Gratitude can be confusing. On the one hand, who doesn’t want to be grateful? Yet, when surfing the seas of depression, anxiety, anger, or any other intense emotion, gratitude may be the farthest thing from your mind.
Even if you are going through the most treacherous, challenging time of your life, there will always be something for which you are grateful, probably many things. The question is: Does feeling grateful at that moment help you move through your pain, or not?
People in 12 step groups are encouraged to adopt an attitude of gratitude, which can seem daunting in the face of giving up substances. It is also hard to adopt if you’re facing unemployment, divorce, illness, death, or any other major life adjustment. While it is great advice, it could benefit from adding: Focus on everything good in your life as you allow expression of all your feelings.
Without the added words it is all too easy to use this helpful reminder as a lash to whip yourself into an frenzy of guilt. You already face a hard situation; and, now, you are told you should feel grateful for all your blessings. For many this is more than a cognitive conundrum, it’s a invitation to self-downing. Not only are you miserable about some real life issues, you can’t even be grateful for what the universe has given you.
The first thing, as always, is to give yourself that cosmic permission slip to feel whatever it is you are feeling. Denying what is true for you now will only delay the deeper gratitude you want to feel. Paradoxically, by making it safe and OK to feel what your are feeling, you will get to gratitude more quickly.
The next step is understanding how, as a complex person, you are capable of floating two, or even more, seemingly mutually exclusive thoughts and feelings at the same time. Appreciating life is a great idea, but not if it means burying your emotions. For example, you can feel: gratitude and grief, gratitude and depression, gratitude, and anxiety, gratitude and anger, even gratitude and worthlessness. Perhaps, that is because gratitude is a thought rather than a feeling. When you think: I am so grateful I can see, hear, think, etc. you realize you are blessed and feel more joy in just being alive. While that’s wonderful it doesn’t eradicate your financial, health, or other concerns.
Recently, I was asked what I am grateful for. Rather than list all the usual suspects, I reframed the question to: For what would I like to be grateful? Immediately, I thought of 80 year old Jean Vanier who, when interviewed by Krista Tippet, said he was still working on loving reality. In other words, I would like to be grateful for everything; especially the things that challenge me. The body’s expressions of stress, bad moods, insecurities, ups and downs of relationships, day-to-day worries—all of it. Jean Vanier said he had been practicing for 40 years and he was still practicing; so, as a relative rookie I am not expecting an immediate turnaround. Just the ability to meander around the topic fills me with optimism.
If you try this philosophy on for size, or you have already adopted it, feel free to let me know how it has changed your life.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang