Does Your Struggle With Gratitude Reflect Self-Centeredness?

Keith KettenringChristian Living, The Uncommon Journey

Today, I was going to write more about the connection between thanksgiving and happiness. That is, until I read this article by Dr. Robert Emmons. He is called “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude.” Perhaps a lifetime of study, writing, and living of gratitude allows you this title. A portion of the article is given below where he analyses ingratitude. I present this so we all might pause to reflect on our own conduct (not the conduct of others) so that we might see our need for more efforts to be thankful. 

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Dr. Emmons writes: 

Saying “no thanks” to gratitude

Perhaps the most famous instance of ingratitude in history is found in the New Testament gospel of Luke. Jesus heals ten lepers of their physical disease and in so doing of their social stigma. Pronounced clean of their contagious condition and no longer social outcasts, they get their old lives back.

Being brought back from near death, you’d think they’d be overwhelmingly grateful, right?  Yet only one returned to express thanksgiving for being healed.  Knowing full well that only one would come back thankful Jesus asked,

Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? And then he said to them, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17: 16 -18)

Biblical scholars of this passage agree that by “faith,” what Jesus really meant was thankfulness, as in, “Your gratitude has made you well.” The parable reminds us of just how common ingratitude is and how easy it is to take blessings for granted, and how gratitude is dependent upon unmerited favors.

Were the others ungrateful? Perhaps they were just forgetful. After all, given back their dignity, they were no doubt in a hurry to return to their families and old lives.

Contemporary research, though, paints a more complicated picture of ingratitude. People who are ungrateful tend to be characterized by an excessive sense of self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an unquenchable need for admiration and approval. Narcissists reject the ties that bind people into relationships of reciprocity. They expect special favors and feel no need to pay back or pay forward.

Given this constellation of characteristics, being grateful in any meaningful way is beyond the capacity of most narcissists. Without empathy, they cannot appreciate an altruistic gift because they cannot identify with the mental state of the gift-giver. Narcissism is a spiritual blindness; it is a refusal to acknowledge that one has been the recipient of benefits freely bestowed by others. A preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors, or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful.

Entitlement is at the core of narcissism. This attitude says, “Life owes me something” or “People owe me something” or “I deserve this.” In all its manifestations, a preoccupation with the self can cause us to forget our benefits and our benefactors or to feel that we are owed things from others and therefore have no reason to feel thankful. Entitlement and self-absorption are massive impediments to gratitude. You will certainly not feel grateful when you do receive what you think you have coming, because after all, you have it coming. Counting blessings will be ineffective because grievances will always outnumber gifts.

Were narcissistic entitlement a condition that afflicted only a small percentage of humankind, then there would be little cause for concern. Indeed, psychiatrists estimate that only one percent of the general population meets the clinical criteria for narcissistic disorders.

However, narcissistic characteristics are found in all individuals in varying degrees. Early childhood is marked by egocentrism, the inability to take another’s perspective. This preoccupation with one’s own internal world is a normal stage of human development. Over time, most of us evolve out of this restricted perceptual lens. However those who continue to see the world primarily from the inside out slide down the slope from ordinary egocentrism to entitled narcissism.

I’ll stop there since this is so troubling. 

You might think feelings of “entitlement” only belong to certain people-segments of our society. However, I have seen it in husbands, wives, children, church leaders, political leaders, rich, poor, highly educated, uneducated and, most troublesome, ME. 

“I deserve better.” “No one should be treated like that, including me.” You get hurt when no one recognizes your contribution. When the “atta boy” is missing, you pout. 

Gratefulness for all things is the cure and leads to true happiness. 

I am challenging you and me to efforts of greater gratitude and happiness by being grateful for the good people and elements around us. 

Say “Thank you” for all the good that surrounds you today. 

We reached the goal of 10 people joining together in this effort this month. Thank you! 

Let’s all make greater efforts at being grateful today. 

Dr. K