Cultivating gratitude is wonderful, but forced gratitude clouds our judgement, and usually mutates into self-recrimination. Especially during holiday times, we’re constantly exhorted to feel gratitude, but who teaches us to honor feelings of non-gratitude: emptiness, longing, or a gut-level sense that something’s wrong? These troubling feelings hold half the key for achieving our most precious life-goals.
In our quest for growth, we must mature past the dehumanizing, robotic cheerfulness of “positive thinking”, which pressures us to be grateful for all things always. As if any time we’re not grateful, we’re at fault. Chloroforming our innate sense of discrimination leads to debilitating self-doubt, not enlightenment. Often, the opposite of gratitude is not ingratitude—it’s self love.
Countless times, I’ve seen people keep trying to convince themselves to be more accepting, more patient, more disciplined--to be the bigger person, when their gut-level discomfort is dead-on accurate. I’ve watched so many loved ones and clients stay too long in unhealthy relationships and jobs, just because they thought they weren’t strong enough, grateful enough, or disciplined enough to fix things.
Michael Clemente, a brilliant performer who died of AIDS in the early nineties, once announced that he found a way to get blood from a stone, and was going to teach his audience his tried-and-true method--perfected through years of relationships with unavailable partners.
“Take a rock," he said, “and just keep hitting yourself in the head with it. After a while, you’ll become so disoriented that you won’t know if the blood is coming from you or from the stone!”
This painful image captures what we do to ourselves when we try too hard to be the better person.
One of the greatest “aha” moments of my training as a therapist came when I learned about the concept of the assigned “sick one.” In unhealthy family systems, it is often the most sensitive child who takes on this role. This child registers what’s broken in the family, and simply cannot bear that awareness. She or he tries countless ways of calling for help—many of which are convulsive, immature and unhelpful—strengthening the family’s case that the sick one is the problem. Yet in many ways, the sick one is the wise one, even though she or he probably feels broken, weak, or constantly angry. It’s the healthy family that finally becomes brave enough to listen to the painful callings of the “sick one.” When that happens, the family can begin to heal.
I think all of us have a healthy “sick one” within. The part that says “something’s wrong” when the rest of our mind is saying, “Keep pushing. Try harder. Be more grateful. Don’t weaken.” In the face of that relentless, inhumane “positivity” we feel weak, broken, flawed in some irreparable and essential way.
At the risk of grave oversimplification (and excluding cases of active addiction and untreated mental disorders) we feel good when important things feel right in our lives. We register that "rightness" with feelings of peace, gratification and stability. When things feel wrong, we feel empty, sad, hurting. To a large degree, we can trust these simple feelings and use them to lead us out of painful situations and into more fulfilling ones.
As the songwriter Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem:
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
The places where we feel most broken often don’t need to be fixed. What they need is to be heard.
© 2012 Ken Page,LCSW. All Rights Reserved
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