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  • Writer's pictureAaron Hendon

You Don't Need to Be Grateful

Why You Shouldn’t Be Grateful

The single biggest problem with the “gratitude industry” is the unexamined presupposition that you are supposed to be grateful.

And why wouldn’t you be grateful?

Almost without exception, if you are reading this, you are living in one of the most developed countries in the world.

You have cleaner water in your toilet than a good portion of the world has to drink.

You have access to the internet, which is rarer still. You have more computer power in your pocket than was used to put a man on the moon.

Despite what you hear in the news, there are fewer wars today than at any time in history, more people have access to healthcare, and literacy is at an all-time high.

If your net worth is a million or more, you are in the top 1% of global wealth.

But just because there’s plenty to be grateful for doesn’t mean you “should” be grateful.

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The pressure to feel grateful is enormous, and it diminishes our ability to authentically experience gratitude.

In personal growth and mindfulness, it's often said that the word "should" carries a heavy burden.

Anytime there is a “should” involved, you enter a world of comparison, judgment, and guilt or inadequacy.

From a mindfulness perspective, the use of "should" implies an external standard or expectation that may not align with your personal experience or feelings. It creates a sense of pressure and judgment, suggesting that your current state is not enough or not right. This can lead to feelings of guilt or inadequacy as you measure yourself against an arbitrary benchmark.

This is what Mel Robbins means when she says, "When you stop trying to control your feelings and instead allow them to be, you gain access to a deeper sense of confidence and clarity. You stop living in reaction to ‘should’ and start living with a sense of purpose."

Gratitude, when forced or prescribed, loses its authenticity.

Genuine gratitude arises naturally from a place of awareness and appreciation, not from a sense of obligation. When you feel that you "should" be grateful, it can invalidate your true feelings and create inner conflict.

During tough times, the last thing you need is someone telling you to "just be grateful." This pressure often worsens the situation. I know I've been dealing with a loss, setback, or rough patch and someone says, "You should be grateful for what you have." It's the worst (especially when the someone is my own internal monologue).

Brené Brown points to this when she talks about the harmful effects of shame, guilt, and comparison. She emphasizes the importance of authenticity and self-compassion rather than living up to some outwardly imposed standard or ideal.

Embracing gratitude authentically means recognizing and appreciating what is genuinely meaningful to you, without the imposition of "should." It allows for a more honest and compassionate relationship with yourself and your experiences.

By letting go of "should," you free yourself from unnecessary comparisons and judgments, paving the way for true gratitude to flourish.

Faking it till you make it is killing you.

I don’t have any inherent problem with faking it till you make it as a principle – I think it’s generally a sound approach to many things. It’s how one builds confidence and stays in action, which is the only path to greatness.

But not when it comes to gratitude.

Then it’s bullshit and it’s detrimental.

Faking gratitude, as in saying everything is fine when it’s not, leads to a bullshit life and will never produce authentic experiences of gratitude and joy.

The problem with the billion-dollar gratitude industry is that there is little room to be not grateful.

Everything must be immediately flipped to gratitude. There is no space for the shit that sucks – for what we are not grateful for. And if you are not allowed to be ungrateful, you cannot possibly ever be grateful.

Everything comes with contrast; everything has a yin to some yang – it’s not optional.

The whole world of gratitude as it exists on IG and TikTok is simply a skin-deep, spray-painted version of toxic positivity dressed up with a new name – gratitude.

What’s your access to authentic gratitude?

Consider the power of saying something sucks when it sucks.

Acknowledging where you are, without self-judgment, is always the place to start.

In "The Power of Now", Eckhart Tolle emphasizes the importance of being present and accepting the current moment without judgment. He discusses how mental constructs, including "should" statements, can lead to unnecessary suffering.

"Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. A new factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence."

Try starting with what you are not grateful for first – and if not first, then certainly second. Start wherever you start, but permit yourself to not be grateful.

We naturally stumbled across this at a Thanksgiving about 10 years ago. We were going around the table and sharing what we were grateful for, but given I am such a cynical prick, and hate the cotton candy lip gloss heart-centered namaste gratitude schtick, I said two things I was grateful for and one thing I was specifically not grateful for.

It seemed to give the appropriate amount of room for reality.

I think it’s important to notice the things there are to be grateful for, but I won’t pretend I love it all.

What are you not grateful for?

You have no shot at transforming it, or using it to make you better, or just plain old ditching it if you can’t say it, if you can’t name it, if you can’t acknowledge it.

This is not about wallowing in it – a 2:1 ratio is a good start. It’ll keep you on the positive side but leave enough room to feel heard for whatever is not going well

Once you have space to experience your experience – all of it – without judgment, you can then look at what’s not working and choose if it’s something you want to work on or if you are going to simply let it be.

If you do want to do something about it, check out Tara Brach’s RAIN meditations.

Based on fundamental mindfulness principles, RAIN gives you a chance to notice that you are upset when you are upset – or more powerfully – it allows you to move from being upset (I am upset) to having an upset (there is an upset).

That shift from I am angry, sad, upset, whatever to I have an upset, I have anger, I have sadness is monumental.

It’s life-changing, to be honest.

In doing this kind of work over the last 12 months, I have disappeared worrying from my life.

It’s not that I have nothing to worry about. I have kids, for goodness’ sake – I will always have something I could worry about.

But I am simply no longer worried about them. I am no longer worried about my business (even though I have less than I’d like).

I am simply no longer worried.

I have things I am concerned about, but I am not worried. The anxiety, which used to manifest as a weight in my chest, is just gone.

This is radical for me.

I was sharing this at a party the other night, and the person I was talking to said, “That’s wild – I mean as a NY Jew, worrying is practically genetic,” which is exactly how I had always related to it.

Growing up, it seemed my family motto was “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse,” so no fooling, this is a new world to live in.

But you can’t fake this till you make it. No amount of icing makes a pile of mud into a cake. It will always be icing hiding mud.

There are two steps to getting access to this:

  1. Practice becoming the witness. Basic, simple mindfulness practices will do the trick. Don’t jump right to trying to be grateful. Start with practicing noticing your present experiences without judgment. This is a skill that can be learned with consistent practice in 10-15 minutes a day. The length of the practice is far less significant than the consistency.

  2. After 2-4 weeks of practice, try out the RAIN meditation. Choose an area that is not traumatic but is impactful. Again, this is a skill you will need to practice, and like all skills, it will be hard until it is easy, and you will not be good at it until you are.

Most importantly: Be gentle and kind to yourself.

There is no “way” you “should” be.

You are in the exact right place.

By allowing yourself the space to experience your life exactly as it is and exactly as it is not, with all the accompanying feelings, you will find yourself happier and more grateful, naturally.


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