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.)