Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings. ~William Arthur Ward
You want to be grateful for what you have, but if you cut straight to the truth? You aren’t feeling it.
For a lot of people, acknowledging that truth brings with it immediate shame — the shame of knowing that in a world where so many people go homeless or hungry; or are hurt, abandoned, or abused; or are dealing with a serious illness or the death of a loved one, not feeling grateful is very, very bad.
So, we try gratitude on. “Okay,” we say, tossing our hair back and squaring our shoulders. “Let me focus on gratitude. Here I go.”
We think of 10 things to be grateful for, and then … deep breath … it is still there, that subtle and abiding sense of low-grade disappointment or sadness or disconnection from yourself or the world.
It can be the ultimate lose-lose scenario. If you push yourself to feel grateful when you know that it’s not happening on a core level, you feel like a phony. If you aren’t grateful, then …well, you’re ungrateful. No bueno.
Practice What You Want to Be
Gratitude, like courage, is a practice. If you’ve been shaming yourself for not being more grateful, then take a deep breath and ease up. The first step to being is practicing. And practicing? That you can do.
Quick tip: People who practice things aren’t supposed to have mastered them. Notice how simply reframing to making this a practice automatically ups the ease factor.
Here’s where I’d suggest you start your gratitude practice: Start by examining … disappointment.
This is a highly unorthodox approach to finding your way to gratitude, of course. Usually gratitude practices focus on thinking of the good things in your life, assuming that if you start linking together the good like a series of links in a chain, your heart will be the burning bush of gratitude in only a matter of time.
Well … maybe, I counter. It’s certainly worth a try. But if that has you feeling like you’re simply reciting happy-happy-joy-joy affirmations in an attempt to kid yourself out of feeling what you actually feel, then examine disappointment.
A Few Questions
First, when does disappointment happen? Can you identify that split-second when you’re just going about your day and then Disappointment arrives at your door?
Husband arrives home. He forgot to run the errand you texted him about (twice). Notice how the disappointment precedes any other reaction (anger, sadness, frustration).
You’re going out to dinner with your toddler. She had a good, long nap this afternoon, but five minutes after ordering, she’s having a meltdown — the kind that you know from experience will mean leaving the restaurant. Notice the disappointment and how that’s different than just the generalized frustration of being around a kid that’s screaming.
A potential client has raved about working with you but then decides to go in a different direction. Notice the disappointment and how that translates into (what’s next) a Story.
Noticing the moment when disappointment happens is critical.
Disappointment might be showing up for you before you even get out the door, and you’re looking for it. That’s going to keep you from basking in gratitude.
Disappointment might be showing up any time you attach — also a barrier to gratitude.
Disappointment might be tied to a specific person, task or day of the week (like, say, Mondays?) and that can set the tone for an entire week, an entire experience, again keeping you from gratitude.
After examining the moment when disappointment makes it onto the scene, what’s the thought form, or the “Story of Disappointment?”
Chances are good that once you start to examine the specific stories, you’ll see that it’s a shockingly chronic, ridiculously banal and stunningly unoriginal thought that just recycles itself in slightly different ways.
It’s the same thought pattern:
“I wish that wouldn’t happen.”
“It shouldn’t be this way”
“That’s so frustrating.”
“Why can’t it just go smoothly, for once?”
It’s just got slightly different language, depending on the scenario.
Notice that this new and unorthodox gratitude practice starts from a place of simply getting curious about the reality of what’s going on, before an attempt to shift anything is ever even made.
You: not feeling the gratitude.
You: slowing down enough to listen to the thought forms that arise.
You: not trying to fix anything — just noticing.
For some people, simply getting curious will be enough of a Wow Moment that they’ll look in the mirror and see a little glint in their eye.
“Chin up, because you’ve got it good,” you’ll think right before your lips curve up into a little smile.
The Buddhists in particular like to point out that the simple act of examining the truth of your experience can often be enough to change it. Being with the truth can be so freeing that whatever tension we were holding in place just … drops. Like that. And then life is ah-mazing.
For others, there’s one more step: Asking yourself, “Is this really true?”
Is it True?
From narrative therapy to Byron Katie to Eckhart Tolle to good old-fashioned Buddhist philosophy, many before me have invited people to question whether or not the stories they cling to, and especially the ones that cause their suffering, are actually true.
So, you’ve identified the thought forms, the stories, and now you add on some inquiry.
“He always forgets.” — Is that actually true? Really? Always?
“I’m sick of this.” — Is that actually true? Or is it something else you’re sick of? Or is your reaction to what’s happening the thing that’s making you sick?
“I knew it wouldn’t work out.” — Is that actually true? Or is this a defense against feeling the pain?
“Of course that happened; it never works out.” — Is that really true? C’mon now. It never works out? Can you name any time when it ever has? Well, then. Sometimes, it does work out. Are you putting your attention on those times as equally as you put your attention elsewhere?
Go deep enough down this rabbit hole, and with enough practice, you start to see that the only thing in your emotional landscape that is ever true is what you say is true.
If you can no longer see truth in “He always forgets,” you’ll start to remember the times he remembers.
If you see that your reaction is what’s making you sick, there’s room to feel grateful for noticing that, so that you can change it.
If you see that it’s not really true that it never works out, there’s space to acknowledge all the times when it has, when disaster was averted, when an angel showed up at just the right moment, or when a friend happened to call just before you were about to lose it and listened with love, as you cried.
Back to Gratitude
We forget about the magic of these ordinary experiences when disappointment takes center stage, and the usual antidote is to try to bypass the experience of disappointment in the hopes of getting a shortcut to gratitude.
You can push yourself to feel grateful, and sometimes, that’ll be the transformative door to feel better.
Other times, when disappointment is what’s showing up, that’s what you can choose to work with.
You don’t have to push to feel something that you don’t actually feel. You only need to acknowledge what you actually do feel and see if it’s (really-really) true for you. I’m grateful for every waking, breathing moment that I have the opportunity to do just that.