Category Archives: Gratitude

Practicing gratitude when life really truly sucks and awful things are happening

Rooted in Hope

Rooted in Hope

It’s easy to promote gratitude when things are going well, or even when we’re in the midst of a time-limited, end-eventually-in-sight situation such as my “coach ride from Hell.” (See the blog archives for the full series.)

But what about gratitude when we’re really in the shit? A reader sent this comment a few weeks ago:

Wish I could experience those feelings of gratitude. I know they are out there but pale in comparison to the feelings of fear when dealing with a loved one fighting for her life. We are grateful for the doctors, her family and friends, but Jimmy’s wife is fighting for her life after being diagnosed with leukemia and undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Jimmy is trying to do his job (for which we are thankful) take care of Meredith, get settled into a new home, and try to figure out who is going to pay for all this medical care after her employer screwed up. Sorry to be such a downer. Trying to find the gratitude.

My answer to this comment was that finding gratitude in the midst of this awful pain was possible and would be helpful to this reader and her family. There are always the quotidian blessings of being alive – sun and stars and birds, etc. I think that’s true, but my response felt inadequate, and maybe a little disrespectful.

I asked fellow Martha Beck-trained coaches how they practice gratitude in the heart of darkness. They had lots to say. Here are some suggestions:

  • A quick five-things-I’m-grateful-for list: soap, warm water, my body, NPR, a house…
  • A gratitude jar, filled with slips of paper and other mementos of gratitude. (A gratitude journal would also be a tangible reminder of gratitudes.)
  • A gratitude posse: a group of people who e-mail or text each other their gratitudes daily, with accountability if someone drops off the radar.
  • Asking the question “What’s perfect about this?” (This is probably a stretch for most of us. If you’re feeling brave, give it a try!)

They emphasized the importance of feeling the fear, anger, and sadness before going for gratitude. Otherwise the gratitude is just pretense, papering over of a part of ourselves that needs attention. They also affirmed the helpfulness of a consistent meditation practice, healthy eating, and exercise.  These habits give us somewhere to stand when the ground shakes.

There’s often a part of us that feels disloyal when we practice gratitude and acceptance in the midst of deep pain. We equate love with resistance. I think, looking back on my mom’s terminal dance with cancer that killed her way too young, or my dad’s skiing accident that killed him way too young, that if I had practiced acceptance and gratitude around those events I would have thought that meant I condoned her suffering, his snuffed-out life, and my terrible loss. Resisting reality felt like love and loyalty. Resisting felt like I was still in control.

I now understand that resistance of something we can’t do anything about isn’t love. Acceptance is the necessary ground for gratitude, and both together bring us to a place where grace and healing can happen, whatever that looks like. And that’s love.

That’s love.

Crazy, Cheesy Gratitude – Part 4

Rooted in Hope

Rooted in Hope

These last few weeks I’ve been exploring gratitude –my little gratitude miracle, why gratitude can feel hard at first, and why gratitude is worth the work. Here’s my four-step system for building the gratitude habit.

Step One: Decide to become aware of your complaining habits. One way to do this is to take a 7-day “Complaining Cleanse.” Make the commitment to stop complaining for seven days. If you complain, you have to start over. Here’s an Elephant Journal article for inspiration. Note what you feel like complaining about. (I noticed that my complaints were almost always about the media or other people’s spiritual beliefs. Interesting.) Mindfulness is a requirement here – practice some sort of mindfulness meditation daily and watch what your mind is up to. We can only become aware through mindfulness. If you’re feeling especially brave, tell your family and friends about your commitment and invite them to alert you to your complaining habits.

Step Two: Use only language of choice, responsibility, and accountability. “I” statements are powerful. Expunge “I can’t” and “I have to” from your vocabulary. “I can’t do it” almost always means “I refuse to accept the consequences of doing it.” “I have to do it” almost always means “I refuse to accept the consequences of not doing it.”  Say “I will,” “I choose to,” “I won’t,” and, hardest of all (for me at least), “I want.” Noticing when language of choice escapes us is a great clue for where we have work to do. Again, if you’re feeling especially brave, invite your friends and family to point out when you use victim language. Fun for the whole family! (Thanks, Wings and Dr. Jon Lange, for this tool.)

Step Three: When you feel the urge to complain, judge, or whine, ask yourself “What do I want to happen?” These six words take you out of your lizardy fearful brain and put you up in your HOTS (higher order thinking skills). Now you can thoughtfully discern if the situation calls for leaving, changing, or accepting, and make a plan to move toward peacefulness. (Thanks to Pam Grout for this one.)

Step Four: Practice crazy cheesy gratitude. Make “Thank you” your mantra. Write down your gratitudes. When you feel joy and bliss, take thirty seconds to consciously and intentionally absorb the moment with all five senses. (Remember the negativity bias? We have to work to remember positive moments. They’re like Teflon to negativity’s Velcro.) This is how we rewire our brains from negativity to gratitude and joy, and make gratitude our default.

Gratitude is our calling, even though it may feel hard and look silly. Gratitude makes us healthier in body, mind, and spirit. Gratitude takes work, and it’s work worth doing. That coach ride from Hell last summer… I’m grateful for what I finally learned that day. I’m SO grateful for my little gratitude miracle.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about gratitude and your responses to these posts, so please reply in the comments. Thanks!

Want to learn more about the power of gratitude and other tools to live your authentic, joyful life? I offer a free one-hour “discovery session.” Hit “reply” to set up a time to talk.

Crazy, Cheesy Gratitude – Part 3

Rooted in Hope

Rooted in Hope

Why choose gratitude, when it feels unfamiliar, conspicuous, silly, or unsafe? Why do the work of retraining my brain for gratitude?

Two weeks ago, you went along with me on the “coach ride from Hell,” when I experienced a small gratitude miracle. Last week I explored some reasons why I think maybe we resist gratitude. This week: why choose gratitude and acceptance over complaining and resistance.

Reason 1. The part of our brains that’s hard-wired for negativity is a primitive part. A more recent evolutionary development is our cerebral cortex that is capable of higher order thinking skills, what I called “HOTS” when I taught these concepts to middle schoolers. We can, with practice, literally rise above the fearful lizard part of our brain into the layer of our brain that’s capable of abstract thought. This takes work, and it’s work worth doing. When we stay with what’s fearfully familiar, we cement the neural connections that keep us fearful. When we make the effort to practice gratitude, we move up into our HOTS and strengthen those neurons. Over time, gratitude will get easier and we will feel more peaceful and centered.

Reason 2. When we’re feeling anxious and fearful, a whole cascade of destructive nastiness happens in our bodies. When we choose negativity, our sympathetic nervous system, which evolved to save us from actual short-term, time-limited dangers such as saber-toothed tigers, is constantly working. Rather than getting us geared up for a specific threat to fight or flee from, adrenal cortisol stays at constant low levels that wreak havoc. Gratitude short-circuits the sympathetic nervous system response and brings our calming restorative parasympathetic nervous system back on line. We will go to fear instinctively. It takes practice to activate our HOTS and our parasympathetic nervous system. We have to choose to do it, because for most of us choosing gratitude doesn’t come naturally.

Reason 3.  Eckhart Tolle says “When you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change it, or accept it. All else is madness.” Right on, Eckhart! There’s lots of awesomeness about being a victim: I can be irresponsible and lazy when I choose victimhood. So much easier to moan and groan about what’s wrong than to practice discernment regarding a situation. So much easier to complain and whine than ask myself “Can I leave this situation? Can I change this situation? Or is the only choice to accept the situation?” Discernment requires a choice. It’s work to climb out of my lizard brain up into my HOTS and actually think about what’s going on. It’s not natural or easy. But the payoff?? The gratitude payoff is that I take control of my life and put myself back in the driver’s seat, which calms me down. If the only choice in a situation is acceptance, as it was on the coach ride from Hell described in part one of this series, then gratitude is the best way into acceptance that I know.

Reason 4. Gratitude is the faithful response. Sarcasm, whining, constant negative judgment, and cynicism are unchristian. That’s a blunt statement, isn’t it? Here’s why I say gratitude is required of Christians: I believe that God is constantly working for good and that the Holy Spirit is constantly inspiring and healing. Therefore, I must stay open to the possibilities and potential of the present, and I must be stay available to being used by God in ways I don’t expect. I must “pitch my tent in the land of hope,” as Peter says in Acts 2:26 (The Message).To stay open and available, I must drop my attachment to what I think should be happening and what other people should be doing that they’re not, which is the content of most of my complaining. Gratitude is faithful.

Reason 5. Like attracts like. Positive energy attracts more positive energy. I’d rather hang with positive, affirming, hopeful people, and I want to be that person for others.

Okay, those are my top five reasons why gratitude is healthier for our souls, minds, and bodies than complaining and negativity. Please add your reasons and responses in the comments, and tune in next week for some tools to make gratitude a habit.

Crazy, Cheesy Gratitude – Part 2

Rooted in Hope

Rooted in Hope

Last week I took you along with me on the coach ride from Hell. I described the small miracle that occurred when I chose gratitude over resistance and complaining. And I told you that choosing gratitude felt cheesy and Polly Anna-ish and fake. Why is that?

I’ve come up with four reasons why gratitude feels wrong and foreign. I’m sure there are more, so please bring ‘em on in the comments!

  1. Gratitude feels unfamiliar. Our brains are hard-wired for negativity – the “negativity bias.” The human nervous system, writes Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, “scans for, reacts to, stores, and recalls negative information about oneself and one’s world. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The natural result is a growing – and unfair – residue of emotional pain, pessimism, and numbing inhibition in implicit memory.” So it’s normal and natural to notice and focus on the negative. It’s how we kept ourselves safe in the age of the Pleistocene.
  1. Gratitude feels conspicuous. We live in a culture of criticism. Our media pays a lot of attention to disasters and threats, and not just conservative outlets like Fox News. Our local evening news is full of scary stuff. And liberal commentators like Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore make their living skewering people they’ve decided are wrong. (I usually agree with them.) Gratitude stands out in a sea of negativity.
  1. Gratitude looks and sounds stupid, at least to me. I think in my family “smart” sounded like criticism and sarcasm and judgment. Keeping up a running commentary on what’s wrong and how we could do it better is what intelligence sounds like to me. I know this is nuts, yet it’s in there pretty deep. I’m working on it.
  1. Gratitude feels dangerous, if we believe that it’s our negativity and judgment and criticism that keep us safe. I wonder if we believe that if we drop the constant scoping for what’s wrong, we’ll find ourselves doing things we don’t want to do and going places we don’t want to go. “I’d better remember that I don’t like x or I’ll find myself doing x all the time!”

So there are a few reasons why I think gratitude sometimes feels cheesy and fake and dumb and hard. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. Next week, I’ll share reasons why I believe gratitude is a better choice than resistance and complaining, for our minds, bodies, and souls.