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The Shadow Side of Gratitude

Of course, it’s healthy to practice gratitude. Until it stops you from asking for what you want.

Who are you to ask for more? How dare you consider greater alignment and joy from work when you’re so damn lucky just to have a job? Especially now, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that having work – even work that isn’t satisfying and doesn’t highlight us at our best – should be ‘enough’. I think of this as the shadow trap of gratitude: I should be grateful for what I have, therefore I’m being ungrateful if I want something else. Research about gratitude’s impact on our mental and physical health is compelling. When we direct our mental energy towards what we have and what’s working well, we are more optimistic and creative, less stressed and overwhelmed. So yes, I believe in a gratitude practice (in my book, the simpler the better). I also see the shadow side of gratitude. It shows up in language from clients like, “at least I have something” or “I know so many people have it worse than me” or “I should be happy with what I have.” I know that shadow side personally too, as this exact thinking kept me in two different jobs I knew I had outgrown (I wrote about that experience here). Why does this matter in regards to work? When we’re not getting what we want and need from work, our performance is going to suffer. Fact.

Think back to the last time work wasn’t meeting your needs, and be honest with how much effort you put into your job. My personal and professional experience is: we can not consistently show up at our best when we are misaligned in our work. We may think we’re great at faking it or playing along, but the truth always has a way of revealing itself.

Also, when we fall in line behind false gratitude, we are telling ourselves we’re not worthy of working towards our honest career desires. Resentment and impatience, the exact opposite of what true gratitude is supposed to create, build in its place. And that resentment will be released elsewhere. Another fact.

We put up with sub-optimal work and the resentment shows up when we roll our eyes behind our manager’s back, or yell at the dog, or numb ourselves with over-polishing the kitchen sink and watching too much Netflix.

You deserve the real thing.

I’m interested in how we maneuver between true, honest gratitude versus depleting messages around things we should be grateful for. I find two actions really help:

  • Notice what I feel physically. I can tell the difference between true gratitude and its shadow in my body. When I’m truly grateful, I feel lightness and warmth in my chest, a slowing of my breath, and I’ll smile naturally. It feels liberating. When I say I’m grateful despite the fact that I’m not satisfied, I feel a tightness in my chest and I sigh (oh, the sighing).

  • Choose the word ‘and’ to rewrite mental sentences. The word ‘and’ reminds me that I can want more while appreciating what I have. Try it. You can be grateful for the opportunity you have and be working on the next great thing. You can be appreciative of your manager’s trust in you and be planning for your next role. You can be grateful for your many blessings, and be working towards that vacation home.

As one client put it:

“Thank you for helping me tap into what was missing for me in my day to day life. I have so much more integrity in my work now. Working with you was a solid and important reminder that my career desires are not ‘too much’.”

I’d love to know: how do you navigate the sweet spot between being grateful for what you have and also seeking what you want?


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