It’s November, which here in the US means lots of talk about having an attitude of gratitude. While being grateful is definitely a good thing, as Autism moms, we often weaponize gratitude against ourselves as a way of dismissing our own grief. This is called gratitude masking, and being stuck in a state of gratitude masking feels terrible.
A positive mindset is powerful, but when you’re preoccupied with staying positive to avoid, invalidate, or minimize your emotions, that’s where you run into trouble. It’s difficult to spot when you’re practicing gratitude masking, but once you identify moments where you’re forcing yourself to feel grateful, you can start to make changes.
Tune in this week to learn what gratitude masking is and how to stop it. I’m showing you where gratitude masking might be coming up for you as the parent of a child with Autism, and you’ll learn how to stop weaponizing gratitude against yourself.
You are listening to episode 90 of The Autism Mom Coach, Gratitude Masking.
It’s November, which in the United States, anyhow means lots of talk of gratitude. While gratitude is a good thing, I think it’s often something that Autism moms weaponize against ourselves as a way of dismissing our own grief. Keep listening to learn how we do this and how we can stop.
Welcome to The Autism Mom Coach podcast, I am your host, Lisa Candera. I am a lawyer, a life coach, and most importantly, I am the full-time single mother of a teenager with Autism and other comorbid diagnoses. I know what it is like to wonder if you are doing enough or the right things for your child and to live in fear of their future.
I also know that constantly fueling yourself with fear and anxiety is not sustainable for you or of any benefit to your child. That is why in this podcast I will share practical strategies and tools you can use to shift from a chronic state of fight, flight to some calm and ease. You are your child’s greatest resource, let’s take care of you.
Hello everyone and welcome to the podcast. This episode will come out the day before Thanksgiving. So for those of you who celebrate it, happy early Thanksgiving. And I thought with Thanksgiving coming up, it being November and all the talk of gratitude and having an attitude of gratitude, it would be a perfect time to talk about what I call gratitude masking.
But before we get to the lesson, I do want to share something that I am so incredibly grateful for right now. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for any length of time, you know that this year has been a rocky one for my son and I, I mean, really, really rocky. And after another very rocky start to a new placement, my son is adjusting. He is communicating and he is using coping strategies and nothing could make me happier.
This sounds like really not a big deal, he’s basically doing stuff he should be doing and not doing stuff he shouldn’t be doing. But I could not be happier because the fact is, he has a hard time adjusting to new places and the fact that he’s at a place that was able to outlast his attempts to basically get kicked out is a blessing beyond what I could imagine right now and I am so grateful.
And on that point, I want to share something that you may or may not find humorous. Because I think as Autism moms, we can all relate to the phone call from the school and how our heart jumps and our stomach sinks just a little. So during the first week of this placement, I was getting a lot of phone calls because I had checked the selection for them to notify me any time there was any sort of restraint. So every time there was, they called me and let me know what was happening.
And every time I saw their phone number oh, my God, I just, I lurched because the fear thoughts of oh, no, not again, he’s going to get kicked out again. What’s going to happen to us now? So anyhow, after a week, I am still getting these phone calls but now when they call, they’re calling to tell me good things. And it’s weird because guess what, that fear response is strong. So when I see that number pop up, I’m still bracing myself a bit and I will tell you it is a very pleasant surprise to be getting good news instead of news that is not the greatest.
So anyhow, not all phone calls from the school are bad, which is a great thing. And let me just say, I am so grateful to the head nurse there who called me on purpose to tell me how well my son was doing and what he said to me was, “I know you’ve gotten a lot of bad phone calls and so I wanted to balance that out for you.” And my thought was, oh, my goodness, how wonderfully considerate and compassionate. And so again, I am bursting with gratitude right now for where my son is and how he is doing.
Alright, onto today’s topic, the word gratitude and the phrase, have an attitude of gratitude are sprinkled everywhere, books, articles, quotes on Instagram, people’s t-shirts. And while gratitude and having a positive mindset are really powerful, I think that they also have a downside. And this downside happens when the preoccupation with staying positive and having an attitude of gratitude or positive vibes are actually being used to avoid, invalidate or minimize emotions and experiences.
And that is what I mean about gratitude masking, the act, the action of covering up, invalidating or minimizing genuine feelings and emotions, by forcing yourself to feel grateful or by at least thinking that you should be grateful. In my opinion, this is a form of toxic positivity, which is a belief that no matter how dire or difficult or how much you are suffering, that you should maintain a positive mindset.
Well, while having a positive attitude on life is good for your mental health, it can also have the opposite impact when you’re using it as a way of burying your painful emotions and telling yourself that you shouldn’t be feeling them anyway. Or, oh, look, at least you’re not dead, thank goodness for that. Gratitude masking often starts with the word, ‘at least’, followed by a factual statement like at least I’m not dead. At least I have a job. At least we got an early diagnosis. At least my child is verbal. At least they’re high functioning. At least they don’t have a deadly disease. Stuff like that.
Yeah, great, we are grateful that we aren’t dying and that we have a home and we have a job. We’re grateful for all of that. But to use that as a way of diminishing the emotions that we feel when our child is diagnosed with Autism, when they are struggling to talk, when we are struggling to communicate with them, when we are struggling to go out in public. By telling ourselves, well, you should be grateful, at least you have the money for groceries is not helpful at all.
And to be clear, I am not saying that you shouldn’t be grateful for what you have. I am saying make sure your gratitude is genuine. Pretending or forcing yourself to feel gratitude out of guilt or fear is unhealthy. Here are the three ways that I see gratitude masking. I’ve seen them show up in my own life and I see them showing up in my clients’ lives and I want to share these with you. I want you to ask yourself, am I doing this?
The first is emotional avoidance. Gratitude, masking or forced gratitude is like a shield that some of us use to avoid feeling painful emotions like fear, sadness or anger. This is certainly the case with me. I was in full out, at least I got an early diagnosis for my child and I threw myself into research, appointments, therapies, you name it. I was either working at my job as an attorney, working on researching Autism, or with my son. There was no time to stop or feel anything. I just kept going.
And when I told people about the diagnosis, I would always quickly follow it up with, “But the good news is we found it early. We live in a great school district and we’re going to get Ben all of the services that he needs.” It’s like in telling them this news I was also telling them how to feel about it, because here’s how I feel. It’s Autism but here’s all the great news and don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay.
This was all my way of really completely avoiding all of the pain that I was not even willing to look at, the fear, the anxiety and the grief. It was like just keep going, keep your head down. And we’re going to do enough things that all of this is going to go away and you’re not even going to have to feel this so just keep going.
Number two, invalidating. When we are focused on always having an attitude of gratitude, we inevitably end up stuffing down our own emotions and telling ourselves that we should not feel the way that we feel. But the fact is, no one feels happy or grateful all of the time. Humans experience a wide range of emotions in a day, a week, an hour. For example, my son is currently in a mental health hospital for treatment. Gratitude masking says that the only emotion I should feel is grateful. And like I shared earlier, I am grateful and I’m also sad. I’m also afraid.
I’m also envious of all of the people who just seem to, I don’t know, have kids who are not in mental health hospitals. But gratitude masking would tell me that I can only focus on the good, on why it’s a great thing that he is where he is and that he’s getting the help that he is. And that the fact that we’re not going to spend Thanksgiving with our families, that’s something, well, just don’t look at that. Just focus on the positive. But the fact is, I am sad.
I am torn by the fact that this is the decision that I have made on purpose, because I think it’s the best one. And it also comes with consequences that aren’t my favorite. And I’m allowed to feel that, I’m allowed to feel the sadness, I’m allowed to feel the fear of what’s next. I’m allowed to feel all of that. And that doesn’t invalidate the fact that I am so grateful that he’s getting the help that he needs.
The same with you, it is perfectly fine to be so grateful and so excited that your child is finally losing their AAC device and a little bit sad because maybe they’re not going to talk. Or maybe that’s a fear that you have and instead of invalidating that fear, instead of burying it under the rug, you’re allowed to feel both things. You’re allowed to feel grateful that they’re using this way to communicate, and a little bit sad that this is how they are communicating.
The same thing with other people, you can feel happy for other people. You can feel happy for your sister who is pregnant. You can feel excited for your nephew who gets straight A’s and is a star athlete with seemingly no effort whatsoever. You can feel proud, you can feel excited and you can feel jealous and envious at the same time. Because here’s the thing, if you are forcing yourself to always be grateful and you’re burying your pain, it’s not going away. It is still there, unprocessed and taking up space and energy in your body.
And what happens to unresolved and unprocessed emotions? They usually end up coming out sideways, exploding out of us seemingly out of nowhere, which makes perfect sense. What we resist, persist, and the same happens with emotions. They are cumulative. They build up, and if we’re not allowing them, if we’re not processing them, they’re just staying there, waiting to come out. And so that’s why you’re in the grocery store bursting into tears seemingly out of nowhere or flipping out at somebody for complaining about their sports schedule, because how dare they. That’s what happens when you are invalidating your own emotions.
And third, minimizing. When you are constantly telling yourself to be grateful, when you actually feel sad, scared, angry, or jealous. This leads to minimization of your own emotions and your own experience. Not only are you up against all of the people in your life, in the world who don’t get it. Now you are jumping on the bandwagon with them by reducing how you feel and trying to cover it up with a more Instagram-able emotion.
My son aggressed me in our home, but it’s no big deal. It’s not unusual for Autistic kids or Autistic parents, at least no one got hurt. I had to cancel a vacation because my son’s OCD was so out of control, but no big deal, at least I bought travel insurance. We’ll go somewhere else some other time. I skipped the neighborhood holiday party because I did not want to chance my son having a meltdown. No big deal, I see these people all of the time. Sure, maybe all of these things are true, but so are the feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness and jealousy.
Maybe you think you are minimizing or invalidating your emotions for the benefit of other people or maybe you just don’t always want to be that person. I totally get it. I’ve done this a lot. But the truth is, the more you do this, the more disconnection you create with yourself and the more disconnection you create with other people because you’re basically lying to both you and them. So they don’t continue to not get it and maybe continue to think it’s not that big of a deal because you keep telling them that. It’s a lose/lose.
All of these practices have the potential to lead to trauma, to isolation, and to continued unhealthy coping mechanisms for you, so what to do. I think a great cardinal rule of life is stop pretending to feel a way that you don’t feel. Sure, you don’t need to explode on other people with everything that you feel all at once. But at the very least, you can stop pretending to yourself to you, start with you.
Stop pretending that you feel a way that you don’t. And then you can practice doing this with other people little by little. But to do this, you first need to recognize all of the ways that you are covering up, that you are masking your emotions in the first place. Look at all of the ways that you are at least-ing yourself, telling yourself it could be worse, telling yourself you have no right to complain and that you should be grateful.
And then ask yourself, what is the emotion that you are avoiding, is it the sadness? Is it the loneliness? Is it the fear? Whatever it is, begin to allow that emotion and validate it for yourself with tons of self-compassion. Of course I feel sad that my son’s not spending Thanksgiving at home, any mother would feel that way. This is perfectly normal. I’m allowed to have this emotion and same with you. Figure it out for you. What are the emotions that you’re avoiding and validate that experience for yourself.
Alright, everyone, that is it for this week’s episode. I’m going to tell you from firsthand experience doing this work by yourself, it is possible, but seriously, why? Because I will tell you as someone who tried to DIY it, it does not work the same as when you are working with someone who you are looking in the eye, who you are sharing these painful thoughts with. Who you are getting validation in the moment and who is pushing you ever so gently to move forward, to question your thoughts, to process your emotions and to learn new ways of responding to your life as it is.
If you are ready to stop DIYing it and to fast forward your own results, to have joy and happiness in your parenting experience exactly the way it is. I invite you to schedule a one-on-one consultation with me. My coaching program is tailored to you, to your goals and to your struggles. And we work on getting you the results to make your life happier for you so that you can show up as the mother that you want to be.
Especially in this season when you are looking around for all of the ways to please other people, what the gifts are that you’re getting them for the holidays, I want you to do the work of thinking about yourself. Coaching is the most beautiful gift that you can give yourself. And I say this as someone who has purchased and continues to purchase quite a bit of coaching for myself. It is your way of investing in yourself, investing in your happiness.
And guess what happens when you invest in yourself? You have so much more capacity for the other people in your life. You have so much more capacity to manage the challenges that you face. So if you are ready to change your life, you can start right now by scheduling a consultation with me. You can go to the show notes, you can go to my website and schedule on my calendar.
But if you don’t find a time on my calendar that works for you, I want you to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with two days and two times that work for you and I will make one of them work. Alright, have a wonderful holiday and I will talk to you next week.
Thanks for listening to The Autism Mom Coach. If you are ready to apply the principles you are learning in these episodes to your life, it is time to schedule a consultation call with me. Podcasts are great but the ahas are fleeting. Real change comes from application and implementation and this is exactly what we do in my one-on-one coaching program. To schedule your consultation, go to my website, theautismmomcoach.com, Work With Me and take the first step to taking better care of yourself so that you can show up as the parent you want to be for your child with Autism.