Another Take – Why I Don’t Have a Gratitude Practice

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It’s funny – or perhaps actually NOT funny – how the experience of loss immediately evokes the subject of gratitude.  Initially from OTHER people.

When I began to communicate my angst going through fertility treatments years ago, the ever present “be grateful for the life you do have” chorus rang out loud and instant.  

Ummmmm……yeah.  The constant beating of drugs, try, fail, search, diagnose, rinse, lather and repeat WAS the major component in the life I had at the time.  And not through any fault of my own.  Serenade THAT, Sherlocks! Pain comes from pain after all, not from an absence of gratitude.

A consistent flow of gratitude directives lurk in the outside world too.  They are, among other things, ever faithful components on “how to help yourself through loss” type shopping lists.  Though perhaps a bit less than since the onset of the pandemic (thankfully!).

The vibration from deep within my core to all of this back then?  Eew!  Total repulsion.

Why?  

It seemed every angle of the world was telling me how I should and should not feel.  And in particular, factions who didn’t or couldn’t possibly have the slightest notion.  Multiple failed fertility treatments are a purgatory you can never fully understand unless you’ve been there yourself.  

Being my own last line of defense, I was not about to jump on the gratitude bandwagon.  What I really needed was to feel whatever it was I was feeling.  Yes.  Rage, disgust, indignation, despair and the ever unpopular good old fashioned pain were bubbling up to the top of my menu.  Gratitude was just going to have to flipping wait.

And yet, gratitude and a gratitude practice in particular have been shown to yield multiple benefits.

So please, allow me to play devil’s advocate with myself for a moment (I rather like doing that – is that weird?).

And there’s more: 

“In turn, some research suggests that honing a more grateful mentality now might even help prevent disease later on in life. One 2015 study found gratitude can lead to a better mood, better quality of sleep, more self-efficacy as it relates to heart health, and even lower amounts of inflammation in the body.

Among other things, gratitude has also been found to have a positive impact on relationships. And the actual practice of gratitude has been found to increase the level of all aforementioned benefits.   

So why my suspicion?  Where and why does the whole gratitude thing go awry for me?

When you’re grieving, and even when you get to be a more regulated human, emotions rise and call for our attention.  My concern with prioritizing and manufacturing gratitude is it risks serving as a form of bypassing our harder (and perfectly normal) feelings.  

When you’re grieving, and even when you get to be a more regulated human, emotions rise and call for our attention.  My concern with prioritizing and manufacturing gratitude is it risks serving as a form of bypassing our harder (and perfectly normal) feelings.  -Sarah Chamberlin http://www.afterwardhonesty.com

During my raw years, I fully committed to this mysterious process we call grief I had no control over.  Main reason being my sense that, if any of “this” (meaning the emotional part) gets any bigger, it’s going to kill me.  

And how do emotions get bigger?  By ignoring them.  By turning a blind eye, or worse, by looking them straight in the eye and saying “You don’t matter.  I’m going to attempt to replace you with something I like better.”  

I’ve always been an avid practicer of things.  From the flute in the first part of my life to yoga in my middle age, the need to practice comes naturally.  It’s perhaps a way of learning and being and connecting with life that makes the most sense to me.  So the strong instinct NOT to practice something serves as headline news in my world. 

I had urgent emotions to contend with and thus no room for some piddly gratitude homework assignment.  I had way more to loose by attempting to sidestep my hard, cyclone type feelings than I did by not practicing gratitude.

An article from positivepsychology.com, on the benefits of gratitude ironically, points out that:

“Gratitude disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating that often accompanies them. Writing a letter “shifts our attention” so that our focus is on positive emotions.” 

Thanks Positive Psychology – my point exactly!  Well, almost exactly.  This view of certain emotions as “negative” and then the conscious act of disconnecting from them is precisely the unhealthy thing I aim NOT to do!

This article also later identifies envy, resentment, regret and depression as “toxic emotions”.  So in other words, the human condition.  And inevitable components within the experience of being human.  Good luck with out-running THAT!

It seems a gratitude practice can easily function as an act of shutting oneself down.  It can send us the message we are somehow unreliable witnesses to our own experience.  

Instead of functioning as an opening practice of being, it has the potential to be a more superficial, limiting form of behaving.  And how could it not?  We humans have managed to attach a holier than thou sort of moral equivalent to the topic of gratitude.

This is not new.  A quick google search reveals gratitude as a longstanding area of pontification, from ancient philosophers to modern day motivational speakers.

Philosopher David Hume (1739) wrote, “Of all crimes that human creatures are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.”

Yeesh.  Now granted, he’s referencing ingratitude, not the same as a temporary absence of it.  But still, I can’t imagine his view on not feeling gratitude is all that more sparkling.

Some additional quick searching revealed I’m not alone in my gratitude concerns.

An article from Psychology Today points out that:

  • “Gratitude can minimize and invalidate your emotional experiences.”  And,  
  • “Gratitude can hinder your emotional processing.”

This quote from Symmetry Counseling elaborates further:

“There are times when you need to experience your emotions in order to allow these emotions to change and become a part of your identity and journey. For example, if you experience a loss, it’s important that you grieve in your own way as opposed to avoiding the grieving process, as this could negatively impact your mental health. Connie L. Habash, LMFT, reports that “when we practice gratitude, we shift our attention from what’s wrong or missing to what is here.” It can be tempting to shift our attention away from our emotions that are difficult to experience and instead focus on positive mindfulness. However, this method of coping can have a negative impact.”

My point exactly (and yes, really this time)!  Thank you Connie! 

So whatever became of me and gratitude?

Check out this kind of crazy, folks: Gratitude eventually showed up. It began flowing AND ebbing when it was darned good and ready.  And in ways much different than others had originally tried to preach. 

I suspect it’s the result of committing myself to hosting those knock down drag out feelings that come with life altering loss, injustice and the experience of real powerlessness.  Which dips right into the pocket of our modern world’s too well kept secret – when you open yourself to pain and other hard emotional states, you are opening yourself to everything else too.  Joy and yes, gratitude, inevitably become more potent.

So when people think they need more joy or more gratitude in their existence, I wonder if what they actually may need is the self respect of inviting, and then connecting with, more feeling of ALL kinds.

Going through horrible shit after horrible shit in fact programs you to be spontaneously grateful for all kinds of things.  But not because you made yourself write it down or scolded yourself into it.  I think more so because you know how easily  – and randomly – things could be gone or not even have existed in the first place. In short, once you’ve experienced certain levels of bad, all that is good becomes that much more blatant.

To me gratitude feels like awe.  In its purest form, there’s no need to proclaim or banner it.  Or cross it off a to do list.  It just simply is.

I can feel gratitude for everything from when my husband walks through the door to moments when I’m not feeling my nervous system disorder symptoms as much as I used to, to spending minutes gazing at beautiful flowers and wild bunnies eating because I’m amazed that moment is existing and that I get to be in it.  I’m grateful I survived everything I survived and I’m grateful for my life.

I also know what I’m NOT grateful for.  I’m not grateful my children didn’t get to be born.  I’m not grateful I don’t get to be a parent.  While I appreciate the person I’ve become through all this – I’m becoming quite a fan of her actually – I’m not in any way grateful for the threatening fires I had to walk through to get here.  I’m not grateful for all of the damage done and that nine years out I’m still picking up pieces.  Nor do I have to be.   

I’m sure there are appropriate situations for a gratitude practice as long as one chooses wisely.  Our culture is quite glued to the illusion of control, and it’s all too easy to be more influenced by that than by the actual benefits one may or may not be getting. 

A gratitude practice may be a better fit for life’s more minuscule problems and mundane circumstances.  And perhaps it’s a useful tool for those who find themselves on a very normal “seeing things as worse than they really are” type of spin.

For me and for many others though, that’s not relevant.  With everything I’ve been through in the last twelve years, I haven’t had the energy or the space to think of things as worse than they really are.  If I had done that in the midst of infertility, childlessness, debilitating long term illness, immigration troubles and near financial ruin, I probably would have had to leave earth.  

We can have so much to feel from the perspective of pain and loss the last thing we often need is to be wrestling ourselves over what we might NOT be feeling.  And in the process, averting the actual key to genuine, flowing gratitude down the road.

So if you find yourself reading this while approaching the holidays in the presence of a life altering loss you didn’t ask for along with a void of gratitude the world is implying you should somehow magically have (or at least be vigorously coveting )……

Please know that there’s nothing wrong with you.  YOU’RE OK AND PERFECTLY NORMAL.  It is not your job to bend your emotional process into someone else’s untested status quo.

They say experience is the most powerful of teachers, so I’m going with mine for now: If you are braving or have braved being broken open by grief, you may very well not need to be concerned with chasing gratitude anyway.   

3 thoughts on “Another Take – Why I Don’t Have a Gratitude Practice

  1. I really needed to hear, “Please know that there’s nothing wrong with you.” I have always felt troubled by my seeming inability to have a gratitude practice but now it makes sense. Thank you!

  2. I appreciate this post about the toxicity that the idea of cultivating gratitude can promote. It was important for me to read this because I can be quick to prescribe gratitude to others, and I need to consider everything you wrote here.

    You know I’m a big fan of feeling your feelings. If not, they can get stuck and, like you said, get bigger. The only way out is through.

    I love your voice. I love the way you write. I love that you have moved from Infertility Honesty to Afterward Honesty. I love it so much.

    Your last sentence is GOLD.

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