The Psychology of Gratitude
First posted on www.welldoing.org Dec 22, 2015
As I write these words, I am aware of how much baggage they carry. As children we are often told to ‘be grateful’, ‘show gratitude’ and if you haven’t shown enough of it, then we are called ‘ungrateful’.
Whenever we are told to ‘be’ something it is normally counterproductive but I found myself talking about gratitude in a session recently. I was really thinking out loud and I realised that if you can feel grateful to someone you will then have a sense of them as a separate individual who has given you something. It is a two-person perspective, which is a developmental necessity for mental health.
Children develop this capacity gradually. Initially they are only aware of their own needs but as they grow, they hopefully become aware that other people also have needs, which can be different from their own. We all know people who can’t see beyond what matters to them and if they seek therapy then one of the functions of the work would be to help them understand that other people also have thoughts and feelings that are just as important as their thoughts and feelings. So proper gratitude is developmentally important and is the polar opposite of a sense of entitlement.
Gratitude requires being able to accept that the other person has given you something and being able to receive it with grace. With entitlement you don’t really see the other because the only need that is important is your own. This narcissistic perspective is often a source of conflict. Christmas is a tricky time for many people and for children of narcissistic parents especially so.
Many of my clients struggle with how they will cope with Christmas. Joanne dreaded going home to see her parents. She had a busy life in London and two small children. Her parents had minor health problems and so it was ‘expected’ that she would travel to visit them. She was aware that they were lonely and wanted to see the grandchildren. The clue is in the word ‘expected’. Joanne’s parents gave no acknowledgement of the efforts Joanne made to make the visit possible.
In the past they had complained that the family didn’t stay long enough and the children weren’t attentive enough. Joanne could have coped better with the situation except that it echoed her childhood. Her parents were academics and expected Joanne to do well at school. She did do well but never quite well enough. It profoundly affected her sense of self and self-esteem.
Her parents failed to see how she struggled to impress them and feel loved by them. They failed to feel grateful for having such a lovely person as a daughter. When her own children were born, Joanne was determined that they shouldn’t feel as she had felt. In therapy she came to understand that everybody has needs that count including her own. In life and especially family life it is often a balance of competing needs and you cannot always get the balance right. Sometimes it is necessary that other people’s needs take precedence but it should be with the understanding that no one, with the exception of babies and very young children, is entitled to have their needs routinely take precedence and that when our needs are being met we feel grateful.