Gratitude Traps: How to Find Sincerity in Appreciation

Written By: Kelley Hattox, CADC-II
Photo by Pro Church Media on Unsplash

In the early 1990’s, the United States experienced a societal explosion in the search for wellness – there was a boom in the sales of antidepressants (non-tricyclic SSRI’s had just become FDA approved, including Prozac), self-help books and seminar sales went through the roof, therapy began to receive mainstream acceptance, and “positivity” was gaining traction as a thought goal.  Researchers started giving happiness as much scientific scrutiny as it had given depression.

Science began looking at how positive practices like gratitude affected overall wellness, including interpersonal relationships, brain chemistry, sleep patterns and mental health symptom management. U.C. Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center offers a course on The Science of Gratitude and the Harvard School of Medicine has published research indicating that gratitude practices increase overall health. No doubt there are tremendous benefits to experiencing gratitude, but unlike many life goals, like getting a promotion or running a marathon, this is a thought and feeling goal. Because it is a goal based on internal experience, we are vulnerable to cognitive distortions, social influence, the pollution of shame, and the conflict of projected self versus genuine self. What does all that even mean?  It means that the benefits of gratitude are real, and nonetheless, we are prone to what I call “gratitude traps.” 

Gratitude Traps are the pitfalls in the path of contentment.  They are ways our minds can keep us stuck in resentment and drifting away from authentic gratitude. These traps create an illusion of gratitude but keep us stuck wondering why we don’t feel better. 

TOXIC POSITIVITY

Nobody likes to be around somebody who is inauthentically cheerful, or who invalidates a genuine range of moods. Knowing how hard it is to abide by this with others, do not subject yourself to internalized toxic positivity. We’ve probably heard the phrase “fake it till you make it” regarding happiness or maybe we’ve had to just “put on a smile.”  If you don’t feel particularly grateful at the moment, it’s okay.

COUNTERACTION:  Please give yourself permission to never feel obligated to fake happiness or gratitude again. 

INAUTHENTIC GRATITUDE

We have all at times likely been both the giver and the recipient of inauthentic gratitude. This is a special trap for those prone to sarcasm or passive aggression. The key to noticing it in yourself is keeping an eye out for congruence – does what you’re saying match what you’re feeling and your body language?  

COUNTERACTION:  Adjust your words to speak truth. For example, if your host made a dish you didn’t enjoy, you don’t have to thank them for the great meal, but you can appreciate the time and effort put into the cooking. 

SHAME-BASED GRATITUDE

This is the most common gratitude trap. This happens when we tell ourselves that we should be thankful. This most often happens when we are experiencing authentic sadness, frustration, grief, loneliness, etc. We discount our true experience and self-criticize for not being in a happier place. We tell ourselves that we need to “focus on the positive” in order to get through our pain, when what we are really doing is telling true feelings that they’re not allowed space in our hearts – it’s emotional discrimination!  

COUNTERACTION:  Give yourself space to feel everything and don’t force feelings – perhaps saying to yourself something like “I don’t have the space to access gratitude right now and I’m honoring that,” or practicing a BOTH/AND habits, such as “I am both angry about my car being hit and grateful that nobody was hurt.”  

COMPARATIVE GRATITUDE

There is a concept called “vertical self-esteem,” meaning that we tend to place ourselves on a scale of better-than or less-than to evaluate ourselves comparatively and internalize a truth that makes us feel better or worse about ourselves. This trap happens when we say things like “I am grateful – at least I’m not __________” or “I am grateful for my old bed – I know so many people don’t even have beds.”  This makes the flawed assumption that those “worse off” than us have less life happiness than we do, and it focuses on not the satisfaction we do have, but rather the perceived distress we don’t have. This is the “could be worse” trap.

COUNTERACTION:  One of my favorite ways to get out of comparative gratitude is to move away from gratitude for comfort elements and into human appreciation. Tiny action-based gestures like writing short thank you notes to the mailman, your doctor, or the barista you see every morning make a huge difference in both interpersonal attitude and self-esteem. You’ll be shocked at how well this improves their AND your day. 

Photo by Apaha Spi on Unsplash

There is no doubt that practicing gratitude in our lives increases our overall quality of life. Evidence bears out that emotional, physical, and interpersonal well-being are improved. We do ourselves a disservice, however, when we force positive practices from a place of inauthenticity or emotional self-rejection. Worse yet, we end up discounting valuable healing opportunities by believing that we’ve tried them – didn’t work.

We can start by being grateful for being gifted with a FULL RANGE of emotions and that our human lives have incredible breadth of complexity. For many of us gratitude is not a light we live in at all times, rather it can be a place of warmth that we step into. While we can all benefit from works of service and recognition that come with the spirit of “grateful living,” we can also be gentle with ourselves. Honoring your emotional truth, embracing your beautifully complex humanness, and, in those times when you can’t seem to be grateful for anything, simply trusting that gratitude will return is its own form of appreciation and love. 


Kelley Hattox, CADC-II

Kelley has been working to help addicts and alcoholics since 2013 and has
experience in all levels of care with a focus on substance abuse as a coping
tool for trauma. She approaches clients from a strengths-based perspective
and relies on compassionate, non-judgmental connection to build a bridge for healing. She is a firm believer in the fact that anybody, however despairing and hopeless their present circumstances may seem, can experience a remarkable life transformation. She is a certified substance abuse counselor in California, and has specialized training in therapeutic art, grief and trauma in Native American populations. Kelley is also an RVARS-certified Relationship Violence Assessment and Response Specialist and has received training in the CRAFT method from Dr. Robert Meyers. She has been trained in addiction and trauma from an Attachment Theory perspective and believes that authentic, trustworthy alliance creates the platform of security from which change can launch. Guiding clients and their families through the difficult but liberating process of recovery is her passion.

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