Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gratitude and Low Self-Worth ( #Humanity #SelfWorth #Activism #Advocacy #Entitlement )

By Annabeth Leong

While I acknowledge the importance and value of gratitude as a way of putting small problems in perspective, I feel deeply suspicious of gratitude as a way of life, and even more suspicious of gratitude as it’s often played in pop culture self help movements.

People talk a lot about entitlement and expectations, as if these things are completely terrible and should be eradicated from our psyches. (Sample quote, from life coach Adam Smith: “Entitlement is such a cancer, because it is void of gratitude.” Or the popular saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”)

Both of these sentiments can serve as important correctives for a person who has lost perspective. For example, if a student expects and feels entitled to attend Harvard University on a full scholarship, and isn’t capable of accepting any other outcome or acknowledging that lots of other students exist who are also intelligent and talented, it might be time to pull out these sorts of quotes. It might be time to remind the student to be grateful for the opportunities that are available.

On the other hand, I get worried by what I refer to as “be grateful you have feet” syndrome. In self help settings, I’ve observed exhanges where, say, someone talks about their painful plantar fasciitis and how much it is bothering them and how they’re frightened they might need surgery on their feet. In return, someone else points out that not everyone has feet or the means to have surgery on them. And yeah, sure, it’s an even worse scenario if you don’t have access to your needed foot surgery, but I’m super frustrated by this approach as a way of shutting down someone’s honest and valid communication about their feelings of fear and pain. I’m not here for enforced gratitude, in which any negative feeling is criticized and countered with demands for gratitude.

What’s at the bottom of it for me is that expectations and entitlement can also be healthy. They can be an important part of standing up for myself, of asserting my worth as a human being. They can be the source of needed protection.

For example, part of what I see in the Black Lives Matter movement is black people asserting their own value and humanity (indeed, this is a major element of the message in the name of the movement). I see people saying that they’re entitled to better treatment from society at large. They’re entitled to receiving the benefit of the doubt from police in the same way that’s given to white people. I notice how often I’m hearing about black people pulled over for a broken tail light and ultimately killed. Then I notice other stories about white people who actually kill people and stay armed, but are eventually taken alive by compassionate, careful police work. I see that police are capable of that compassion and care, and I think everyone is entitled to receiving it, even if they’re under suspicion of a crime.

So the point here is that I think it’s healthy and important for black advocates to stand up for their worth this way. A sense of entitlement is a key part of that, and it’s good. Human beings should be entitled to live their lives without being constantly under suspicion due to the color of their skin. They should be entitled to survive traffic stops, and many more normal, everyday situations.

And all too often, I see activists getting told to be grateful for the progress that’s already been made in society. There’s a degrading message there, that you ought to be grateful for any scraps thrown to you, that you ought not to value yourself so highly as to think you’re fully equal to everyone else.

That’s a larger political example, and an important one. Then I have a lot of personal examples about ways that the pressure to feel gratitude has sometimes worked out to demands that I lower my sense of self worth. I’m going to give a few, ranging from minor to toxic.

— I thank my male partner profusely for “helping” me with the housework, when he’s done some relatively small thing, like wash a few pots. The gratitude I’m expressing here is concealing a few troubling assumptions: that the housework is my job more than his, though that’s not the agreement our relationship is founded on; that this relatively small contribution is worthy of effusive gratitude, while my much larger contribution goes unnoticed or unappreciated. I’ve also observed that being overly grateful toward male partners in this situation seems to contribute toward misunderstandings about the magnitude of household tasks. The partner in question may respond to my gratitude by feeling he’s done plenty, when that may not be an honest assessment from my perspective.

— I am so grateful to a publisher for recognizing my work and choosing to put it out into the world that I don’t advocate for myself, my work, and my career successfully. I sign poor contracts. I wait for long periods for any response for them, and then put up with sudden demands on my time when they get around to paying attention to me. I turn a blind eye to substandard service, such as poor copy editing or clearly unprofessional communications from the powers that be. I put up with delays in payments and errors in royalty statements, and I write gentle, carefully worded statements asking for the money that’s owed to me. After all, shouldn’t I be grateful that I’m allowed to pursue my creative dreams? Shouldn’t I be glad someone is reading my work and appreciating it? Wouldn’t it be selfish of me to want better for myself or my writing? What good does it do to think my work deserves more readers or better treatment? I should focus on being grateful for what I have.

— I am grateful to the first company to hire me out of graduate school. After all, they saved my ass by giving me a job in the city I was already living in, at a time when I really needed money. In exchange, I let them own me body and soul for the next several years. No demand is too large or small. I work myself into sickness for them. I put up with being passed over for promotion, with not receiving raises, even though other colleagues in similar positions get both. Every time I feel like I ought to find something better for myself, I question the emotions that lead me to that conclusion. Why am I angry and unsatisfied? I ought to be grateful.

— I run away from home as a teenager and live for a while with an older man who takes advantage of me in a variety of ways. I should be grateful, according to him, for the ways he takes care of me. After all, he feeds me, drives me to where I need to go, gives me a place to live. He also starves me when he’s not happy with what I’m doing, coerces me into sexual situations I wouldn’t choose for myself, and expects me to turn over any money I make at work. He tries to stop me from using birth control, and is constantly hiding my pills, trying to prevent me from getting to the pharmacy to pick them up, or putting me in situations where I won’t have enough money to pay for the prescription. I should be grateful, though, because living with him allows me to escape a different abusive situation with my mother’s boyfriend. I should be grateful because he loves me. I should be grateful because he doesn’t judge me for being a slut.

I know that for some people, gratitude is comforting. “At least I have someone to call to drive me away from horrible, abusive boyfriend’s house. At least there’s that.” If it does that for you, then that’s great.

At the same time, gratitude has many times left me unable to demand better for myself, even in situations where I really needed to. I think, as with all things, that there’s a time and a place for gratitude, and it isn’t everywhere. I wish the psychologically corrosive effects of trying to summon gratitude in the face of pain and damage were more widely acknowledged.

Some people may be too entitled, and others may not be entitled enough. There are times when a person should say, “I deserve better.” There are times when you’ve been served slop on the floor while other people are eating foie gras at the table, and instead of being grateful for what you get, it’s right and important to get angry about it and expect better.


  1. I agree with you, Annabeth. Self-respect means you view yourself as entitled to basic human rights, equal protection under the law, compassion and support. And I don't think the sort of gratitude you describe, which erodes this self-respect, is true gratitude. If you're not really glad about something--if you're only saying thankful to appease someone else's anger or ego, or your own guilt, then it's not real.

    Gratitude isn't words. It's a feeling, a good feeling, a sense of being fortunate, pleased, blessed. Saying you're grateful when you don't have these positive emotions is simply lying.

    1. The concern for me is that I think there can be a great deal of pressure to summon feelings of gratitude at all times. It's one thing to write it down here, but it's another to be in one of those situations, being made to feel ungrateful. It might be true that the right thing to call it is lying, but it's amazing what people can make themselves believe and feel under extreme pressure. So I think those who are peddling self-help gratitude should be a bit more careful about how they frame it. And even if you don't feel gratitude and aren't lying about it, I've been in scenarios where I was scolded for that, or advised to feel grateful.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. This is a terrific analysis, Annabeth. I think part of what goes on with concepts such as "gratitude," "entitlement," and so many others is that the nuances and complexities of context and perspective and so forth get denied by the cultural tendency to dumb everything down to simplistic, reductionist, all-purpose mantras. There are so many ideas that are immensely valuable when applied with intelligence and discrimination, and immensely false and destructive when they're not. Humans, on the whole, just aren't very good at handling ideas, knowing when they are and aren't applicable, etc.

    Related to this is something I've noticed and been bothered by in social media lately: Someone happens to be griping about some minor but real problem that he or she is dealing with, and some sanctimonious friend shuts him/her down by parroting the "first world problems" sound bite. Obviously, "first world problems" is a very important concept for overall perspective and awareness; but it shouldn't mean nobody is allowed to ever gripe about anything without getting shamed for it.

    1. Also: I don't think gratitude has to be all-or-nothing. There are circumstances in which anything but overwhelming gratitude might be out of place, other circumstances in which the expectation of any shred of gratitude might be inappropriate or downright oppressive... and yet other circumstances, I think, in which one can reasonably feel grateful up to a point while still feeling mistreated in some way. In fact, this is exactly how I felt about the publisher I mentioned to you (not here) who I sensed was expecting me to feel grateful to her to the point of being OK with something I wasn't OK with: yes, I was genuinely grateful for "all she had done for me," but that didn't mean her iffy handling of certain things would get cheerfully indulged under an all-encompassing umbrella of gratitude.

    2. And also also: I think it's always been a tactic of power holders to portray themselves as benefactors when they want to quiet discontent among their workers (or authors!). A job (or a publishing relationship) is, generally speaking, not an act of selfless charity; it is a contract that, in theory, both parties get something out of. If the situation is a benign and nonexploitive one, then gratitude might well be in the picture because most people are grateful for a good situation (though everyone, as you importantly note, is entitled to a decent life, and sincere, uncoerced feelings of gratitude shouldn't imply otherwise)—but that doesn't mean the employee is "in the debt" of the employer; and it would usually be appropriate for the sense of gratitude to flow both ways.

    3. Thanks for everything you've said, Jeremy. I really appreciate the addition to the conversation.

      "There are so many ideas that are immensely valuable when applied with intelligence and discrimination, and immensely false and destructive when they're not."

      I feel like that's the drum I'm always beating. Self-help mantras can be useful, but they nearly always break down logically when taken to an extreme or applied in a one-size-fits-all sort of way.

      I'm with you about the "first world problems" thing. I really don't like that one. First, because, as you say, it can be really sanctimonious. Second, because it's often used to dismiss something a person might have genuine feelings about (it is legitimately disappointing if, say, I dropped my lunch on the ground when I was excited to eat it, and it's weird not to acknowledge that, even if other people are in "worse" situations), and third, I feel discomfort over what people are imagining the non first world to be.

  3. Manipulators will take advantage of our natural human responses while knowing all along what they're doing. They are using your emotions to their advantage. Trick is recognizing true compassion vs. manipulation.

    1. This is a really good point, Daddy X. Thanks for it!

  4. The gratitude-therapy deal rubs me the wrong way, too, but I think some of it has grown out of an attempt to counter depression by highlighting the "bright side" of someone's life. That assumes a bright side exists for that individual, but when it depends on the "things could be worse, so be grateful" platitude, that's depressing in itself. That said, some people may well feel happier when they try consciously to think of things to be grateful for rather than focussing on negative things, so if it works for them, great. (Pretty much the way I feel about religion, on the whole.)

    1. Yup, I'm with you on, if it works for you, go ahead, I guess. Using gratitude to counter depression can backfire at times, I think, and this is one of the ways I think people should be more careful. Having had periods of serious depression myself, I can say that sometimes what I want most is to be heard and understood, and exhortations to gratitude can feel to me like the person talking to me wasn't listening to what I was saying or isn't really trying to see my perspective. Refusing to spend any time paying attention to the non bright side creates a really unsettling situation, I think, where everyone is going around skipping merrily while you're, to use my example above, wincing at your severe plantar fasciitis.


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