Guilty appreciation


Happy man celebrating a success or solution

“I have finally decided I am ready to leave my job. It has been a long time coming–several years in fact. The only problem is, I feel really bad for deciding to change, like I am letting my coworkers and clientele down. The other day, I had a meeting with my boss, and even though he doesn’t know I am going to change, I left feeling really bad because he’s done so much for me,” says Cindy.

“I think it’s great that you can acknowledge how much he has contributed to your life, and you should certainly tell him so before you leave. However, it seems like your gratitude is turning into guilt,” I respond.

“Right? Like the more thankful I am to people, the worse I feel if I have to let them down in some way,” Cindy comments.

Cindy, like many of us, is caught in the guilt trap. She feels bad for making a change that is in her best interest, and this is part of her alignment of usually thinking about the expectations and needs of those around her a lot more heavily than she thinks of her own needs. I caution her, and you, to be aware that this course of self-neglect often leads to job burnout, resentment and other negative social and psychological sequelae. In this session, it occurred to me that gratitude often worsens guilt, and that people who are preoccupied with the perceived well-being of others will let gratitude prevent them from acting on the behalf of the self. There have also been “unexpected” findings that people with eating disorders rate higher in overall sense of gratitude to those they love. For me, eating disorders are almost always associated with a lot of inappropriate guilt, so it doesn’t surprise me that guilt and gratitude are linked.

Gratitude can transform into a sense of duty to another, a sense that you owe them. In this position, you are a lot more likely to be negligent or dismissive of your own priorities and wants so you can continue to fulfill the role that the other person wants you to play. Ultimately, feeling like you owe people can poison a relationship in both directions, leading to power differentials and imbalanced exchanges.

Thanksgiving inspires us to reflect on what we are grateful for. I hope I’m not ruining that for you by saying that gratitude can have a downside if you are already off-balance. If you are prone to putting yourself as a seventh priority behind everyone else, you may need to look at the degree to which gratitude might be eroding your ability to act on your own behalf.

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