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Toxic Gratitude: The Hidden Cost of Forced Positivity

November 10, 2023

In a world increasingly obsessed with the pursuit of happiness and positivity, we often encounter the well-meaning mantra: “Just be grateful for what you have.” On the surface, this seems like sound advice. Gratitude, after all, is a powerful emotion, capable of transforming our outlook on life and elevating our mental well-being. However, there’s a darker side to gratitude that is seldom discussed: toxic gratitude.

Understanding Toxic Gratitude

Toxic gratitude occurs when the natural, healthy feeling of thankfulness is twisted into a tool for suppressing genuine emotions and ignoring real problems. It’s the difference between genuine thankfulness and a forced sense of obligation to appear grateful. This can be especially prevalent in cultures that emphasize positivity over authentic emotional expression.

In my experience as a life and executive coach, I’ve seen how toxic gratitude can quietly eat away at a person’s authenticity and emotional health.

Common examples of toxic gratitude:

“I should just be grateful for what I have.” This phrase, while seemingly benign, can be a way of telling ourselves that our desires or disappointments are unimportant. It’s a subtle form of self-repression.

“At least it’s not as bad as [other person’s situation].” Comparing our struggles to others’ can diminish our own experiences. It suggests that our problems aren’t significant enough to warrant attention or empathy.

“Everything happens for a reason, so I should be thankful.” While this can provide comfort, it can also be a way of dismissing our own pain and suffering as trivial in the grand scheme of things.

“Positive vibes only.” This popular mantra implies that negative emotions are unwelcome, pressuring us to suppress them in favor of a more socially acceptable positive outlook.

The Problem with Forced Positivity

Forced positivity, the cornerstone of toxic gratitude, is a deceptive beast. It masquerades as a helpful coping mechanism, yet in reality, it invalidates our genuine emotions. When we tell ourselves or others to focus only on the positive, we’re essentially saying that some feelings are acceptable while others are not. This dichotomy creates an emotional hierarchy where happiness reigns supreme and other emotions are seen as inferior or unwanted.

This approach is not only unrealistic but also unhealthy. As humans, we are wired to experience a wide range of emotions, each serving a purpose in our emotional and psychological development. Sadness, frustration, anger, and disappointment are not just natural but necessary for a balanced and resilient emotional life.

Toxic Gratitude and Emotional Intelligence

The relentless pursuit of gratitude can have a detrimental effect on emotional intelligence. Part of being emotionally intelligent involves recognizing and accepting your own emotions as well as those of others. When we practice toxic gratitude, we’re essentially putting on emotional blinders, choosing to see only what we want to see.

This selective emotional vision limits our ability to connect authentically with others. Empathy, a core component of emotional intelligence, requires us to acknowledge and understand the full spectrum of human emotions, not just the pleasant ones. By embracing only gratitude, we risk alienating those who are struggling, as they may feel misunderstood and unsupported.

The Dangers of Dismissing Negative Emotions

Toxic gratitude encourages us to ignore or suppress negative emotions, which is counterproductive for several reasons:

Emotional Dishonesty: Continuously ignoring negative feelings forces us into a state of emotional dishonesty, both with ourselves and others.

Stunted Emotional Growth: By not allowing ourselves to fully process all our emotions, we hinder our ability to develop emotional resilience and intelligence.

Relationships Suffer: Authentic relationships require vulnerability and honesty. If we’re always hiding behind a mask of gratitude, we prevent true connection.

In my coaching practice, I’ve observed how this self-criticism can lead to a deeper sense of inadequacy and unworthiness. Unfortunatelyw, in our quest to feel good through gratitude, we end up feeling worse about ourselves.

Toxic Gratitude vs Authentic Gratitude

Real gratitude is a spontaneous feeling of thankfulness for something specific. Authentic gratitude is not about ignoring the negative or painting over problems with a veneer of thankfulness. Instead, it’s about acknowledging the full range of our experiences and emotions, appreciating the good while also giving space to the not-so-good.

To practice authentic gratitude:

Acknowledge All Emotions: Allow yourself to feel and express all your emotions, not just the positive ones. Recognize that every emotion has value and is part of the human experience.

Avoid Comparison Traps: Avoid the trap of comparing your situation with others to justify why you “should” feel grateful. Your emotions are valid regardless of circumstances.

Practice Mindful Gratitude: Instead of using gratitude as a blanket response to all situations, be mindful about what you’re truly thankful for. This means taking the time to reflect on the specifics of your gratitude.

Encourage Open Emotional Expression: Whether in personal relationships or in a professional setting, foster an environment where a range of emotions can be openly expressed and discussed.

The Impact of Toxic Gratitude in the Workplace

In a professional context, toxic gratitude can manifest in ways that are detrimental to both individuals and organizational culture. Phrases like “you should just be grateful to have a job,” or, “you‘re lucky your boss isn‘t as bad as mine,“ can come off dismissive and invalidating.

At worst, an attitude of toxic gratitude can destroy trust and keep employees from feeling safe enough to voice legitimate concerns and grievances. It’s vital for leaders to foster an environment where employees feel safe to express a range of emotions and thoughts.

Recognizing the Signs of Toxic Gratitude in Ourselves

Self-awareness is key in identifying toxic gratitude. Pay attention to moments when you dismiss your feelings with gratitude-related justifications. Are you really grateful, or are you using gratitude as a shield to avoid confronting uncomfortable emotions or situations?

Life is a complex tapestry of experiences and emotions. Gratitude is a beautiful thread within this tapestry, but it’s not the only one. Learning to weave gratitude into our lives authentically means acknowledging the full range of our experiences — the good, the bad, and everything in between.


Toxic gratitude, in its essence, is the overemphasis of positivity at the expense of genuine emotional experience. As we navigate our journey of personal and professional growth, it’s crucial to strike a balance. This means embracing gratitude in its authentic form — as a sincere, heartfelt response to the positives in our lives, while also giving ourselves the grace to fully experience and express the whole spectrum of human emotions. This balanced approach not only leads to greater emotional health but also fosters deeper, more genuine connections with those around us.

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