December 8, 2021

Using Sincere Gratitude To Find Freedom From Guilt And Toxic Obligation

Sometimes it is our understanding of a word that isn’t shared. “Gratitude” is a particularly important word that differs in interpretation.

By Jonathan Wolfrum, LMFT|Adulting

A surprising amount of time in therapy can be spent on the language we use to discuss ourselves, our relationships, and our lives. Language is a complex topic, and focusing on small changes in diction can seem off-putting and superior. Ultimately, the exploration of language is vital to therapy because language is not just the means by which we communicate our perception of reality, but how we construct it.

For all the complex functions of the brain, it is ultimately built to construct an imperfect perception of the universe based on five limited senses.  What we “see” isn’t really how the universe “looks”, but a small slice of all the available forms of light in the universe (about .0035% according to the department of energy).

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Despite the missing 99.9965% of light we don’t perceive, our perceptions are rich and dynamic. The primary means of communicating these perceptions are words. Sometimes the effort is artful and poetic; sometimes it is coarse and immediate.

Whatever the need, the replacement of a single word can change the communication and therefore change our shared perception, even in how we communicate our thoughts to ourselves.

Trapped By Guilt

Sometimes it is our understanding of a word that isn’t shared. Words like “family” can mean wildly different things depending on the experiences of the speaker.  “Gratitude” is a particularly important word that differs in interpretation.

At times it can be a comfort, leading us to greater contentment.  Other times it can be a prison, entrapping us in unwanted obligation.

I find that it can be very helpful for clients to redefine what gratitude is not.

One of the words gratitude is most often mistaken for is “fortunate”.  The phrase often follows the form “I am grateful for what I have because others have so little”.  I see clients experience disappointment after the phrase almost universally.

They expect it to feel better, but more often express frustration of not being able to enjoy what they have.

It is important to be aware of our fortune, however, it will not help us enjoy it.  Recognizing that we have much in a world of divided resources is an important act of citizenship, but citizenship is largely about obligation.

Observing fortune does not erase the layered needs all humans have.

A full stomach and a good roof do not eliminate the need for love, compassion, and a sense of purpose.

Unlike fortune, gratitude is unconcerned with the external world.

Finding Peace Through Sincerity

Sincere gratitude is the recognition of what we have, regardless of what we, or others, don’t.

Grateful for this day. This breath. This opportunity, no matter the outcome.

To focus on what we have is to take a pause from desire and despair.

A short vacation from our worries, allowing us to return stronger and more adaptive.

When gratitude is confused for obligation, the result is often resentment.

The general phrase might be “I can’t say no, I am so grateful to them”.

I think gratitude is more of an attitude than an action.

To have gratitude is simply to think it; to express gratitude is simply to say it.

Obligation is a far more complex concern rife with responsibilities and strong emotion.

I am grateful to the sun, I don’t feel obligated to it.

Developing A Healthy Relationship With Gratitude

Likewise, I discourage clients from feeling trapped by acts of kindness from friends, family, and employers.

Robust relationships need to be balanced, and obligation is, by its nature, unequal.

Developing a healthy attitude towards gratitude is a hard process for some.

I don’t hear people talk about gratitude much beyond the two misrepresentations I mentioned above.

The cost of this avoidance is often guilt and guilt often leads to what most would call “burnout”.

Burnout is, like fortune and obligation, a complex concept worth its own discussion, but I think it is one deeply impacted by our relationship to gratitude.

Too little gratitude, we are never satisfied. Too much, we feel indebted.

To counterbalance these feelings, I encourage clients to practice sincere gratitude.

Express thanks to those you feel have helped you.

  • Acknowledge the things you have.
  • Write a list.
  • Take a picture.
  • Say it out loud.
  • Send a card.

These small acts of ceremony can have profound effects on how we end up feeling about this perception we call reality and give us a chance to enjoy the world free of emotional debt and dissatisfaction.

As I mentioned above, these concepts can be quite complex and difficult to manage alone.  I am honored to assist new and existing clients in exploring how to use sincere gratitude to reduce guilt, burn out and toxic obligation.  If you would like to book a consultation call to discuss how I might be of service to you,  please follow the link below.

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