Positive psychologists, coaches, and therapists alike encourage gratitude journaling. I use it in my own practice as a coach and personally as a simply flawed human being. But there is a dark side to gratitude journaling. Like everything, in balance it is helpful, and overly used or used in a way to escape uncomfortable feelings, it can be counterproductive.

Everyone wants to feel good and live their best lives. We don’t all have the skills, but deep down if our survival needs are met, that becomes our focus. Sometimes it is dressed as success and other times it is about family priorities or getting an education — all of the things that are associated with happiness.

The majority of us struggle to remember to write down or verbalize our gratitude, but, for the handful who do it religiously, it raises many questions for me as a coach. When is gratitude journaling harmful? If you’re using it to suppress or avoid emotions you are less comfortable with, or attempting to attain utopia.

Is your gratitude an authentic feeling or a forced one because it is now socially acceptable to express gratitude?

I am an advocate for gratitude journaling and gratitude in general, but never as a replacement for processing emotions that are deemed as less acceptable or “positive.”

Photo by Javier Molina

Do you feel better because you’re focusing on better? Or is it because you’re avoiding the uncomfortable feelings that actually need processing and appreciation?

Is your gratitude journaling a form of denial, a form of minimizing your experiences and feelings? Or is it a way to build a stronger sense of self?

Is your gratitude an authentic feeling or a forced one because it is now socially acceptable to express gratitude?

I have found that gratitude journaling has had the biggest impact for me when I am in a dark corner of my life seeking hope and purpose. It has also been like a drug to a drug addict continuing in denial; an escape; a need for everything to be “good,” or for me to have a high because my own baseline was low at the time and I didn’t know how to tolerate it.

Positivity can be as destructive to authenticity as can depression, they are both extremes that pull us from our own balance, our own grey areas, our process of being in life fully. They both have a way of coloring life in a certain light, a light we can tolerate. Rarely have I seen this center people into an empowered place.

Be grateful for what you do have, seek comfort in knowing that life isn’t always the way we want — for any of us. And, if gratitude isn’t centering you and assisting you in processing all emotion, all experiences, then it may not be as helpful as you perceive and may be adding to a cycle of being stuck with false rules and fake positivity.

When my clients can’t summon a genuine feeling for gratitude in their lives and the activity of gratitude journaling feels superficial and dismissive of their real experiences, I invite them to appreciate the crap for what it is — crap. “Right now is crap. Can we be grateful for the reality established between us?”

When gratitude is forced or bypassing pain, then it can often compound feelings of failure and hopelessness.

It is a practice of bringing gratitude to anything that genuinely summons hope from within. Sometimes this consists of being grateful that others are struggling with them, being grateful that I am not going to rush them through to a feeling that is more socially embraced. Sometimes, when they can’t be grateful, I summon it from within me and ask myself what about this moment honestly rings true and allows me to be grateful for the exchange.

Gratitude triggers the happy hormones in the brain and fills us with feel-good vibes. When gratitude is forced or is bypassing pain it can compound feelings of failure and hopelessness.

The dark side of gratitude is that it sounds great and can be easily misused. Mind yourself, mind your heart, mind your emotions, they hold the key to the balance we all seek.

Photo by Bernard Hermant