Author Talena Winters

When Gratitude Becomes Toxic

"The only thing you sometimes have control over is your perspective. You don't have control over your situation. But you have a choice about how you view it."
- Chris Pine

Perspective helps, but only if it helps us empathize, not feel guilty.
I'm a big proponent of gratefulness.

I began teaching my kids how to sign "thank you" before they could speak it, expect them to express (and feel) gratitude for every act of kindness, and have had many conversations about the potential impact of a "gratitude attitude" on their happiness and the success of their relationships.

Yet, despite all that is good about it, there is a way that even gratitude can be made toxic.

When I was a child, my mother would try to instill a sense of gratitude in my entitled self by telling me about the starving children in Biafra that would be grateful to eat every last scrap of food on my plate, at which I was currently turning up my nose. Why not send it to 'em? I'd wonder. Then I'd begrudgingly eat my brussels sprouts.

Now as a mom myself, I've never invoked the defunct country of Biafra, but I have used this very same technique, telling my kids about both how much more materially blessed they are than I was as a child, and about the children we know personally in countries we have visited (or in our own town) who have less.

Our family is probably the only one that's done this...

The First-World Problem with Gratitude

After I lost my son three years ago, a new dynamic began entering my conversations with others. We'd be talking about our lives, as people do, and they would express some dissatisfaction about a thing that was causing them pain, then look at me with a shame-faced expression and say, "But I have no right to complain, because it's nothing compared to what you've gone through."

I got many variations of this, but what it amounted to was the same shame-based gratitude that stems from the Biafran children habit—"Since my problems are smaller than yours on the scale in my head, I have no right to discuss them. I should be grateful for what I have."

Okay, granted, after losing a child, it does become hard to sympathize with someone complaining about a broken nail, the Starbucks that was closed when they got there, or other "First-World problems." (And sometimes it doesn't even take a major loss to lose the tolerance for such pettiness.)
Ferris Bueller - First World Problems
Shallow problems like that? Absolutely, do the world a favour and take a moment to give your head a shake.

You're not talking about needs, you're talking about wants. Selfish ones. And for that, YES, pull out the "there was an earthquake in Indonesia, and here you are, complaining about ... ?" (Or Biafran children, though child soldiers in Rwanda might be more appropriate these days.)

But we each do have intrinsic needs, and we each have a deep desire to have our needs met—and we feel their absence when they are not. The basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. More complex needs like love, belonging, respect, and self-actualization. (Take a gander at Maslow's Hierarchy, if you haven't seen it lately.)

Don't let the pyramid confuse you. That scale of needs is only a matter of what order needs can be met in, not whose needs are more important. Those are all needs of value, and when one of them is compromised, it is just as important as anyone's else's compromised needs.

Some of those needs are more urgent than others. But that doesn't diminish the importance of any of them for us to be healthy, functioning members of society.

Remembering those less fortunate than us is a great way to remind ourselves to stop whining about First World Problems—but when we're comparing needs, not wants, it's a self-destructive habit that minimizes our own value as a person.

Gratitude vs. Guiltitude

When I lost my son, I had several of my needs violated. Right away, I started looking at other situations and thinking how much more so-and-so had lost compared to me, so I should be grateful my situation wasn't worse, suck it up, and stop talking about (aka "processing") my loss. But was this healthy?


This "toxic gratitude" diminished the value of my own needs without helping the people to whom I was comparing myself (therefore, not being loving toward them or myself). Thoughts such as these did not stem from a place of gratitude for what I still had, but a sense of shame, guilt, and worthlessness—that somehow, my own losses, and therefore needs, were "less than."

All of our needs matter. No matter how small, they matter to us, and not only that, they matter to God. In the gospel of Luke, chapter 12, Jesus says, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."

True gratitude focuses on our blessings without diminishing our needs. Guilt at acknowledging our own pain is a trick of the enemy designed to diminish our own value and self-worth.

Jesus was a guy who invited people to share their pain. People came to him with problems ranging from demon possession to terminal or chronic illness to just wanting their children to be blessed by the rabbi.

NOT ONCE did he ever reject any of them, no matter how small the need, and no matter who tried to do so for him.

His misguided disciples and others who wanted to "protect" him tried to turn away people with needs they considered unimportant—and were reprimanded for it.

Did you hear that?

Jesus never rejects our needs, no matter what they are. It's only us who sees some needs as having more weight than others.

Am I saying that we should talk about our own needs non-stop with no consideration for what another person is going through?

Absolutely not!

The true value in comparing losses is in letting them teach us to empathize with another's pain, so we can say, "I don't exactly what you're feeling, but because I lost this, I know it hurts, and I'm here for you."

In other words, my needs have value, and so do yours. Whether we're talking to a friend whose child died or sending money to support the orphans of Ukraine.

If our pain over the loss of a friendship, or an opportunity that fell through, or a broken marriage, or a broken leg, all matter to God—why won't we let it matter to us?

"Injuries give you perspective. They teach you to cherish the moments you might have taken for granted before."
- Ali Krieger

More news about my next book in my next newsletter. If this is the first time you've heard of it, click on the image to read the blurb on my website.
Bonsai Tree - The work isn't over

From the Archives: Something Beautiful

Crisis is hard. Grief hurts. But I would much rather be a strong, tall sunflower, or an intricate and complex bonsai, each a masterpiece of beauty, than a poor, coddled sprout that dies young in the luxury of inadversity.

Read the Post

What I'm Reading

Just a quick list, nothing fancy, to let you know what I've read within the last month or am actively reading. If I like it, you might, too. Links go to Goodreads.

The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd (5 stars)
The Secret Life of Bees thoughts
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Have you ever thought about how your needs and losses can make you a better friend or human being before? Did you find something in this newsletter that helped you? I'd love to hear from you. Hit reply and drop me a quick note about how true gratitude—even for your own losses—has impacted your life for the better.

Seek beauty, spread sunshine!

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