Watch Out for Weaponized Gratitude

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By Becky Mollenkamp, ACC

My first “real” job after college was at the Carmel Pine Cone (cute name, right?), a very small newspaper in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. I was hired as one of three reporters at a salary of $13,000. In today’s dollars, that would be about $21,000—in a town where the median home price is $1.4 million.

Three weeks after starting the job, the other reporters were fired and my male boss told me I’d now be doing all the work…without a raise.

I’m not sure how my 21-year-old self had such gumption, but I quit on the spot. I told him that it simply wasn’t fair or right.

His response? “You should be grateful to have this job. If you think you’ll find a better job, then you need to find a new industry.”

Within a few months, I landed a job at a DAILY newspaper making 40% more in another beautiful California town where the median home price was one-third of Carmel’s. Most importantly, my male boss respected me and never once told me to be grateful.

I bet you have a story that’s similar. Or many of them. Stories of getting less than you deserve, while being told to feel grateful for getting anything at all.

Patriarchy has historically done this to women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities — any non-cis, non-white man. Weaponizing gratitude is a clever way to maintain control. Make the person who’s getting the short end of the stick feel bad for not being grateful that they’re getting some stick.

Be grateful you have a job, even if you make 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, or 62 cents if you’re a Black woman or 54 cents if you are a Hispanic or Latina woman. Even though people with disabilities are still twice as likely to be unemployed, compared to those without a disability.

Be grateful that you make up nearly half of the workforce, while 83% of sexual harassment charges are filed by women and only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

Be grateful for time with your children — or that you can have children — even though you are expected to be the default parent and you get no meaningful time off to raise them or support in their ongoing care.

Be grateful you can vote, even though women represent only 24% of members of Congress — women of color represent less than 9% — and voter suppression laws are passing with increasing regularity.

Be grateful you can make choices about your body … even while 91% of rape victims are women and 10% of women are raped in their lives. Not to mention a $532 billion beauty industry and $100 billion diet and fitness industries that constantly tell you your body isn’t good enough.

Be grateful you have your freedom, even while Blacks are incarcerated at a rate more than 5 times that of whites, and Black children are detained at a rate more than 3x their percentage of the population.

Be grateful you can love whoever you want, even though more than 1 in 4 LGBTQ Americans faced discrimination last year, and more than 3 in 5 transgender Americans. And 15% of LGBTQ Americans postponed or avoided medical treatment due to discrimination and 3 in 10 transgender individuals did the same.

I could go on and on.

Even when it’s not these big, systemic issues, this sort of dismissive gratitude is by design.

It’s yet another way to create blame, guilt, and shame. To turn systemic issues like wealth disparity into a personal failing.

It’s BS.

Making a person feel greedy, selfish, ungrateful for wanting more, better, different is a crappy but cover way to keep them from affecting meaningful change. Gaslighting is an effective tool for keeping a person exactly where they are because wanting anything different would make them bad.

We have so much more than our mothers and grandmothers. There are so many people in the world, and even in our own country, who have nothing. We could have much less, so who are we not to be thankful? Focus on gratitude for what you do have, right?

Gratitude is wonderful and effective for creating positive feelings when — and this is a big when — it comes from a place that feels powerful. When it feels expansive and abundant. When it feels like a choice we want to make, not a directive being forced upon us. Not when it feels constrictive. Not when it feels like it is no longer a choice.

Even when we choose gratitude, it doesn’t have to mean resignation.

You can be angry about what you don’t have or what you aren’t getting. It is righteous anger when it’s directed toward a system or injustice that keeps you from what you want.

You can use that anger to affect meaningful change. That’s the difference between righteous anger and blind anger — the latter is anger for anger’s sake, the former is fuel for making change.

Righteous anger doesn’t mean you are ungrateful. You can be grateful for what you have and feel righteous anger. You can be grateful and demand more.

The next time someone says, “you should just be grateful,” you don’t have to accept it. You get to ask, “should I be grateful?” and “do I want to be grateful?”

Ask yourself if it’s possible to be grateful and angry. (Psst: The answer is yes, you’re allowed.)

Also, the next time you feel the urge to tell someone else to be grateful, use a permission-based approach. Ask, “would it feel good to focus on gratitude now?” or “would it feel good to channel this into righteous anger and affect change?” or “would it feel good to do both?” Let the other person make their choices around gratitude.

Enforced gratitude is weaponized gratitude. It’s not helpful and, very often, it’s harmful. So let’s start opting out.