Tag Archives: gratitude

The Game

In college, I lived in the nerd dorm (a dorm just for students and professors in my integrated honors program).  We were big on games: chess, Risk, and Dungeons & Dragons were often played in the lobby as well as many video games (mostly MMORPG’s) in the TV lounge and computer lab.  But there was one game that was the ultimate game.  It was simply called The Game, and the only rule of The Game was that when you think about The Game, you have lost.  It was no uncommon to hear someone mutter, “Dammit, I just lost The Game!”  That was inevitably followed by groans of, “Goddammit, you made me lose too!”

The point of this, besides making all of you also lose The Game, is to express how I feel about positive thinking and gratitude in our culture.

There are times when I genuinely feel positive and grateful.  Those are nice experiences, and I relish them.  I also know that gratitude and positive thinking work for a great many people, and that’s awesome.  I’m glad people have found things that work for them and make them happier with their lives.

But my problem is how often people demand that everyone be positive and grateful.  There’s this moral imperative at work, and in a lot of cases it’s used as a way to silence people who aren’t feeling good, who lack things they need, who are pointing out real problems that need to be addressed.  Too often, positive thinking and gratitude are like The Game: if you think of anything negative, you lose, and you will be publicly shamed.

It’s my experience that it’s utterly unhelpful to tell people how they should feel about anything.  Not only is it unhelpful, but it’s often destructive and creates a cycle that makes people feel even worse.  Picture this scenario: I mention to someone that I’m depressed and anxious because I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay my rent, and their response is, “Well, you should just be grateful that you have a roof over your head at all.”  I feel invalidated–he doesn’t think my problems are important because other people’s problems are worse.  I feel anxious–oh god, I can’t say anything about this, and I need to be grateful, why am I not grateful yet, oh god oh god, come on, be grateful right now or he’s going to hate me, come on, what the fuck is wrong with you, it’s not that hard, just be grateful, for fuck’s sake!  I feel guilty–I shouldn’t have bothered anyone with my problems when other people are worse off.  I’m a terrible person, and I should probably just kill myself so no one else has to deal with me.  Now I feel worse, and I’m feeling like I can’t trust anyone to talk to them about what’s worrying me because I might be invalidated again.  Now I’m depressed, anxious, suicidal, and totally isolated.

I’m sure that the people who’ve told me to think positive or be grateful for what I have were trying to help, and I totally get that no one is perfect and always knows the right thing to say to someone in distress.  I know it’s hard to see someone in distress and feel helpless.  We want to fix things, and if there’s nothing material we can do to help, it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling people to just feel differently.  But distress is like The Game: the more you try not to think about it, the more you lose.

I can’t speak for what helps other people, but when I’m in distress, what’s much more useful to me than prescriptive gratitude is having someone just be present with me and validate my experience.  Most of the time, what helps most is, “Yeah, that really does suck.  I’m sorry you’re hurting.  You don’t deserve that.  I’m here, and I care about you.  Is there anything I can do to help?”  What helps most is people remembering that I exist, even when I’m quiet–calling, stopping by, just generally letting me know that they remember me and care about me.  I don’t expect anyone to fix me, and I don’t want to put the burden of making me feel better on anyone.  I just want to feel like I’m not alone and invisible and insignificant.  I want to feel like my feelings are real and invalid and important and allowed, even when they’re not easy ones to experience or witness.  Those things, rather than being told that I should feel grateful, are what make me feel grateful.

If writing gratitude lists or reading self-help books about positive thinking helps you, great.  I’m truly glad you’ve found something that makes you happier–everyone deserves that.  But please don’t assume that that approach will work for me, and please don’t keep beating me over the head with it.  I mean, I often need suppositories and enemas to maintain my health, but you don’t see me shoving things up other people’s butts when they have GI problems just because that’s what works for me.  (Sorry, you know I had to throw a poop joke in there somewhere.)


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I Don’t Want Your Miracle Cure

I’ve been having a debate on Facebook with someone about giving out unsolicited medical advice to people dealing with chronic illnesses.  This person says that sick people should be grateful for it because it’s a sign that people care about you.

I disagree.  Strongly.  I didn’t say most of this to her because, well, it was someone else’s Facebook post, and I wanted to limit how badly I hijacked it.  But here’s what I want to say.


I understand it’s hard for you to watch someone you care about suffering, and I understand that you want to make it all better.  That’s a natural human instinct that arises from empathy.  I’ve been on both sides of this, and I know it’s hard on everybody.

But leave medical advice to medical professionals.  Medicine is complex.  There’s a reason doctors spend years in school and more years being supervised by experienced doctors.  If you know someone with a chronic illness, they probably have a doctor already.  Lots of us even have lots of doctors.  They probably know what they’re doing, since they actually went to medical school.  They’re probably doing everything they can to help us manage our health.  Giving us medical advice assumes that you know better than our doctors.

Giving us medical advice assumes that we’re not already doing everything we can to manage our health.  You probably don’t know what lifestyle changes we’ve made or what medications we’re taking or what our latest lab work looks like.  The miracle diet that cured your best friend’s aunt might contain foods that trigger my illness.  I might not have the physical stamina to adhere to your exercise regimen.  Giving us medical advice assumes you know our bodies better than we do.

And often, if we don’t follow your expert medical advice, we’re sent down Guilt Trip Avenue.  I know you probably don’t mean for that to happen, but you should know that it almost inevitably does happen.  If we don’t follow your advice, you often imply–or say outright–that we’re just not trying hard enough.  You tell us we have a bad attitude, and if we’d just think positively and give it a chance, we’d feel better.  When you’re living with a chronic illness, feeling better is not a matter of willpower or effort.  Positive thinking has its place, but we also need to be allowed and even encouraged to express emotions like frustration, fear, hopelessness, and anger.

We don’t owe it to you to be grateful for your unsolicited advice.  We shouldn’t have to adjust to dealing with advice we don’t want, to forcing a smile and a thank you to make you feel better for “helping” us.  Having a chronic illness forces us to adjust almost every aspect of our lives.  I think it’s reasonable to ask the people who care about us to adjust how they relate to us a little too.

There are many other ways to let us know you care.  Ask us how we’re doing and just listen without trying to fix us.  Bring us a doughnut or a book you think we’ll like or some flowers.  Send us a card to let us know you’re thinking of us.  Ask if there are practical things you can help with, like rides or housecleaning.  Take us to see a funny movie.  I’m sure you can think of other ways to show you care.

If I see you dealing with an illness in a way that inspires me, I might ask you for pointers.  In that case, advise away!  Aside from that, if you are not my doctor, please don’t tell me how to manage my illness.  Instead, support me as I manage it.


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Screw Beautiful!



This post has been percolating for a while, but I was inspired to finally write it by this post by Ashley at Nourishing the Soul, which is a response to Elyse’s post at Skepchick.


I don’t want to be beautiful.

Much like Elyse, I’m sick of being bombarded by social media posts and graphics telling me I’m beautiful and should love myself.  Most of the people posting these things have never met me, so I could be butt-ugly for all they know.  But even if I were, say, Liv Tyler, it wouldn’t matter because I don’t WANT to be beautiful.  I’m okay with it, and I wish my culture could come to terms with it.

I get that the point of all those images and posts is to tell women that they have value even if they don’t match society’s narrowly-constructed paradigm of attractiveness.  I get that poor body image, eating disorders, and self-hate are serious and widespread problems among women.*  But we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and other women by saying, “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” and leaving it at that.  It just affirms that appearance is the most important thing, that women are only valuable as objects to be gazed upon.

I’ll acknowledge my privilege here: I fit into mainstream standards of attractiveness.  Most of the time I don’t hide it anymore, but it’s not what I want people to notice most about me.  I’m smart, quick, and witty.  I’m funny, with a flair for sarcasm, satire, and wordplay.  I’m passionate about many issues and love to debate, and I get involved with issues that matter to me.  I’m creative, a skilled writer, a talented knitter.  I’m good with kids and animals.  I care about people, and I’m fiercely loyal to the ones I love.  These are all aspects of myself that I value much more than my looks.  They’re the kinds of things I look for in other people, and I hope they’re the things other people see in me.

It’s not that I hate my body.  I did, for a long time.  I was taught as a kid that my needs were unacceptable, that they were too much, that I didn’t deserve to have them or meet them.  I hated my body for needing food, sleep, warmth, love.  I punished it with self-harm and eating disorders.  Even when I stopped harming my body, I still resented it for making me weak and needy.

But now I’m at peace with my body.  I don’t hate it for existing, and I don’t see my self as separate from it anymore.  I don’t love my body.  Realistically, I probably never will; there’s been too many feelings of betrayal and too much self-abuse.  But I’m okay with my body.  That’s enough for me.

Ironically, it was getting seriously, chronically ill that let me be okay with my body.  At first I was angry–my body had betrayed me again!  I couldn’t control what my body was doing, I was in unbelievable pain, and I was stuck with a lifelong illness.  I went from doing kung fu three times a week and walking almost everywhere I went to having to quit kung fu and needing a nap after a 30-minute walk.  The fatigue was so bad I could barely function.

Acceptance snuck up on me.  I found myself feeling grateful when I could still feel my muscles stretch as I moved, when my legs could still hold me up.  Some days I’m even grateful I’ve been able to keep my colon so far!  I still have my angry, resentful days (mostly during flares!), but overall I’m much more accepting of my body, ulcers and limitations and all.



*I know these things are also an issue for men, genderqueer, and non-binary folks, but I won’t presume to speak to their experience.  I’m writing from my experience as a cis-woman, and that seems to be the group to which most of these messages are directed.


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