When Gratitude Backfires: How Depression And Gratitude Relate
Everywhere you go these days, you see reminders to be grateful.
Oprah started it long ago, or that’s when I remember hearing it for the first time. She had couples keeping gratitude lists — things they were grateful for about one another. It’s a good idea. We often forget to say thank you to each other. I’ve written about it myself, and talk to folks about it from time to time.
I get the push back, “Well am I supposed to thank him every time he’s unloads the dishwasher?” Or “Just because she picks up the dry cleaning, am I supposed to be grateful for that? I go to work every day.”
That line of reasoning usually ends up in the trash. We’re acting a bit childish, each of us wanting our due, instead of growing up and realizing a little graciousness, or selflessness feels good from time to time.
What’s the relationship, however, between depression and gratitude?
People who are depressed because of a recent life circumstance such as loss of a loved one may have difficulty with gratitude.
I’ve heard from many people, after the death of an older person that others offer condolences at the funeral. “Well, they lived a good long life.” Please. They can’t be grateful. They’re grieving. With death, there is despair, or perhaps you can’t feel much at all.
When they heal from the loss or trauma, they can return to finding perspective or laughter. In fact, that’s often a sign of movement away from the tremendous weight of the initial shock.
Rediscovering gratitude can be a sign of healing from grief.
In more chronic or recurrent depression, people may struggle with feelings of emptiness or sadness that are confusing and unwelcome to them.
It can envelop them from time to time and make it difficult, if not impossible, to feel very grateful. With bipolar disorder, these shifts come and go without warning. When the “downs” hit, it is as if all they can do is think about their own dark, chaotic internal world. Feeling grateful is about as far away as Mars.
The work that people have to do who manage chronic depression or bipolar disorder is demanding, in that they have to learn to stay vigilant to their own internal alert system, so that they can use medication, therapy, exercise, their support system, alternative therapies and other modalities to help them function well. And certainly an attitude of being grateful helps that response immensely.
What about the person with Perfectly Hidden Depression (PHD)?
That’s the kind of depression, or really a syndrome or group of behaviors that create depression, where someone purposefully and intentionally creates a facade of everything going very well in his or her life, so that no one will ask or know about what he/she believes is vital to hide. This has become a lifelong habit and the walls around her are built solidly.
Showing gratitude would be something the PHD person would do on a daily basis, because it’s “what you do.” Good, nice, upstanding, moral people are grateful people.
You give every one of your kids’ teachers’ special gifts. You remember the guy who delivers your paper with a special Christmas or Hanukkah present. You never leave out anybody at work when it comes to making sure everyone knows about getting together for the barbecue, which, of course, is at your house.
[tweetthis hidden_hashtags=”#perfectlyhiddendepression #drmargaret”]You can exhaust yourself showing gratitude.[/tweetthis]
Not that all of that isn’t lovely.
It is. But when it has an intense, driven, being on a treadmill quality, with the speed slowly being turned up, and up, and up, and up. It can be tremendously self-destructive.
PHD is gratitude on steroids. It’s not that it’s insincere. It’s very real.
But the giver is in pain that she or he isn’t talking about, and showing gratitude becomes a performance itself. And that’s where the problem is.
The gratitude backfires.
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