Wednesday 2 June 2021

Thank You Anyway: The Gift of Ingratitude

This article was inspired by something I saw posted to a mental health social media page:

Have you ever gone out of your way to help someone and found out how ungrateful they are?

In two and a half months the post has been liked and shared more than three and a half thousand times. It’s attracted over 800 comments, of which these are typical:

Unfortunately yes.
Yes! People suck!
All the time.
Too many times but I try not to [help] cuz when I need help there ain’t no one there.
Absolutely. It’s left me not wanting to be that kind of good any more.

The comments left me feeling sad and disillusioned. I decided to explore why that was.

Gratitude Feels Good

Let’s start with the obvious. It feels good to have our help acknowledged. At some level, it’s an ego thing, but that’s not necessarily unhealthy. Gratitude is encouraging and guides us to be better people. If someone thanks me I know I’m on the right track. If there’s no feedback, how do I know I’m offering what they need?

What Does Ungrateful Look Like?

The post talked about “[finding] out how ungrateful the other person is,” but why assume we know what’s going on for them? What does ingratitude look like, anyway? We can think of extreme examples. They might be verbally abusive or otherwise make it clear our help is neither appreciated nor wanted. Mostly, though, when we call someone ungrateful we mean they’ve failed to show us the gratitude we believe we’re owed. It feels like we’re getting closer, but what do we mean by gratitude? Does it look the same to everyone?

What Does Gratitude Look Like?

In How Cultural Differences Shape Your Gratitude, Kira M. Newman describes three ways of expressing gratitude.

  • Verbal gratitude: Saying thank you in some way.
  • Concrete gratitude: Reciprocating with something the [other person] likes or wants.
  • Connective gratitude: Reciprocating with something the wish-granter would like, such as friendship or help.

Writing has always been a big part of my life. I’ve kept a diary for over forty years. I’ve written short stories, a book of poetry, two mental health books, and kept a weekly blog for the past seven years. I tend to show my gratitude in words, with a spoken “thank you,” or a letter or card.

If I help someone I’m rarely looking for more than a simple “thank you” in return, although I do appreciate a little detail to help me understand how I’ve helped meet their needs. In that case, verbal gratitude crosses into concrete and connective territory: in addition to the words I’m getting something I value (honesty and context) and deepening friendship. Here are a few thankyous that meant a lot to me. The last one still makes me smile!

Thank you. You truly are someone I can rely on in an emergency, and at all other times.

Being your friend has made me a better person.

I always appreciate you telling me when you aren’t feeling ok.

Thank you, Marty. You’re good at supporting without being a prat.

But what if I don’t receive a thank you?

How Does Ingratitude Feel?

If we don’t get the gratitude we expect, we’re likely to feel sad, hurt, disappointed, disrespected, resentful, or taken for granted. None of these is pleasant, and it’s natural (if unfair) to blame the other person for making us feel that way. That’s why the social media post left me feeling so sad. I don’t see things that way at all. Leaving aside the extreme cases I mentioned earlier, I believe our responses to “ingratitude” say far more about us than they do the other person.

What Does Ingratitude Say about Us?

Few of us would admit to only helping others to get something in return, but our emotional response to ingratitude suggests differently. It’s worth asking ourselves why we helped them in the first place. Was it really for their benefit, or ours?

The quotation talks about “[going] out of your way to help someone.” It’s a common phrase but there’s more than a touch of the martyr about it. It implies we’ve done more than we were comfortable doing and expect a reward. We want our sacrifice acknowledged, as elaborately as possible. We want to be lauded as special, generous, kind, or saintly. It’s not always just about voicing our righteous indignation. If we’re honest we can admit to using it as an excuse not to help any more. We can do better than this.

I called this article the Gift of Ingratitude, because not receiving the gratitude we want shines a light on our needs and how we go about getting those needs met. I’m using “need” in an NVC context. Developed by clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, NVC (nonviolent communication) is a model for relating to people that emphasises non-judgment and empathy. These needs (you can download a list of them) help us focus on what drives us and how best to have them met, or minimise the pain of them being unmet. There’s an equivalent feelings inventory to help us explore how we’re feeling.

Let’s look at an example. I’ve rarely experienced what I’d call ingratitude from people I’ve helped, but I can think of times when I’ve wanted more than the simple “thank you” I received. When that happens, I tend to feel discouraged, disconnected, frustrated, and insecure. I can take things a stage further by considering what needs of mine are going unmet. Looking at the NVC list, I can see the main needs that are going unmet relate to my connection with the other person.

My need for appreciation
My need for communication
My need to understand and be understood
My need for trust

Looking at things in this way I can see that what I’m feeling isn’t about the other person at all. It’s about my unmet need to understand what’s going on, and to feel appreciated. Thinking compassionately about my needs helps shift my focus to what might be going on for the other person.

We’re all different, of course. You might feel things differently to me, have different needs, and come to different conclusions. The point is we can use the situation to learn a bit more about ourselves, and consider the possibility that the other person isn’t necessarily “ungrateful” just because they’re not meeting our needs.

Reasons for Being Ungrateful

We can start by assuming the other person is grateful, even if they’re not expressing it how we want them to. Maybe they don’t know what we’re looking for. When did you last tell someone, or demonstrate, the kind of gratitude that works for you? We might go further and ask ourselves if it’s the other person’s role to satisfy our needs in this way. We might believe we deserve something in return for our helping, but we don’t. We certainly don’t have a right to expect other people to respond in a particular way just to make us feel good about ourselves.

Bear in mind it’s hard to be grateful for something you didn’t ask for, want, or need. Sometimes we’re so keen to help that we forget to check that what we’re offering is appropriate or necessary. It’s also hard to express gratitude if you feel undeserving, are embarrassed at receiving help, or resentful that you need to ask.

One of my friends feels her words don’t go far enough to express how grateful she is for the support I’ve provided over the years. I’ve never felt taken for granted, but I understand where she’s coming from because I’ve felt the same way at times. Another friend, mental health blogger Aimee Wilson, put it this way: “You can be too grateful... and the flip side is being unable to express the extent of your gratitude adequately; not being able to find the words.”

I find it helps to assume people are expressing gratitude the best way they can, remembering there may be cultural, generational, or personal reasons for how we respond to gifts of all kinds, help included.

Learning to Be Grateful

We’re taught to be grateful — or rather, to express gratitude — at an early age, whether we want to or not. I remember writing grudging thank you letters to grandparents, aunts, and uncles every Boxing Day. It’s polite, I was told. It’s expected. But is a forced, ritualistic, thank you really a good thing? If I help someone and for some reason they’re not grateful, wouldn’t it be better if they felt able to say why, without worrying they’ll upset me or push me away?

I’m reminded of a story I saw on social media. It’s Christmas and a mother is talking to her young daughter who hates having to be grateful for gifts she doesn’t like. “If Grandma gives you something you don’t like or have already,” the mother says. “Just smile and say thank you anyway.” The gift is duly handed over and unwrapped. The girl turns to her grandmother with a smile. “Thank you anyway, Grandma.”

Can You Be Too Grateful?

If I help a friend, I might reasonably hope for a thank you of some kind. But what if I’m helping them twice a week, or every day, or more or less continuously? Fran and I have been in a close, mutually supportive friendship for ten years. How often are we supposed to thank each other? How much gratitude is enough? How much is too much?

I’ve been prone to over-thanking Fran and other friends in the past, and it can become cloying and tedious. Like “I love you,” it is nice to hear (and to offer) a “Thank you” or “I’m grateful for you” every now and again, but it’s unhealthy to need, or need to give, continual reassurance.

So, What Can You Do about It?

We’ve looked at gratitude and ingratitude, but what can you do if someone you want to help appears incapable of returning the gratitude you feel you deserve?

Do the inner work first. Acknowledge your feelings and explore what they mean for you. Does the situation trigger memories of times you’ve been treated poorly in the past? What could you do now, to feel differently? What could the other person do or say so you feel appreciated? Do you need to do anything at all? Can you accept it all, and let go of your frustrations?

If it’s still a serious issue for you, consider letting the other person know how you are feeling, but ask yourself first if it’s really their job to make you feel good. This is especially true if they’re in crisis or otherwise going through a rough time. The last thing someone in such a situation needs is to have to reassure you or massage your ego.

Ultimately, it’s your decision whether to walk away. Maybe you need to do that, in which case let them know so they can find alternative sources of support. Whatever you decide, do it from a place of compassion and caring.

It’s a Gift!

I’ve had several excellent conversations in the course of writing this article. It’s a topic that resonates for a lot of people, I think because we’ve all felt unappreciated at some point in our lives, or struggled to show we’re grateful to someone who’s helped us.

There’s nothing wrong with these difficult emotions, but as I hope I’ve shown, we can turn things around. We can be grateful for what we perceive as other people’s ingratitude, because it grants us the opportunity to look at ourselves and explore what’s going on for us when we reach out to help someone.

We can also model good gratitude in how we treat others. When done properly, with grace, gratitude is more than reimbursement for a gift or service. It acknowledges our connection with the other person, and the care their help and support represents for us. Remember that it doesn’t have to be expressed in words alone. Trust, openness, and honesty are expressions of gratitude too.

I’ll close with a snippet from a conversation with my friend Aimee. We were talking about my ideas for this article.

It’s good to discuss ideas like this, Marty. You get a different perspective.

Yes! Only I’m going to have to credit you in the blog post now! And express my gratitude!

Thank you, Aimee, and everyone else I’ve discussed this with. One way or another you’ve contributed to this article and I’m grateful to you for that. I’m also grateful to friends past and present, for your gratitude and occasional ingratitude! In the words of J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Niggle, “It’s a gift!”



  1. Another great post! I love how you've explored all sides of the issue. It particularly resonates with me as I've had experience of both the rude, abusive ingratitude and the taken-for-granted, self-absorbed type. I managed to 'rise above' both but this reminded me that it's always useful to consider how you feel and why about something in terms of your own perceived needs, and then remember that it's not about you, (even in the event that the ingrate is trying to make it about you!)

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, that is always really appreciated. It seems to be a topic that has really resonated for people - perhaps we have all had those feelings at some point. It's interesting, I think, to see how people have sometimes very different attitudes to help/thanking/gratitude - and whether or not someone "deserves" to be helped - I didn't really cover that last point in the article but it's there kind of in the background.

  2. Interesting post. It's certainly a complicated business. I try not to offer more than I'm comfortable with so as not to rely very much on expressions of gratitude.
    I'm not very good at gift buying or giving but sometimes hit on the right thing, or something I'm pleased to give. But I've been disappointed when someone gives me a gift in return. I don't mean I'm dissatisfied with the gift itself, but with what can feel like knee-jerk reciprocation. You've made me think, it could be that that person and I just have different ideas about how gratitude should be expressed.

    1. Hi Anne - thank you for your comment, I'm glad I gave you something to think about :) I get what you mean about how sometimes a gift can go awry - I am generally much more comfortable gifting than receiving and until I met Fran I didn't realise that my overgifting could be an issue for people, because it felt imbalanced. As you say, we each have our individual ideas of what gratitude looks like, and they don't always mesh.