Many of my workshop or research participants ask me about how appropriate it is to feel grateful in the midst of the negativity of others, and in particular, when being bullied. Surely, they say, this would be putting a positive veneer on a negative situation – almost like adopting a Pollyanna attitude, pretending that things are all okay and letting our positivity mask situations that are crying out for attention.
Just a few nights ago a woman whom I will call Natalie confronted me with the question: Are we meant to feel grateful to a person who’s injuring us? She then recounted, with much pain, the situation with her ex-husband where for decades she had become totally submissive to his passive-aggressive behaviour and regular put-downs. Whenever Natalie confronted her husband about this it only made matters worse. For a long time, she just did her best to keep the peace to protect her three children from the conflict. Recently, however, she walked out and divorced him after realising that she was injuring both herself and her children by staying.
The very mention of my work on gratitude made Natalie defensive. She questioned the legitimacy of its place in the situation with her husband. She was even more perplexed when I espoused my theory about deep gratitude being not only about what we receive but also about what we can give back out of acknowledgement. My reply was that until we can feel grateful to ourselves we cannot make decisions that are honouring our integrity and wellbeing.
Sometimes it is a lack of gratitude to self that gives bullies the power over us in the first place. A common reason bullies behave the way they do is so that they can feel superior in situations where they are actually feeling inferior. They do their best to put down and ridicule or chastise those who make them feel this way. If someone is feeling inferior, they are more likely to fall into the trap of believing what others say about them or feel that they deserve what is being done to them.
We often hear the statement that before we can love another we first need to love ourselves. Gratitude helps us to recognise more of our own inner beauty, skills, talents, achievements, and how we are able to use these to give to others and the world.
This is why I keep returning to the point of reconnaissance – recognition of another through our gratitude. When we are able to express our gratitude to others by showing them what we have received from them, they are more able to affirm this in themselves and practise gratitude towards themselves.
When I shared with Natalie my belief that leaving her bullying husband was a powerful way of expressing gratitude to herself, she was able to see the relevance of gratitude. She recognised that if she stayed she would continue to be undermined and would have nothing to draw on to give to her children or others in her world. She first needed to express gratitude to herself in order to grow out of feeling inferior and allowing her husband to reinforce that feeling of inferiority. Natalie was able to recognise that since leaving him her gratitude to self has grown exponentially because she has been able to see the good in herself.
Gratitude to self should not be mistaken as a way of feeling superior. The notion of ‘superior’ is inherently one of feeling above or better than another person. It’s this point of confusion that can lead some to ignore the dimension of gratitude to self as they think that this means that they are somehow going to slip into some sort of self-adoration or even narcissism.
If our gratitude to self was to lead to feelings of superiority, it would lose its essential characteristics of humility and awareness of our inherent interconnectedness with others. We need to be ever mindful of the fact that gratitude by its very nature involves the relationship between giving, receiving and the gift.
In sharing this with Natalie, she admitted that her way of thinking or speaking about her ex-husband usually involved brutal words and put-downs. Now that she no longer felt endangered by him, she was trying to gain superiority after so many years of feeling inferior. However, if we are grateful to ourselves we can recognise that this kind of behaviour is being fuelled by hatred and resentment and can lead us to lose our integrity.
If our thoughts and actions towards others are toxic and hurtful, this actually impacts negatively on us. On the other hand, if we are grateful to ourselves our cup of self-love is filled, and we are more able to deal with our resentment in proactive rather than reactive ways.