What It's Like to Hear 'Be Grateful' as a Childhood Emotional Abuse Survivor

Gratitude is popular in self-help and spiritual circles, and it’s easy to see why. Grateful people are easy to be around. Gratitude spreads to others and offers perspective. It feels good and puts positivity in the world. It can also be a huge obstacle for those healing from trauma.

In this season of my life where I am finally uncovering all of my formerly repressed feelings about my abusive childhood, gratitude is a stumbling block. For most of my life I was shamed into feeling I “should” be grateful for the material aspects of my middle class childhood, in spite of the obvious but unspoken lack of love or understanding. The pressure to be grateful kept me away from the more painful and real feelings of grief, anger and abandonment. Growing up, gratitude was one more brick on the pile that kept all of the secrets of abuse in place. It was just one more thing that made me feel like being who I am, as I am, isn’t enough.

The thing is, most people I know who have survived abuse don’t have a problem with gratitude. They have a problem with feeling their feelings. Too often, gratitude is used by abusers like a weapon to make victims of abuse feel like they are being selfish or self-centered for feeling anything but gratitude for the abusive situations they find themselves in. Once (hopefully) out of the abusive relationship and looking for healing, victims and survivors of abuse are then peddled gratitude journals by well-meaning counselors and self-help gurus, which reinforce the idea that what they are actually feeling isn’t OK. Much like forgiveness, when gratitude is pushed on someone prematurely, it interrupts the healing process. For people who deny, minimize and dissociate, gratitude can be a sparkly distraction from doing the real work. For a trauma survivor like me, true gratitude is earned when I can finally accept and integrate all parts of myself, especially the dark, seemingly broken, and “off-limits” parts.

Of course, everyone would like to be grateful and focus on the positive things in their lives. But in spite of what some gurus promise, pretending to be grateful as a pathway to develop genuine gratitude is not good advice for someone like me. I’ve already spent too much of my life pretending to be something I’m not. Right now, the more helpful and healing advice would be to get real about what I am ungrateful for. I am ungrateful for the psychological and sexual abuse. I am ungrateful for my abusers who continue to deny and shift blame. I am ungrateful for my lost childhood. I am ungrateful for my C-PTSD. And yet, with all my ingratitude, I am more “me” than I have ever been. I am more whole than I have ever been. I am more grateful to be alive than I have ever been. Never before have I been so grateful to be ungrateful.

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