

But gratitude becomes a problem when we use it as a tool of relativism to minimize real, actual problems in our lives.

“Relative gratitude” has its place – sometimes we do need to get a grip when we’re melting down about the availability of pumpkin spice lattes.

But when we start applying it to real life problems, it can be dangerous.  We use “relative gratitude” to measure real problems up against some other extreme and say, “Well, at least it’s not that bad.”

And, maybe that’s true: maybe it’s not that bad.

But the fact that one problem is not as bad as another does not mean we get a free pass to ignore the original problem.

Take, for example, a child who screams out in pain having fallen from a tree. You run to him and discover he has a broken arm. You could say, “Well, at least he didn’t kill himself,” and then tell him to be thankful he’s alive and go back to playing.

This is an extreme example, but we do this to ourselves all the time.

We ignore actual, real problems and bad choices by comparing them to bigger, scarier problems. When we do this, we’re essentially saying that the bigger, scarier problem is our action threshold.

We’re saying: “I don’t need to really worry/take action/do something proactive to fix this unless it is <insert huge scary, unreasonable extreme>.”

But do you know what?

Problems get worse. And we just keep finding bigger, uglier problems to compare them to:

“At least it wasn’t drugs.”

“At least he got probation – no jail time.”

“At least he didn’t hit the kids.”

“At least she behaved for Thanksgiving.”

I used “relative gratitude” to enable myself to live a chaotic, unbalanced life for many, many years.

Finally, I stopped. I remain so, so grateful for the blessings in my life, but I decided to actually do something about the problems that were causing me grief.

This November, as you compose your “gratitude” posts, I have a NEW type of gratitude challenge for you. Take a moment to ask yourself if you’re using “relative gratitude” – and if you discover that you are, ask yourself what one problem can you take proactive steps to actually fix?

It might seem scary, but you can do it, my friend. And by the way? I am genuinely grateful for you. :)

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael October 27, 2014 at 7:06 AM

Title gave me a heart attack. “What could POSSIBLY be wrong with gratitude? Is she nuts? This world needs MORE gratitude.” However, you’re right. We often use a worse case scenario to avoid addressing a real problem. As in “My husband is using porn, but AT LEAST he’s not having an actual affair, so I guess I’ll be thankful and just put up with it.”

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 7:20 AM

Michael, thank you for reading and for that insightful comment! You are exactly spot on. (And I still think you should start a blog – the connection you get when you finally get over yourself and hit “post” is well worth it!) Thanks again!

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Scott October 27, 2014 at 7:18 AM

This very true. I find myself playing the “at least game a lot. I think it’s time to take more proactive approach to gratitude.

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 7:21 AM

Thank you! It’s so true. I do the same thing as you well know! LOL! :)

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Nick Pavlidis October 27, 2014 at 8:18 AM

I completely agree with your take. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “at least” or some other comparison as a cop out to accept a negative situation or escape taking personal responsibility over improving a situation.

I’ve heard it with people’s work: “At least you get to leave by 6:30pm most nights.” Yes, but for 10 hours each day you’re getting yelled at and when you get home your blackberry doesn’t stop buzzing.

At people’s homes: “At least he is faithful.” Yes, but he’s emotionally detached.

It goes on. Yes, I count blessings and am often reminded to do so by thinking of how much worse it could be. And “at least” thinking is often a good reminder that many of our challenges are small in comparison to other people or cultures.

But to use it as a crutch to accept less than an extraordinary life by not working to improve things you can control is unacceptable in my book.

**drops mic. steps off soapbox

Great post!

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:09 PM

*Slow Clap* Well said, Nick!! I could not agree more!

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Julie October 27, 2014 at 8:32 AM

Liz-I often find that people who have survived abuse use relative gratitude to minimize their feelings about what happened to them and to discount how it has affected them. Thank you for providing a ‘name’ for this and a paradigm for understanding the phenomenon.

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:12 PM

Julie, you are so right on. That’s exactly why I used this strategy for so long. When I began to realize I could life a life that was better than “at least,” everything changed. Thanks so much for your comment!

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Becky Castle Miller October 27, 2014 at 9:29 AM

Good stuff! Validating our own struggles and emotions is so important.

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:14 PM

Becky, thank you! SO true!

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Scott October 27, 2014 at 9:37 AM

Liz,

I agree 100%. Gratitude by itself is good. But Gratitude as a “at least” type idea that excuses not working to make things better is absolutely a barrier to getting BETTER.

Honestly someone ALWAYS has it worse. And we can ALWAYS get better. (though normally when there is an absolute in a statement you can conclude it is wrong.)

Thanks for sharing

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:15 PM

Scott, YES! This is it exactly. We are all on this journey and there is always room to grow.

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Alanna October 27, 2014 at 10:20 AM

I love this Liz. This is something I have believed for so long. We like to brush off our small problems because they seem small in comparison. We end up stuffing those feelings and feel worse because we never address the issues that are very real to us. Thanks for sharing this :)

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:17 PM

Alanna, thank you! Yes, it’s a vicious cycle. We end up essentially “training” ourselves to think that our own feelings don’t really matter. Thank you so much for your comment here and on FB! :)

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Rick Theule October 27, 2014 at 11:08 AM

Mine: “At least the bills are getting paid.”
Yep. They are getting paid. But, this has lulled me into a level of comfort with which I’m starting to become uncomfortable. I’m comfy in my complacency.
Time to move forward.

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:18 PM

Oh, Rick – that’s a good one. It was mine for a long, long time. And it’s true – we can use the “at least” game as a lullaby to keep us right where we are. Thanks for your insight and your support. :)

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Vicky October 27, 2014 at 12:50 PM

Good points! I hate when people push those who are grieving be grateful. People should be allowed to grieve without being forced to “find the good” in a situation.

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lizclark October 27, 2014 at 6:20 PM

Vicky, thank you! This is a great point. Grief is a unique experience and people need space to experience it on their own terms. Thank you for reminding me as I have a friend who is grieving a loss right now. We should all respect each other’s journey. <3

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Julie October 30, 2014 at 7:15 AM

This was so very refreshing. It brought to mind, for me, when my now adult children were teenagers, and I would find a note from the teacher that they had hidden from me, or catch them sneaking out, or numerous other issues we had. Their rebuttal every time was “At least I’m not as bad as most of the kids I go to school with!”. Then they would go on to telling me horror stories of unnamed friends with drug/sex issues, to try to make me feel like they were not so bad. Yeah, I got caught in the trap!
Awesome post Liz!

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lizclark October 30, 2014 at 10:03 AM

Julie, that is such a great point! I fall into this trap as well with my kids – it’s so easy to do! Now I try to catch myself when I’m saying (or hearing) “at least” and then add, “Yes, at least it’s not _______, but is that what we’re working toward?”
Thanks so much for your encouragement and your comment! :)

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