It’s taken me a while to understand how to practice gratitude.
The self-help gurus make practicing gratitude sound so easy, but it’s not. If it was, we would do it all the time and not get defensive when people say, “try to be grateful.”
I remember hearing that expression and bristling. But that’s because I didn't understand what gratitude really is. To me, gratitude felt like a silly, unrealistic, or impossible thing to do in the face of stress and hardship. But now I know better.
Without gratitude I wouldn't have risen up after my breakdown in 2011, I wouldn't have found a new path, new partner, or any of the good things I have in my life now. Gratitude is more than an expression of faith, it’s an act of personal service that creates new action and possibility.
Gratitude doesn’t mean we throw a veil on our real feelings about a situation and “just be grateful for what we have.” It also doesn’t mean that we forget our problems because we “should be grateful we don’t have it worse.”
This would be considered repression of our feelings, which throws us further into darkness rather than finding peace or harmony with our lives.
Contrary to what most people think, we can be grateful and feel pissed off, uncertain, sad, or fearful. Gratitude doesn’t preclude having a range of feelings, in fact, our raw feelings can actually enhance gratitude.
But gratitude can help us cope with our feelings rather than descending into a spiral of negativity.
However, there’s one thing we must have in order for gratitude to work well for us: Acceptance.
This is where we often get tripped up. If we can’t accept what’s happening in the present moment, we’ll likely not benefit much from gratitude. Actually, I’m not even sure gratitude is possible without acceptance.
Acceptance means we are not resisting what’s happening in the moment. We stay in the moment without resisting our feelings, the facts, or our responsibility.
To resist our situation means we refuse to believe it, to look at what’s real, and to allow it to be there. Resistance is also when we create and maintain stories that block our feelings and reality.
It gets confusing because initially, we all feel resistance to shitty circumstances, but true acceptance allows the situation to be there without putting up blocks, distractions, or using negativity to deflect responsibility.
Acceptance will eventually calm down the fire of challenging circumstances. It may take a while, but it’s a salve that soothes the burn. It’s also the place where possibilities and action are born. Because this is where we can gather resources like strengths, skills, and supports to help us with our challenges.
This is also where gratitude comes in.
Whatever resources we have that can help us, we express gratitude for them. We can say, “this really sucks but thankfully I have ______.” Insert whatever helpful thing, person, or a resource that can help.
Taking stock of our resources and actively expressing gratitude for them is a powerful tool.
This doesn’t discount the shittiness of the situation, nor the feelings we have about it. We can still feel sad, angry, and terrified, but we are accepting our situation as it is and expressing gratitude for the things that will be our guiding light.
Hope is born here, in this expression of gratitude.
Gratitude is food for our new beginnings, and as we know, life is all about new beginnings, whether we like it or not.
There’s usually a few reasons why we get prickly about gratitude:
- We mistake it for an unrealistic way of dealing with adversity.
- We also believe it means we can’t be pissed off or scared, and nothing hurts more than to not have our feelings validated.
- We are addicted to our negativity as it gives us an excuse not to try new things, reach out, accept failures, and find humility.
If you get defensive about gratitude, it’s a good idea to figure out what your reasons are. Otherwise, the gifts of gratitude will never find you.
Gratitude is an emotional tool that requires practice and understanding. In order for gratitude to be accessible to us, we need to first find acceptance with our life situations.
Since resistance and gratitude don’t work well together, we might need to understand our own reasons for resisting things.
But once you find an open path to gratitude, you really do find the gifts that the self-help gurus are talking about. New possibilities arise and new doors open that you never knew were there.