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Let's talk about gratitude shaming!

Is it weird to think that your problems are not worth talking about because you know that other people have worse problems?”

We all know that the past 12 months have not been great for our collective mental health. Everyone is feeling it in some way. Maybe you’re feeling lower than usual, less motivated with your studies. Maybe you aren’t sleeping as well, or experiencing anxiety around your safety or your future. Or maybe you are just feeling completely burnt out. Typically, if you had been feeling this way for a long period of time, a doctor or psychiatrist may consider these warning signs for a mood or anxiety disorder. However, these symptoms now also double as totally normal reactions to living through a pandemic.

But does the fact that we are all collectively experiencing these emotions, make them any less valid? Or does the spectrum of the tragedies many people have experienced affect the validity of what we are all feeling individually?

This year, I have felt a whole range of emotions. I’m homesick for my friends and family who are 18,000 miles away. I have anxiety about what the next 12 months might look like. I’ve felt extra sensitive, I’ve felt sad, I’ve felt fed up and overwhelmed. And then I scroll through my social media feed or turn on the news, and that all changes almost immediately, to a feeling of guilt.

Let me list all the things I’ve felt guilty about so far this year:

I feel guilty I’m not on the front lines.

I feel guilty I have a nice place to live during the lockdown.

I feel guilty people have died and lost loved ones and I have not.

I feel guilty for not helping out enough.

I feel guilty I still have a job and others don’t.

I feel guilty for feeling homesick, sensitive, sad, fed up, and overwhelmed when it feels like so many others have it worse.

I feel guilty for not feeling more grateful.

So many people have grappled with guilt and shame throughout the year about their relative safety, security, or privilege.

And we don’t just do it to ourselves, we do it to others too. How many times have you said to a friend, or had a friend say to you, “it could be worse”. All this does is make us feel like we should be grateful it’s not worse, and feel guilty that gratitude isn’t the initial reaction we had to that negative experience.

In November 2020, Sahaj Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy tweeted about a concept called gratitude shaming.

When you gratitude shame yourself, you don’t accept, validate, or normalise your emotions, including the negative ones, which are both warranted and healthy.

The fact is, things can always be worse. And it’s not helpful to get caught in an endless loop of telling yourself you don’t deserve to be in pain because other people are in more pain. Over time, this could turn into a pattern of telling yourself that your feelings and experiences don’t matter. And this internalised narrative can result in resentment, guilt, and low self-esteem.

Practicing gratitude is one of the most beneficial things we can do for our mental health and relationships, but the idea that gratitude means you can’t hurt or suffer is toxic.

Humans are complex beings who are capable of holding contradicting feelings at the same time. I can feel homesick for friends and family while also feeling grateful to be privileged enough to have an overseas experience. I can feel hopeful for the next few months while also feeling fed up at the thought of the ‘hamster wheel’ existence of the weeks ahead. I can feel empathy for those who have suffered the loss of family and friends due to the pandemic this year, and also acknowledged that this year has been challenging for me too. And it’s important to be compassionate with ourselves about these feelings because they’re entirely normal.