One of the most common statements I hear in my office is “I should be grateful.” For example, “I’ve got so many things to be grateful for (my health, enough food, good friends, a good life…) so I have no reason to feel depressed/anxious/stressed.”
While there is no doubt that counting your blessings can have many benefits and there is lots of research on this, if counting your blessings is used as a strategy to discount negative or painful thoughts and feelings (as in the example above), you will probably not feel better or get benefit from this strategy. This is because we know that trying to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings by replacing them with other feelings just isn’t possible! If you try not to think of something, it comes right back into your mind. Same with feelings – if we could will our way to happiness, everyone would be doing it and succeeding!
We do know that acknowledging difficult thoughts and feelings is possible by making room for them and seeing them in a new way. After allowing and accepting any emotion (not just the positive ones) it may be possible to come to a point of gratefulness. But there are no short cuts I know of, where you can skip to replacing negative feelings with positive ones despite what is widely believed in society.
One of the reasons we have negative emotions is that they communicate to us what is going on with us or with others around us. Something is not right. If we squash the emotion by telling ourselves to be grateful, we are effectively killing the messenger, before we have time to hear the message.
So if you’re in the habit of telling yourself to be grateful, and it has become a chore or something you “should” do, give yourself a break! There will be a reason why you are feeling low or anxious or stressed. Try dropping the struggle with the unpleasant feeling by acknowledging that like every other human on the planet, you hurt sometimes. It’s not what you want or like, but it is part of being human. A good book to read if you’d like more of this message is “The reality slap” by Russ Harris.