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Who Is Thankful for You? Accepting Gratitude Can Be Tough

Who's grateful for you? How do you know, and how do you handle it?

Key points

  • Gratitude can be even more difficult to accept than to offer; it's a complex emotion.
  • Realizing that people in your life are grateful for your presence can enhance not only your self-worth but your ability to be your best self.
  • Thoughtful recognition of what others regard as your most important gifts can lead to significant insights about your place in the world
  • Accepting the responsibility that comes with gratitude can be a challenge, but it's worth it.

Who is thankful for you? Is it easy for you to name the people who are grateful for your presence in their lives?

Is that a tough or easy question for you to answer?

A lot of people mishear it. They think they're being asked to name what they’re grateful for, and so instantly launch into a routine, as if reciting the catechism, or stats for their favorite sports team.

Most of us spend at least some time feeling unappreciated. "I've made 697 dinners in a row, and all I hear from my family is 'Why can't we ever have something different for dinner?'" and "My partner doesn't realize how many times I've had to repress my own needs in order to keep peace in our relationship" are examples of the sense of being unseen or taken for granted.

But those moments or relationships where one feels cherished and appreciated-—when we feel essential or irreplaceable—are often more difficult to acknowledge.

This was made clear to me in a recent conversation with an old friend surrounding the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

I was speaking on the phone with a pal we'll call “Percy” (he chose his alias). He misheard my question—"Who is grateful for you?"—and like an over-rehearsed third-grader in a school play, began listing those things for which he is grateful.

“I am grateful to my wife for her 37 years of patience, to my wonderful children for their continued love and for the grandchildren they’ve given us. I'm grateful to our terrific neighbors and my buddies from college who remind me of who I really am—even when I’d like to forget!”

His reply came out cheerfully unpunctuated, and even though I know it was entirely sincere, down to the cute elbow-in-the-ribs last line, what fascinates me is that he didn’t even hear my actual question.

“Percy, who is grateful for YOU?”

He paused.

“Oh. I dunno. The IRS? My dogs, because I walk them twice a day. The neighbor across the street because when it snows, I shovel her sidewalk.”

“What about your wife and kids and the buddies?”

He shrugs. “Them too. Of course.” He looks uncomfortable, as if I’m asking a trick question.

Why is it easier for many of us to accept blame than it is to accept appreciation? It seems as if we’ve grown accustomed to displaying gratitude but we’re not very good at accepting thanks.

We blush, fumble, and make a goofy joke. We substitute self-deprecation for humility and, in effect, shut the door when someone is trying to hand us the gift of their thanks.

Many people have trouble acknowledging that others are authentically and deeply grateful for what they do and who they are.

Is it because the responsibility of admiration makes us anxious? Or is it that we don’t trust ourselves to have earned it, don’t believe ourselves worthy of it that makes us scurry away from compliments as if they were curses?

Do we feel like impostors and fakes, worried that the one thanking us would be disappointed if only he or she were to find out who we really are?

Can we stop this, please?

The feeling that we’re not worthy makes us dismiss or diminish what we should embrace.

I’m not talking about nosing around for flattery or compliments the way a pig hunts for truffles but acknowledging that you’ve actually been of service and value to someone else. It should be satisfying.

We know that Percy came from a family of big shots and one of his life goals was to distance himself from them. But there will always be boorish braggarts in the world, those exaggerating their accomplishments bigly and extorting encomiums.

Pushing their metaphorical boot heels down on the neck of those in weaker positions, they demand thanks for not pushing harder. But if these manipulators are fooled by the false currency passed to them as honest appreciation, they’re cheating themselves.

Their own family members, if they develop insight, integrity and intelligence, want distance and perspective. They eschew obligations.

They know how to tell the difference between a craven need for flattery and a willingness to accept the happy responsibilities of gratitude.

That is the complication: When you allow yourself to feel the pride of having made a difference for the good, you might well also feel a need to keep doing it—or to do even better.

How exhausting, right?

It’s similar to the complication we've attached to the notice of "excellence": Once you know you can do something well, it’s difficult to allow yourself to rely on alibis when all you want to do is binge watch "Succession."

Once you’ve been initiated into the “I Am Valuable” tribe, it’s hard to accept your own excuses—for lack of empathy, for self-pity, for not bothering. If, when you stepped up and did your best, you benefited others, then you have more of the same ahead of you.

That's a burden, in some respects, but it's also a gift.

I'd like to end (and perhaps offer a start) with this: I am grateful to you for reading.