“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” – Meister Eckhart
This is one of my favorite gratitude quotes. I have always been a very grateful person. I truly believe that gratitude is one of my greatest sources of joy, perspective, and acceptance. Throughout my life, finding gratitude for what I already had has given me great peace and contentment.
Likewise, always being able to see the positive side of things has helped me feel empowered and supported during the most challenging times in my life. When I focus on gratitude, it generally brings in more things to be grateful for in a positive, endless loop.
However, like so many aspects of life, there is a dark side to gratitude. As I recover from years of narcissistic abuse, codependency, and unhealthy people-pleasing, I have had to accept that despite all its powerful, uplifting aspects, gratitude can be dangerous if we aren’t able to see it clearly.
Gratitude Can Be Blinding
When experiencing unhealthy, imbalanced, or abusive relationships, gratitude can be blinding. We become so focused on the positive — the minor benefits and the crumbs of affection or kindness — that we overlook all the negative aspects that are harming us.
If you were taught to always seek the silver lining in every situation, you are likely to suppress your intuition and disregard any warning signs that tell you someone is unsafe. Like me, you might focus on the good in even the most negative people, opting to give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming they didn’t mean to be hurtful or that they just didn’t know any better.
In addition, you might be so grateful for your relationships that you dismiss any toxic elements as “not that bad,” even if they are slowly eroding your spirit. By suppressing your intuition in this manner, you begin to feel the inevitable strain of dis-ease. Once sick, it is even harder to gain perspective, as you need to rely on the toxic relationships in your life for your survival.
Gratitude Can Be Bonding
In the same regard, in toxic relationships, gratitude can be bonding. Many outsiders wonder how or why someone would ever get connected to a cruel, manipulative, or narcissistic person. The unfortunate answer is trauma bonding.
In trauma bonding, a person becomes so confused, fearful, and powerless due to the abuse they have experienced that they can no longer see the reality of the situation. The abuse is often very subtle and hard to pinpoint. It could show up as passive-aggressive putdowns, the silent treatment, lying, or gaslighting (changing a person’s perception).
If the abuser holds even a perceived position of power over their victim, abuse becomes unavoidable. Additionally, any negative abuse is often followed up with positive support or kindness.
This causes the person who is being abused to feel a confusing mix of helplessness and hope. They will then turn to good old gratitude to find some semblance of safety and comfort in the relationship, focusing only on the good. This can even make them feel pity for their abuser, as they assume that the abuse is somehow their own fault. [Learn more about trauma bonding at The National Domestic Violence Hotline]
Gratitude Can Create Unhealthy Expectations
Narcissistic people often use gratitude to establish unhealthy expectations. Using the debilitating power of guilt and shame, they manipulate people to meet their selfish desires. This might look like a boss, partner, or family member saying, “After all I have done for you, you should [insert unreasonable request here].”
Relationships often take on unhealthy “tit for tat” conditions. If someone does something for you, even if you didn’t ask for it, too strong of a gratitude mindset may drive you to reciprocate or make choices that you aren’t fully comfortable with.
In dating culture, this can be witnessed in a man feeling entitled to sex because he paid for an expensive dinner. Or, similarly, a woman expecting lavish gifts in exchange for her time or attention.
It is important to remember that we can be grateful for someone’s acts of kindness without also feeling indebted to them. Oftentimes, a simple “thank you” is enough.
Gratitude Can Lead to Negativity
Ironically, if we strive to always be grateful, even when we aren’t genuinely feeling it, we will ultimately experience a lot of disappointment and negativity. This is one of the most debilitating aspects of codependency and people-pleasing. Striving to make others happy causes us to live inauthentically, therefore making our own happiness unattainable
If we overgive and disregard our needs and emotions, focusing heavily on gaining gratitude or praise from others, eventually we experience resentment and regret for wasting our energy and time on a person or situation that becomes draining.
Sadly, narcissistic individuals will often refuse to exhibit gratitude or validate the positive efforts of those who are bending over backwards to support them. This makes a healthy, balanced relationship with this type of person impossible.
Examples of Toxic Gratitude
Given how positive gratitude typically is, it is hard to recognize its more negative aspects. Following are a few common experiences that will trap you in toxic gratitude:
- Excusing negative, manipulative, or unkind behavior in favor of seeing only the positive aspects of a relationship.
- Staying at a toxic, draining job that you hate because the pay and/or benefits are good.
- Overextending yourself financially, energetically, or emotionally to “pay back” someone else’s efforts.
- Suppressing your voice or feelings to avoid looking ungrateful.
Healthy Gratitude Requires Balance
Like most things related to health, healthy gratitude requires balance. It must be both given and received in equal measure.
As I’ve said many times before, everything is energy. As such, it is a simple law of physics that healthy, balanced gratitude requires the same gratitude in return. Even if you have purely selfless intentions, being the only grateful person in a relationship will create an imbalance.
Honing Healthy Gratitude
So how do we make sure that our gratitude is healthy?
We must be able to look at all relationships with clarity around how they really are versus how we wish them to be. The antidote for toxic gratitude is getting very clear about the situations and people that are causing us distress.
For example, you can be grateful for the benefits provided by a job while still recognizing that the work environment is toxic. Good benefits or pay are no substitute for a healthy, supportive work environment. There are always going to be other opportunities. Be brave enough to give up the good to go for the great. You deserve that!
Narcissistic and abusive relationships fall away if we stop giving them our energy. When you let go of toxic connections and fully honor your needs, that is when genuine gratitude really grows. Trust me, Future You will be so grateful for the new life you have created by embracing this new approach to positive gratitude. 🙏🏻❤️
The above is based on concepts from my course on healing from narcissistic abuse.
Gratitude is Still a Gift
If you have been a follower of this blog, first, I want to say “thank you.” I am truly grateful for your support! See, I really am a believer in gratitude😉.
As a reader, you probably already know that gratitude is a theme in a lot of my writing. It truly has been a gift in my life. If this negative exploration into gratitude has you down, please check out some of the positive aspects through these blogs:
- Easy Gratitude Tools for More Joy
- 10 Guaranteed Sources of Gratitude
- 7 Ways to Simplify Your Life
- The Little Things
- An Unconventional Thanksgiving
- 41 Things That Matter
- 5 Gifts of Grief
Michelle Gibeault Traub is a health writer, compassionate coach, and the author of Free From Narcissists and Online Dating for Sensitive Women. Her mission is to help women be their best in body, mind & spirit. Sign up for Michelle’s FREE Gifts – The Natural Healing Toolkit and 33 Ways to Add More Joy to Your Life.