With Thanksgiving behind us and the holiday season in full swing, it seems fitting to talk about gratitude. Gratitude captures both the verbal expression of thanks as well as an overall attitude of appreciation. This disposition of thanks brings obvious benefit to the recipient of gratitude, but it also enriches your life – you being the giver of gratitude. All to say that growing gratitude is an important task to focus on.
Before going any further, let’s look at the different styles of gratitude. The most straightforward style is purely genuine and spontaneous gratitude, but an equally worthy style is the purely genuine and actively worked on form of thanks. Countless other styles exist, such as the begrudgingly grateful style, the “unfelt but still expressed” gratitude, etc… Our ultimate goal is to understand and foster balanced gratitude.
While balanced gratitude is applicable to all, many people intuitively have the balanced component within their gratitude. Unfortunately, many survivors of trauma need to actively grow the balance component. This is because trauma, particularly trauma experienced in childhood, chips away at, or even blocks, healthy entitlement from taking hold. Insufficient healthy entitlement can set you up for unhealthy gratitude – unhealthy in that there is either too much or too little.
In our current cultural climate, excessive entitlement is rather easy to identify, and hopefully most of us recognize the imbalance within such a stance. Healthy entitlement is a little harder to recognize because it is less flashy, but it too is out there, and I encourage you to seek out individuals who can be role models of healthy entitlement. Before you start looking for examples of healthy entitlement, let’s look at what it entails. Healthy entitlement is an accurate recognition of your human rights, your personal needs, and your wants as well as desires. In addition, healthy entitlement includes a clear understanding of the boundaries between each of these categories.
It may help to visualize a funnel, with your human rights being the smallest point, and your personal needs, wants and desires going in ascending order – meaning that there are more personal desires than human rights, etc…. Many survivors of trauma, because of their underdeveloped or compromised healthy entitlement, do not recognize these categories, and/or do not recognize the distinctions between these categories. Some survivors do not recognize that they have human rights, while others only recognize a minute number of them as being fundamental rights and regard the majority as personal wants. A few examples may clarify this: it is a human right to have physical and psychological safety; therefore it is not simply my personal desire to be free of abuse: it is my human right to be free of abuse. It is my personal want to have a comfortable home to live in, but this is neither a human right nor even a personal need – the need would be to have shelter. Healthy entitlement sees these distinctions while excessive entitlement often does the flip, claiming too many personal desires and wants as needs and personal needs as human rights.
A solid recognition of your human rights and the boundaries between rights, needs, wants and desires becomes the bedrock for balanced gratitude because it creates the balance. Remember the funnel you visualized earlier? Well, add a second funnel and label this one gratitude, with the small tip of the funnel being a small amount of gratitude and the large mouth of the funnel being a large dose of thankfulness (keep in mind that you have the freedom to define what a small versus large amount of gratitude is). Placing these two funnels next to each other allows us to begin practicing balanced gratitude. Gratitude for your human rights being met is important, yet it is healthier to have less gratitude for this than for your personal wants being met. For example, I have gratitude that I can breathe clean air – but breathing clean air is a recognized human right and so my gratitude for this is less than my thankfulness for being able to garden, which fulfills a personal want and desire of mine, but not a need or right.
When you claim the legitimacy of your rights, having others honor your rights becomes more of an issue of obligation and less of an issue of thankfulness – and a high degree of gratitude generally does not correspond to issues of obligation (for example, your boss is not intensely grateful that you come to work on time because your are obligated to do that). Now I am not saying that you should have no gratitude for the fact that your rights are being recognized – the point I want to highlight is that, due to having traumatic experiences, survivors often struggle with excessive gratitude for things that are due to them. Asserting a healthy entitlement of your human rights will balance excessive gratitude to more sustainable and appropriate levels.
I encourage you to practice growing your gratitude, and as you practice keep the two funnels – one for your human rights, personal needs, wants and desires, and one for the degree of gratitude – in mind. Periodically check to see if your depth or length of gratitude is roughly lining up with where the object of your gratitude falls in regards to rights, needs, wants or desires. If you notice that there is a bit of misalignment, grant yourself permission to calibrate a bit and try out this adjusted level of thankfulness. If this new level of thankfulness doesn’t fit, feel free to let go of it and adjust back to your prior level. As always take what works out of this article and leave the rest behind. You are where you are on your healing journey, and for this fact alone, extend gratefulness to yourself and to those who have helped you heal. Never forget that there are trained professionals ready and willing to help you grow.
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