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How to Practice Gratitude the Right Way

Make sure you're practicing gratitude and not invalidating your feelings. 7 Steps to validating your emotions.

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Practicing gratitude has become more popular than ever in the wellness and self-help spaces. Listing what we’re thankful for seems ever more important this 2020 Thanksgiving. Oprah herself swears by her routine of daily writing in her gratitude journal to stay positive and spiritually aligned. But is it really gratitude she’s practicing? 

I can’t speak for Oprah, but in my work as a psychotherapist for over a decade, I have heard countless people express what they believe is focusing on feeling grateful as a helpful way to reframe their perspective and feel better, which is really emotional invalidation in disguise.

Focusing on what you’re grateful for makes sense as a useful strategy to look at the glass half full – especially now as many people face the harsh impacts of the pandemic, racial injustices, and a political arena that seems more than ever to amplify what’s out of our control. A recent book, The Gratitude Project (Sep 2020), summarizes years of research that shows that gratitude can increase prosocial behavior, improve bonds and relationships with others, and cultivate resilience.

There’s a common myth about what it means to be grateful. What I’m referring to here is what’s often masked as gratitude but is the internalization that comes from parents telling you to “be grateful”, followed by a long list of things that you have that other kids don’t. The popular one, when I was a child, was the mandate to eat all the food on your plate because “children are starving in Africa”. Like over-eating my dinner – and denying my own body’s cues for satiation – would somehow balance the equilibrium of children starving in another continent. The message is your feelings – and their accompanied bodily cues – are wrong and/or bad.

What does invalidation actually mean? Invalidation means to render invalid; discredit; to deprive of efficacy; to nullify (Merriam Webster). The child who tells his parents “I’m scared” at bedtime and is told there’s “nothing to be scared about” is actually being invalidated. 

While it might seem like the parents are simply trying to reassure the scared child, and help him go to bed, what it’s really conveying is a message that your feelings are incorrect.

Children are invalidated a lot by very innocent, unknowing parents who are trying to do their best, with all the best of intentions. I embarrassingly count myself among those parents more times than I’d like to admit. 

Basically, anytime we tell another person “no, you shouldn’t feel that way” or that they should feel differently, we are invalidating their feelings.

It’s easy to do because so often when a loved one is expressing an uncomfortable or tough emotion, we want to jump in and save them from it. Find a solution or make them see a new perspective. Of course we want to take away the discomfort they’re experiencing (which is often actually our own mirrored uncomfortable emotion). 

But isn’t uncomfortable emotion part of being human? In the words of psychologist Susan David, “Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.” Our emotions offer us information. They tell us about our values, our needs, and what matters to us, and about the state of our relationships with others.

It feels bad when our expressed feelings are invalidated by another person, especially someone we love and trust. We become ashamed, feel guilty or wrong for our feelings. We then stuff and avoid our feelings, hiding them from others. Invalidation does not instill gratitude – it sets a course for resisting and suppressing the feelings that we have.

As we live through a pandemic that’s been taking lives and causing significant financial stress for some, it’s hard to not deny your feelings of stress, anxiety, or despair if your circumstances are less dire than those around you. It can easily feel wrong to offer yourself compassion and to justify your emotions when you’re aware things could be so much worse for you. I’ve heard many colleagues, clients, and thought myself that “I shouldn’t be feeling sad or stressed because so many people have it much worse right now”.

While it’s helpful and wise to keep your reactions in perspective as we all observe the global context that seems particularly daunting and unpredictable, denying your own emotions will not serve the greater good or help you access your resilience. 

Your emotions don’t stop because others are enduring trauma. Filling your belly doesn’t fill the stomach of the child in Ethiopia. When we deny our own emotions, we cut ourselves off from resourcefulness, self-care, and compassion that in fact offers us the grace and strength we need to continue to show up, help others, and make a positive impact on communities in need.

Feelings are waves of energy. When they’re not resisted or suppressed, but are validated, they can move through with ease. What often stops us from allowing our emotions to be is that we judge them as unpleasant. We fear we’ll get stuck and sink into them, unable to get out. Ironically its often the suppression of our feelings that leads us into greater fear, stress, and negative mental looping. 

Despite how other people are doing – better or worse – your feelings are valid. Validation is defined as the “recognition or affirmation that a person or their feelings or opinions are valid or worthwhile”. It means to recognize, establish, or illustrate the worthiness or legitimacy of what we’re feeling. 

If you approach your feelings as valid you’re allowing them, letting them be. Even the complaint, even the dislike is permitted as valid – because it’s there. 

Real gratitude can only come from being with all of our emotions. It flows naturally out of mindfully holding space for all of our feelings. True gratitude does not shame or deny emotions that you experience. We can be sad and grateful, scared and thankful. True gratitude and a clear perspective will naturally occur when you’re able to hold all your pain, your fear, or whatever emotions are there, with acceptance, compassion and perceiving them as valid.

Here are 7 Steps to Validate Your Emotions:

  1. Notice the feelings arise (hint: often emotions show up as sensations in the body).
  2. Label them (take a guess at what emotion(s) you’re feeling; is it sadness? anger? fear? grief? Say it out loud and see if it fits).
  3. Place your hand gently on your chest, heart or belly. Offering a gentle and warm touch offers compassion and care to yourself.
  4. Whisper or say to yourself “Of course you feel this way….it’s alright”. This is validating the emotion that’s there and offering acceptance and non-judgment (BTW: it doesn’t mean you have to like it or want it to be there).
  5. Breathe (deep, slow breaths help to calm the nervous system and can help anchor your attention if emotion feels particularly strong).
  6. Ask the emotion “What do you need?”
  7. Regardless if you get an answer or not (either is completely OK), offer words of caring and comfort to yourself: ”I’m here”… “It’s OK”… “I’m gonna get through this” or whatever words you long to hear and know. 

Validating the feelings that are unpleasant or feel bad might be difficult for you, especially if you’ve never approached your feelings in this way before. Don’t quit. Changing how you relate to your emotions takes practice. Notice any subtle differences you experience after validating your emotions and offering yourself compassion as opposed to telling yourself you should feel differently. 

When we treat our emotions as valid, we validate our experiences – we validate our Self. Relating to ourself as though we’re worthy of compassion, care, and love is the best way I know to access the strengths and inner resilience that’s already there – waiting for you to be discovered. 

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