The Shadow Side of Gratitude

When I casually asked my family a couple of days ago, “Any ideas for a Thanksgiving blog?” my daughter replied, “Only cheesy ones, about gratitude”.

Now, I don’t think that gratitude is cheesy at all. Gratitude has many benefits. It gives us an experience of joy and optimism, it strengthens our relationships and it actually improves our health. The better we feel about our life, the healthier our physical body is. However, the question is, how do we handle gratitude?

My grandmother who survived two world wars used to look at her grandchildren and say to us “You are so spoiled. You should be modest and grateful for everything you have.” I learned early on that being “ungrateful” is a terrible thing, a character flaw, something we need to hide and fight. Can you guess what happened?

It became one of my shadows. Each time when I felt disappointed about something and had the perspective of ungratefulness about an event, I felt really guilty and flawed. I felt like I had failed to be what one should be, which is always grateful.

shadow 1

And as it is the case with our shadows, one of the things which triggered me most as a parent were little children who showed up as “demanding” and “spoiled”. I remember vividly a little boy at my younger daughter’s birthday party, the forgotten sad middle child of three, who loudly and clearly expressed his dissatisfaction with his loot bag as opposed to his brother’s loot bag. Apparently, his brother’s loot bag had the items in exactly the colours he wanted.

Instead of being able to see what was going on for this little guy, that his life experience was being overshadowed by his only slightly younger brother and being able to feel compassion for him, I felt an inner anger rise about this entitlement and lack of gratitude. There was my grandmother all over again. I felt like saying to him, “You are so spoiled.” Obviously, I didn’t, but I could tell his father saw it in my face and heard it in my tone as I tried to respond with a calm I didn’t feel inside. All the little boy had done was mirror to me what I had learned to hate about myself.

I have thought about my grandmother and what she taught me to suppress—the feeling of dissatisfaction in this case—many times since. I’ve thought of birthdays growing up when I felt disappointment but smiled because one is supposed to be grateful for everything. Inside, I felt like a horrible ungrateful person. Somehow that feeling of “un-gratitude” grew more from year to year, and from birthday to birthday. Suppressing our shadows is like cutting off the heads of the Lernaean Hydra, the serpentine water monster from Greek and Roman mythology. When you cut one head off, she grows two. If you cut those two off, she grows four and so on. I had a multi-headed hydra in my life, waking up each October around my birthday with more and more heads.

It wasn’t until I was a mother buying natural fibred underwear for my first child and my grandmother repeated her sentence “You are so spoiled” that I realized, it wasn’t just a bad thing to be spoiled. Suddenly, I heard a different sub-text. I heard, “Who are you to think you or your child deserves the more expensive item? Who are you to think you are special?”

I didn’t know the answer back then but I know it today. Back then she managed to trigger the feeling of guilt for being so ungrateful and spoiled. Even though my rising anger inside told me there was something to do with this situation, I did not have the right answer because I did not really feel deserving. Today, I know I deserve whatever I decide I deserve. What can look like lack of gratitude to others can also be that you know what you want and you are able to treat yourself or your family to the best.

Louise Hay - I deserve

Fact is, we are all everything. Everything that exists in the world around us, in the macrocosm, also exists inside of us, in the microcosm. We are all grateful at times and ungrateful at others. Sometimes we see the light at the end of the tunnel or the gift something or someone is. Other times a nagging feeling of “this is not good enough” creeps in. That nagging feeling is not there to be judged and suppressed. It is a call to find a way to honour ourselves more—even if that means being judged by other people as ungrateful, spoiled or selfish.

Fifteen years ago, I started on my spiritual path. In spiritual circles it’s all about gratitude. And, as I mentioned above, gratitude is a fantastic perspective changer and key to happiness. Yet, let’s not forget to first honestly feel what is really there, acknowledge it, decide if it’s a call to do something and then, in the final step, shift to a different perspective—if we choose to.

Gratitude cannot be forced. Nobody has to be grateful, not on their birthday or Christmas or Thanksgiving. Those celebrations can bring out all sorts of emotions. Honour them. And when you are ready, feel free to try this thing called gratitude—not because we should all be grateful, but just because it might be fun to see what it’s like.

Angelika

Thanksgiving - Happy Thanksgiving

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