20 Dec 2018

Gratitude can enrich your life, but it can't be faked

Gratitude is a deep and complex emotion -- it’s also a sign of true emotional maturity -- an interview with a Polish psychologist.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Gratitude can enrich your life, but it can't be faked - NewsMavens
Gift, PixaBay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Danuta Golec first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in September 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: What is gratitude?

Danuta Golec: Gratitude is a deep and complex emotion. It can shake us up or change our behaviour but just like other feelings -- it appears naturally. It’s also a sign of true emotional maturity.

AJ: What does it mean?

An emotionally mature person allows themselves a whole range of emotions: joy, admiration, anger or ressentment. They can recognize these feelings, analyze them and if needed, endure them instead of expressing them all immediately. At some point gratitude appears as one of these emotions -- it’s a part of our natural psychological progress. 

We can’t just tell ourselves: “OK, gratitude! That’s what I’ll be practising from now on. And I’m going to leave all the negative emotions to my partner”. I mean, we can say it and we can do it but it will only lead to problems and complicate our relations with other people.

Gratitude comes with our emotional package. It’s hard to imagine love without gratefulness; giving and receiving are the two main components of a mature relationship.

AJ: Kids can express their gratitude even though they’re far from being mature. Is their thankfulness different from ours?

It is. Children learn to give and to show gratefulness. We teach them the magic word and every now and then we hear them say: “Thank you for taking me to the cinema, dad!” or “Mummy, you look tired, I’ll make you some tea!”. It’s touching and it melts our hearts, but these sudden, brief moments of child’s gratitude are not the fully developed, mature feelings yet.

AJ: Some children struggle with expressing gratitude, yet others do it effortlessly.  Why?

We’re not entirely sure. Psychologists argue that children are born with a certain set of emotional skills. Some of them can cope with anxiety and frustration, while others find it difficult. One child falls asleep the moment it’s put in bed, another needs an hour of calming down.

We need to keep in mind that a seemingly problematic child may in fact be experiencing some sort of inconvenience. It might suffer from an unrecognized food allergy, be in pain and cry or be hypersensitive in sound or smell and have troubles with the sensory integration. All these conditions might be making its life more uncomfortable than its parents may realize.

In the long run, gratitude stems from our ability to enjoy life.

If we appreciate the little positive elements of our existence, such as a beautiful summer or a breathtaking scenery, they will be triggering our gratefulness almost naturally.

AJ: There are those who avoid gratefulness. Joseph Stalin claimed that: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.”

Stalin -- as we know from history -- was a highly disturbed person, unable to experience certain emotions or to create healthy relations with people. Just like many other dictators, Stalin placed himself above all “ordinary” social rules and regulations. But one doesn’t have to be a political tyrant to lack thankfulness. People with narcissistic personality disorder often have problems with emotions closely associated with relationships, simply because they don’t perceive other people as separate entities, but rather as extensions of themselves. Incapable of love, they treat others as functional tools and use them to achieve their own goals.  

We could ask: “Why do we need gratitude? Is it really necessary?”

AJ: Is it?

Gratitude is not about living on cloud nine 24 hours a day and eulogizing the world around us.  What I’m trying to say is that the ability to accept gifts or feelings from others makes us better, more complete people. By denying ourselves gratefulness, denying ourselves thankfulness when accepting gifts from others, we’re missing out!

AJ: Once I asked the well known Polish psychotherapist Andrzej Wiśniewski what in his opinion was the most crucial ingredient of a relationship. He said: “The ability to give and receive.”

Absolutely! As I understand, this ability to receive gifts also includes the appreciation of the effort made by our giver.

A gift -- either physical or not -- might turn out to be unfit or disappointing but we should always be grateful for the giver’s intention, for the fact that someone actually thought about us.

The appreciation of small and big efforts strengthens every relationship. Unfortunately many people struggle with accepting gifts. I can see it among some of my patients: whenever they receive a gift -- whether a physical present or a gift of understanding from another person, they instantly feel like they should give something back in return. And it seems alright -- after all, we could agree that this is their own way of showing gratitude -- but if we look a little bit deeper, we might realize that what’s truly hiding behind this reaction is their incapability to endure the feeling of gratefulness.

AJ: Is gratefulness so hard one that has to endure it?

I guess they compare feeling grateful to being in somebody’s debt. And they can’t tolerate it. If they accept something and give it back or give something else in exchange, they feel like things are even. Otherwise, that debt, and that feeling of obligation keeps deepening and makes them feel uncomfortable.

AJ: Do you ever meet people filled with gratitude?

I don’t believe such people exist. You can’t experience one certain emotion all the time. The very definition of feelings suggests their transiency – they must fade away, otherwise they would be unbearable. Someone applauding every flower, every cup of tea, every ray of sunlight and every person they meet is creating some sort of a spectacle. You can tell they’re not being sincere. Their awe is not coming from the inside - it’s just a facade. A lie.

The very essence of gratefulness is its spontaneity.

Sometimes it hits us unexpectedly when we think about a friend who made us really happy in the past or we start crying because someone recognized our problems and offered sympathy and a useful advice. If thankfulness was all we experienced, we would disregard the unpleasant spheres of life that require our attention and float through days like unconscious, disorganized daydreamers.

If our life doesn’t look completely grim and if we use it to create more positive experiences, we will surely find many reasons to be grateful. No need to make them up. Gratitude can be sudden and forceful like an electric shock or appear in the form of warm, tender aura. Sometimes it’s best to express it, but occasionally we might feel like keeping it to ourselves. And don’t be afraid that you won’t feel it if you don’t complete some sort of a “gratitude course” first. If you try to enjoy your life, continue the emotional growth and appreciate people around you -- gratitude will come, I guarantee it.


Danuta Golec -- psychologist, psychotherapist from the Polish Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. She is also a translator, and founder of the Ingenium Outbuilding, which publishes books in the field of psychoanalysis

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach


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