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Is Your Gratitude Practice Helping? Check Again

Know the difference between helpful versus disempowered gratitude.

Key points

  • The practice of gratitude has been credited by mainstream self-help to have many physical and mental health benefits.
  • "Spiritual bypassing" refers to hiding behind a concept like gratitude to avoid dealing with problems.
  • Invoking gratitude before processing negative emotions or limiting beliefs can be counterproductive.
Source: MundusImages/iStock

In mainstream personal growth and self-help, gratitude has become the latest “super food.” We’ve seen a lot of research proving that a consistent attitude of gratitude has both physical and emotional health benefits. When it comes to achieving your goals, gratitude helps maintain your focus on what you want and what's important. What researchers fail to notice though is that gratitude can be misused. How? By using “gratitude” to avoid facing your issues.

It’s called “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing is when you hide behind a concept like gratitude or non-judgment or non-attachment to avoid dealing with your baggage and your negative emotions.

Don’t get me wrong. These things are wonderful and powerful after you do the work to release negative emotions, limiting beliefs, and old baggage from the past. It’s when they are used to bypass the inner work you need to do that they become counterproductive.

The term “spiritual bypassing” was coined by a psychologist named John Welwood who began to notice that many of his clients who had done significant personal growth and spiritual development were using what they’d learned to avoid dealing with their problems.

I was working with a client who was in a very toxic relationship. She was with a man who was possibly an alcoholic. By “possibly,” I mean he drank at least a bottle and a half to two bottles of wine every night and would become verbally abusive. He was also emotionally distant. The only thing he had going for him was that he was a good provider. He took care of her kids even though they weren't his. He could also be fun, and for much of her life, she hadn't experienced a lot of fun.

One night, he got drunk and belligerent—he started calling her names. As she shared this with me, she began to cry. She said, “I don't know if I love him anymore. I’m even a little afraid of him. I'm just so grateful to be alive and so grateful that I have money and can put food on the table. Who am I to judge another person? This is just his path. This is something he needs to go through.”

I let her empty out. And when she was done, I said “I'm going to say this with as much respect as possible. You're full of BS.” I had a good rapport with her, and she actually laughed when I said it. I figured if I was blunt with her, it might actually interrupt the pattern she was in. It was a gamble, and the gamble paid off.

After a moment, she said, “But I'm practicing gratitude.” I said, “You're using spiritual teachings and personal growth teachings to circumvent enforcing your boundaries and dealing with difficult issues you’re facing.”

This client had not yet clarified the type of person she wanted to be with. She wasn't sure if she should get out of her existing relationship. She still had some baggage that she was avoiding. I needed to call her on this because she was using the very teachings she had learned from me to avoid the work she needed to do on the issue at hand.

I said, “What part of his path gives him the right to dump all over you and your path? In what universe does your path include allowing other people to trash your boundaries and violate your needs?” She said, “None.”

We then worked through the Mental Emotional® process (MER) that I teach to help her let go of her past baggage and release some negative emotions. I helped her to set a goal for the relationship she wanted. As she began to take action steps toward this goal, she realized that her current relationship was no longer working for her.

At that point, she was able to feel authentic gratitude for the connection she had felt and the lessons she had learned in the relationship. It was totally different from the gratitude she had talked herself into before she faced the situation and dealt with her issues.

Authentic gratitude allows you to rethink things through the filter of thankfulness. It allows you to refocus in the moment. Gratitude reshapes your perception of what is occurring around you. As long as you avoid spiritual bypassing or using gratitude to excuse others when they violate your boundaries, a consistent practice of gratitude will be a tool that empowers you and gives you momentum toward achieving your goal.

My recommendation is that you honestly double-check your gratitude practice. Are you using it to avoid facing the issue at hand? Are you using it to cover up negative emotions or limiting beliefs that you need to process and release? If so, you need to work on those steps first before invoking gratitude.

Dr. Matt

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