How To Acknowledge Privilege Without Feeling Guilty

Written by Leslie Carr, PsyD

I had an odd experience recently. In the space of two days, I had no fewer than five people tell me they felt guilty for feeling their feelings because "someone somewhere" has it worse.

These statements were loaded with genuine compassion for people who struggle with things like homelessness or starvation. They were also a sad reminder to me of a societal ill that we have apparently failed to eradicate, because NO ONE WINS when we think like this.

No one becomes less homeless, or less hungry. Furthermore, no one suffers less by feeling guilty about their dissatisfaction. Life just doesn't work that way.

There’s admittedly a very fine distinction to make about this, so I want to be clear: the distinction has to do with the difference between gratitude and guilt.

Gratitude is a hot topic these days, and I'm a huge fan of it myself. There's scientific research to support the idea that when we practice gratitude by acknowledging the good in our lives, we prime our brains to think more positively and to notice the good more readily. In and of itself this is nothing but a good thing.

The problem comes when we interpret that message to mean that we shouldn't ALSO acknowledge the things in our lives that are tough, painful, or challenging.

What I'm talking about is what I call "Yes, And" thinking, as opposed to "Either/Or" thinking, or "Black and White" thinking.

"Yes, And" thinking is one of the hallmarks of emotional health in my mind.

Nothing is totally one way or the other (or perhaps I should say, "Very few things are"). No one's life is entirely good or entirely bad — and this true regardless of your birthplace or socioeconomic status.

If you want to exercise the happy circuits in your brain, you would do well to spend a few minutes every morning (you can do this over a cup of coffee or tea, if you'd like) thinking about, or writing down, five things you have in your life that you're grateful for. Nothing is too big or too small. Can you wiggle your fingers and toes? Awesome — not everyone has that privilege. Is your bed cozy? Ditto.

But DO NOT make the mistake of thinking that the things in your life that are painful (I can practically guarantee that they exist) are frivolous, insignificant or unimportant. Those feelings are rich sources of information for you. They're calls to action about what needs to be worked on, addressed or accepted.

You can feel gratitude AND frustration, sadness and anger.

You can acknowledge what you already have while also feeling a desire for change.

If you need my permission, I will give it to you now: I give you permission to feel your feelings. All of them. Especially the ugly ones. Because those are the ones that make you human, and they're the ones that make you you.

Is this something you struggle with? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below — I’ll be here replying all day.

Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25306). She offers therapy and coaching,...
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Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD
Leslie Carr, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist (PSY 25306)....
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