by Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
It is tempting to begin this blog by simply saying, “bah humbug.” I want to write about how difficult the holidays can be with the constant pressure to feel happiness and joy. But the truth is that everything about the holidays has already been written. There are blogs about how to be happy and embrace joy. There are blogs about how to be unhappy and to embrace pain. The fact is that there is very little about the holidays that is left unsaid. However, perhaps said a bit less frequently is something that truly irks me about the holidays. This is the oppressive pressure to dually feel both gratitude and forgiveness.
The insidious and universal buy-in about the sheer “goodness” of gratitude and forgiveness feels frighteningly unquestioned and reductive. The ideas of gratitude and forgiveness, while not necessarily intertwined, are often sold together as sister products that need to be fully purchased on the road to emotional freedom and health. This feels as true for us as it does for our clients, therefore separating the pressure we feel to forgive and feel grateful from what our clients feel is fruitless and falsely dichotomous.
Let’s start with how gratitude and forgiveness are sold.
Gratitude, slightly more nouveau in its marketization, is the idea that if we are to be thankful for what we have, we will feel happier. If we are to recognize that fact of abundance in our life, then the nagging feelings of scarcity will fall away. If we don’t have material abundance, we are to recognize our relational abundance. If we don’t have relational abundance, we are to recognize our spiritual abundance. If we don’t have an abundance of health, we must feel grateful for our beating heart. In fact, if you Google “gratitude,” the first page that comes up is from Psychology Today. That speaks very powerfully to just how much we have started to think of gratitude as an intervention that leads to mental health and stability. There is really nothing that is free of gratitude these days. You can find soap, underwear, socks, candles, journals, episodes of Oprah, podcasts, coloring books, necklaces, and t-shirts with the word “gratitude." The list goes on.
The idea of forgiveness, of course, is not quite as well marketed or trendy. But it certainly has the same enduring staying power as gratitude. While the roots of gratitude are largely Buddhist, the roots of forgiveness are in Christianity and Jesus, who spoke of forgiveness when on the cross. He stated: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” This is such a lovely notion. The idea of making room for those who do not know the error of their ways, who live in ignorance and are immune to the knowledge of the destructive nature of their own power. Not all religions are equally subscribed to the idea of forgiveness, but it certainly does seem to have transcendent power in society. There is a largely shared belief that emotional and psychological freedom comes with forgiveness. This idea is espoused from everyone from Dr. Phil to Mother Theresa.
First, I want to be clear that I am not specifically criticizing either of these ideas. Instead, I want to call into question any idea that is subscribed to with near universality. The more unquestioned a psychological notion is, the more suspicious of it we ought to be. Our work as clinical social workers is to think critically in a completely unwavering manner. Therefore, if there are concepts as pervasively popular as these two, we need to wonder why. If there are ideas about what creates wellness that are lacking the idiosyncrasy necessary to treat individual clients with unique stories, attachment styles, and trauma histories, we need to wonder why.
While I think that there might be tremendous possibility for relief in the act of gratitude and the movement toward forgiveness, I also think that these two ideas can be conceptualized as forms of social control.
I was working with a client recently who disclosed a long history of incest by her brother. She started to consider the idea of not inviting him to her birthday party. The idea of excluding a sibling from a family tradition is a radical one that takes a lot of strength and resilience. When discussing this idea with a priest, she was given a 25-page pamphlet on the power of forgiveness. This document, like many, contained a good amount of information about how no one is free until they forgive. It also contained a lot of information about the toxicity of anger and how anger keeps us stuck.
I think that anger, in response to abuse and violation, is actually essential. I don’t necessarily even think that anger is something that someone needs to move beyond, because it often keeps us safe and protected from relationships that can truly damage the sanctity of our own minds and bodies. Anger is a piece of hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is often a byproduct of trauma. This is our internal system on alert for danger. While hyper-vigilance is not an ideal state of affairs because of the neurobiological impact of sustained exposure to it, it also contains vital information. This information defies forgiveness and gratitude, and instead honors safety and self preservation.
The fact is that many of our clients don’t have a lot to be grateful or forgiving for. During the holiday season, this feels more palpable and real than during the rest of the year. While consumerism is at its highest and the exclusive nature of family reigns supreme, the power of loss and grief is most bitingly felt. The stinging reality of what many do not have is impossible to ignore. To focus on gratitude at this time reeks of a certain internal and societal denial.
What if we started to really look at the food that we are fed? Metaphorically (and literally, too)? Would we realize that the ideas and psychological “nutrients” that are most profusely served are born out of larger efforts to create silence and complacency? No, it isn’t this simple. Nothing is. But it is certainly worth considering the real work of tolerating suffering and scarcity, rather than acting as if the mind can simply move us beyond these essential states of truth.
Dr. Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She is the author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way available in print and Kindle editions at Amazon.com.