Monday, November 2, 2015

The Gratitude Shame Spiral: Why Being Thankful Isn't Always Enough

Thanksgiving is around the corner, so I think it's an apt time to write about something that's occupied my mind a lot over the years: The intersection of gratitude and depression. 

In the gradual evolution of this blog, a core mission has emerged: To give voice to unsaid things, and to highlight the very real struggles that nearly everyone has, but that few people want to discuss. In the simple, beautiful words of the cellist Pablo Casals: To "say things to the world that are true."

My last couple of posts have been an attempt to do that. 

Depression and anxiety are twin demons that millions of people, myself included, struggle with daily. It's a constant battle to keep those demons at bay. Some days, months, and even years are good. Others? Maybe not so much.

One of the true things I'm saying to the world today is this: When you're depressed and/or anxious, gratitude isn't always enough. Let me explain what I mean by that.

It seems like everywhere you look lately, you're encouraged to count your blessings; to be grateful for what you have; to cherish the important things in life; to have perspective; to remain ever-thankful. In essence, to step back and acknowledge that your problems are small, because someone else's are bigger, and therefore you should be "happy." 

And yet you're not happy. I call this the gratitude shame spiral. 

Of course, taking the time for gratitude and thankfulness is a good thing. I'm not suggesting otherwise. It's a good exercise for people to re-calibrate their outlook on life. It's a cognitive strategy to keep one's problems in perspective and try to achieve a measure of contentment. But forcing gratitude and thankfulness upon oneself can backfire badly on people who are struggling with depression and anxiety.

One of the most painful, inescapable truths about depression and anxiety is that they often lack a concrete or identifiable cause. The popular and appealing "gratitude model" demands that we identify concrete "blessings" and correlate them with our feelings in a kind of one-to-one ratio. But the problem is that depression and anxiety do not readily conform to this cause-and-effect calculus.

It's not as simple as "my life is good, thus I should/will be happy." In fact, when your life is objectively good but you're still depressed, you start to feel ashamed, because you worry that your sadness is not "justified," and you are failing at the gratitude model's mission impossible: to will yourself into a state of happiness by being thankful for various nameable things. And the shame and sense of failure that follow only compound your depression and anxiety over various unnameable things. 

Hence the gratitude shame spiral.

So what's my point? I guess it's this: Being consciously grateful and thankful is a good thing. But when it comes to depression, it's not always enough, and can sometimes make things worse.


  1. I have been saying for awhile that gratitude is yet another way we now beat ourselves up for not being good enough. I love and appreciate your honest (and often hilarious) writing, even if I do not comment often.

  2. You say so eloquently what I have tried to explain fur a long time. A million times thank you.


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