5 Ways An 'Attitude Of Gratitude' Becomes A Toxic Lie You Tell Yourself

Fake positivity is off-putting to witness, but ultimately it harms the faker the most.

Blonde woman in a yoga pose with a big smile MG Best For You / Shutterstock 

True gratitude, a response to an unlimited universe, is never harmful. Yet, when gratitude is misunderstood and misplaced, it becomes a toxic transfusion. 

Saying "I am grateful" doesn't ease an individual’s hurt or make them sound special. Instead, it harms by displacing their grief, anger, shame, sorrow, or emotion just under the surface of consciousness where trouble sits waiting to erupt. In the cancerous form of resentment, bitterness or hate.


How did the gratitude movement, having blessed many into well-being, become ill-used by some? 

Genuine gratitude is when a soul says "Thank you" while toxic gratitude is a dysfunctional attempt to feel and sound better. A little like me eating breakfast eclairs to lose weight. They taste and look good but won’t meet my goals. And everyone can see your gratitude is flawed and fake. You should, too.


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Five ways gratitude becomes toxic & signs someone's happiness is denial 

1. Gratitude is toxic when it is a response to everything.

The first time you experienced someone's toxic gratitude, you tilted your head, pulled your brows together and thought, “Did I hear that right? Why are they grateful for that?” 

It took you a while to digest but when their response for not finding a job, a fight with their significant other, or having a kid in trouble, was “I am grateful”, a light went on. They were manipulating their perspective to cope with bad news. They were suppressing, or denying your authentic emotions is self-gaslighting.

Noticing that the expression of gratitude brought some momentary relief, you changed the subject and carried on but because it was someone in your circle you became a front-row witness to the outbursts and easy triggering that follow their dismissal of and refusal to process feelings. Not to mention other mental health challenges that result from consistent denial.


2. Toxic gratitude overrides other beliefs and leads to false powerlessness.

What if this friend of yours has used the belief, “I must be grateful” as an excuse to give up on other healthy beliefs vital to an authentic life? Instead of thinking, “If I try hard, I can get there”, or” Failure is a stepping stone”, they revert to I am grateful as a way of staying the same and avoiding growth. 

By inserting this belief in places where it doesn't belong, they squash the fortitude and grit needed to overcome life’s unavoidable problems. And you can see the train wreck on the horizon. This poor thinking inevitably leads to avoidance and neglect of all the right actions as described in sign number 3 below. 

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3. Toxic gratitude ignores genuine problems.

Another error in a list of many, your friend is using gratitude to stay in an abusive, walking-on-eggshells relationship, maintain silence about intolerable work conditions and neglect boundaries with family. Using pro-gratitude phrases like, “I should just stay”, “Nobody’s perfect”, “It’s better than being alone”, “I am getting paid”, “I mustn’t be greedy”, they have all but lost touch with reality and don’t know what is wrong or right, good, or bad.


4. Toxic gratitude alternates between being grateful and dumping on others.

Your friend has swallowed a mountain of feelings but, even with a dose of gratitude, painful emotions sit just below the surface and are never too far away. The result is an unexpected dump for the trivial infractions of others.

To a bystander, your friend is out of control and their behavior is out of sync with the positivity and gratitude they have tried to portray.

5. Toxic gratitude minimizes emotional experiences. 

When someone replaces their uncomfortable or painful experiences with positive perspectives from gratitude, they aren't actually healing anything, they're just pushing it down.

Blowing up was not the first sign that your friend was sitting on a powder keg of emotions. For months you have witnessed them ignoring or dismissing very natural feelings. For example, the passing of a much-loved grandparent was met with cursory acknowledgment, as was being sidelined for a promotion, and the anger of doing it all at home. 


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Gratitude, when misused, is a language that shields tears and anger. 

I have a friend like yours. A few weeks ago, I listened to her say “I am not okay” and witnessed the uncontrolled breaking of a dam that held tears and emotions stored behind uber-positivity. She had been the poster child for a gilded image of well-being, consuming the literature of Positive Psychology while sacrificing honesty and groundedness.

Now or later your friend’s use of gratitude as a denial of their feelings will blow up. What can you do to help? 


Tell them that part of being human is having ups and downs, good and bad days— that it is okay to express all their emotions and be grateful for all good gifts. Tell them to use a simple self-check instead of constant gratitude. That means, asking “What do I feel right now, and what do I need at this moment? “

Encourage your friend to process painful emotions. The following are only a few suggestions:

  1. Writing, drawing, painting, crying, or venting. Or punching a pillow, throwing a ball, or screaming into the forest.
  2. Getting active with a mood booster like walking, working out at the gym and playing a team sport.
  3. Enjoying basic needs like sleeping or eating.
  4. Diverting themselves with a hobby or special interest.
  5. Practicing a relaxation exercise.
  6. Solving the problem at hand or writing a pros and cons list.

Gratitude, when expressed and balanced with acknowledging and processing genuine emotions, is a powerful and beneficial practice. However, it should not be used to deny or suppress difficult feelings or avoid addressing real-life challenges in life.

RELATED: The Different Types Of Basic Human Emotions, Explained

Reta Faye Walker is a therapist who specializes in healing relationships. She offers one-on-one sessions, couples retreats, and courses to help couples get back on track.