Gratitude is more than just a platitude

This is the time of year when words like grateful and thankful start coming up a lot more. You see them on shirts and mugs and tv ads. We post about being #grateful, tweet about what we are thankful for, and take pictures of our turkeys, but are we incorporating these sentiments into our daily lives? Is gratitude part of our value system, both personally and in a societal sense? I wonder how often gratitude becomes more of a display than a lived experience. This is already going to be a different kind of Thanksgiving, so maybe this year it would be worth exploring the deeper meaning of these terms and their ability to improve our conscious awareness. What follows is my therapisty take on how to look at gratitude through the lens of improved mental health.

First let me talk about what gratitude is and isn’t. Gratitude is an acknowledgment of what we appreciate or are thankful for in our lives. Sometimes when this topic comes up, I get initial push back from clients because they fear that expressing gratitude will negate or invalidate their suffering. I will usually ask why it has to be either/or when actually both states can be simultaneously true. This is an example of our tendency to fall into binary thinking, rather than examine the complexity of a situation. I can be grateful for what I have in my life, while also sitting with an immense amount of pain.

I heard an example of this recently at a virtual suicide awareness luncheon I attended. The speaker shared about a time when she experienced the death of a loved one and a trusted friend suggested that she start an ongoing gratitude list. Her initial response was as described above and she said she didn’t have a thing to be grateful for. When her friend pushed, she started with her toothbrush and the list grew from there. She went on to reflect that this list was the life jacket that kept her from drowning in the grief she was experiencing. Maintaining this balanced perspective can help combat the brain’s tendency to put all of its energy into focusing on painful thoughts, memories, etc.

Another concern a client voiced to me once was that expressing gratitude could be seen as a form of narcissism, i.e., that you’re bragging to others about how great your life is. As we explored this, we came to the conclusion that there’s a fundamental difference between performative gratitude and an authentic acknowledgement of appreciation within yourself and toward those around you. The goal here is to avoid taking things for granted and this doesn’t have to be showy or egocentric. The emphasis can actually be on how great life itself is, not just your own experience of it.

As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently see connection breakdowns in relationships. Gratitude has long since retreated from clients’ vocabulary or has become weaponized. Marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, coined the term “negative sentiment override” to describe a relational pattern that happens when we can no longer see our loved ones for who they are, but rather all the ways in which they are falling short of our expectations. Everything they do pisses us off. They’re driving wrong, they’re cooking wrong, they’re breathing wrong, their entire existence is wrong. It is hard to unflip this switch, and sometimes we fear that if we do the other person will have somehow “won”. The problem with this distorted view is that there is zero room for positive change to occur. They could move heaven and earth for the relationship and it would still fall short. Now I’m not suggesting that we grab some rose-colored glasses and excuse all the errors of their ways, but taking a step back and acknowledging parts of the relationship that you would miss if they were gone would be one way to approach stabilizing things. Again, duality can exist – I can love someone and be angry with them at the same time.

A popular phrase used in the self-help world is that “gratitude is the antidote to depression”… and it’s not wrong. I would probably just correct and say that it is one antidote to depression, but not the end all be all. Depression is often times fueled by a hyper fixation on the past, on what was. I heard a call on a podcast recently where the listener described experiencing crippling depression. She was already on meds, in therapy, etc. but it wasn’t until she started a gratitude journal that she was able to pull herself out of it. Why would that be? Depression is greedy. It wants all of our undivided attention. It doesn’t want you to think about anything other than it. A shift towards identifying things in your present life that don’t totally suck can help get you out of your head and snap you back into the present. This intentional perspective change can be effective because it takes the power away from the problem. If depression doesn’t have your full and complete attention anymore, over time its grip on you can begin to weaken.

Incorporating gratitude in our lives requires awareness and intentionality. If practiced regularly, it can actually be a form of mindfulness and can help ground you in the present moment. If we start to push back on our automatic responses and autopilot thinking patterns, we will start to see that we have a choice in where our attention goes. Things that we usually brush past or ignore will start to have meaning again. I’ll give you an example of what I mean:

This morning I noticed myself feeling overwhelmed by all the things on my to do list. I knew I needed to slow myself down if I were to have any shot at getting it all done, so I decided to do a 5-minute meditation. Backstory: this is the time of year when my nemesis, mountain cedar, likes to make my eyes so itchy that putting my contacts in is pretty much impossible, and today is the first day of the season that I have been forced to wear my glasses. So I take them off, close my eyes, and do the mediation. When it was over, I opened my eyes and much to my surprise everything was really blurry. Like I legitimately had forgotten that I wouldn’t have glasses on when I came back into the room. I laughed at myself and put on my glasses, but then spent the next few minutes really thinking about how grateful I am to have corrective eyewear. If you think about it, this has allowed us to beat Darwinism in a way. These obligatory frames that I cursed all through middle school have allowed me to live a more vibrant life and for that I am thankful.

I have a lot of existential conversations with clients. These conversations range from questioning one’s purpose, to the meaning of life, to anxiety about death. A common theme that usually emerges from these discussions is a general fear of regret. They worry that they didn’t value the time they had, cherish relationships enough, or believe in themselves enough to go after what they wanted. In some cases, this causes significant distress and leads to feelings of paralysis. Now I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers here. This is a fundamental part of the human condition from which I am not exempt. I will say though, that if we only get to live once, I’d like to be where my feet are for most of it. Depression takes us backwards and anxiety pulls us into the worst-case scenario future. Mindfulness and gratitude allow us to be in our bodies in real time. If we live with intention in the present, we are grounded by the notion that all we are truly capable of is making the next right decision in that moment. Gratitude can keep us from missing all that life has to offer.

Ok so I’ve presented you with some concepts, now what do you actually do with them? I’ve created a self-inventory exercise that I’ll share, and then I’ll give you a few activity suggestions. Take what fits and leave the rest.

I have come up with a list of different areas of our lived experience that one could express gratitude toward. This is certainly not exhaustive, so feel free to add any other category you’d like. What I want you to do is grab a pen and paper and for each variable write about anything you are grateful for that relates. This could be in paragraph form, bullet points, or whatever format you like. My only requirement is that you don’t overthink it. I am giving you semi-vague instructions because I want you to take this and run with it in the way that best suits you. Here goes:

  • Mind
  • Body
  • Relationships
  • People
  • Pets
  • Environments
  • Experiences
  • Objects
  • Accomplishments
  • Actions
  • Abilities
  • Talents
  • Creative expression
  • Senses
  • Basic needs
  • Sacrifices
  • Struggles
  • Time
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Nature
  • Spirituality
  • Personality

How was that?

Did anything surprise you?

What feelings came up?

What does this tell you about your lived experience?

How could you incorporate this type of awareness into more of your life?

Here are a few ideas…

  • Write gratitude letters to important people in your life (including one to yourself).
  • Create a gratitude mandala – there are lots of examples of these on Google, but the premise is to put your name in the middle and create spirals of words representing things you are grateful for all around it.
  • Start a #365grateful photo project. I know, I know, I started this off by hating on hashtags a bit, but this is a pretty cool project. Basically, you take a picture of something you are grateful for every day for an entire year and create an album out of it.
  • Make a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day, make an ongoing list, or just go stream of consciousness.
  • Conduct a meditation practice focused on gratitude. There are lots of guided ones on the various mainstream apps.
  • Have conversations with loved ones about gratitude. Learn from others about their relationship with the concept.

So there’s my festive holiday spiel! If you’re reading this to the end, then I am truly grateful for your time and attention. My intent is not to give concrete directives for how to live life, but rather to offer a framework through which you get to explore that for yourself.

Now go eat some turkey/tofurkey, and have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

-Christen

PS – If you’re curious, the cover photo is of my Thanksgiving cactus from last year, which decided to bloom again just in time 😀

Relationship Gridlock

In my experience, the most common reason couples report they are seeking therapy is communication. By the time you get to me you probably have a pretty good sense of what the problems are in your relationship, and you’ve likely tried to varying degrees to work through them on your own. But they’re still there. Those perpetual, reoccurring issues. Conflictual themes that like to sneak up on you and sabotage your connection with one another. You’ve tried every which way to talk through it, argue through it, get over it…but it keeps coming back. This is relationship gridlock and you’re seemingly stuck.

The good news is that with an open mind and a willingness to step outside the well-worn paths of your comfort zone, deeper and more effective communication is possible. Here are some key ingredients to improving the quality of communication in your relationship. Some of these are borrowed from the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy, in addition to my own insights from working with couples. See what you think…

  • Move from a win/lose mindset to one of collaboration and compromise – If one of you wins, you both lose. This type of adversarial dynamic sets the relationship up for failure and almost always ensures that nothing productive will come from all of the energy you are expending in trying to solve the issue. Compromise is easier said than done, but one way to evaluate your own position is to identify how much of your stance relates to your core values/beliefs and how much of it you may be flexible on. This requires honesty and a conscious effort to remove stubbornness from the equation. The goal is to move from, “How will you or I deal with this?” to, “How are we going to handle this together?”.
  • Shoot for a two-way dialogue, not a one-way diatribe – The dynamic should be more like a back and forth tennis match rather than a football game where one team is dominating the possession time. Make a statement and give your partner a chance to respond before moving on to something else. Otherwise you’ll spend an hour pouring your heart out only for your partner to have forgotten half of what you said and most of the points they wanted to make. This doesn’t honor your feelings or theirs and will likely leave you both feeling frustrated and unheard.
  • Be curious, not all-knowing – We are terrible mind readers. I repeat, we SUCK at mind reading. This is so, so important to remember because I see this tripping people up all the time. I hear phrases like, “She thinks I’m [fill in the blank]” and “I’m sure he feels [insert an off-base feeling here]”. Now this comes from a good place and in some ways it’s almost a natural result of being in a committed relationship. We think we know our partners inside and out, so at some point our brain starts filling in the gaps for them and we stop asking questions. The problem is that sometimes you can have an entire conversation with the partner that lives in your head without ever talking to the partner that lives in your reality at all. Then you’ll have negative feelings toward reality-partner because fantasy-partner said something snarky to you in your imagined conversation. See where I’m going here? Instead try checking your assumptions with your partner. Say something like, “I’m wondering if you feel [xyz]?” or just a simple, “What do you think about that?” should suffice. The idea is to create room for a dialogue in which each partner feels they can be heard rather than pigeon-holed.
  • State the obvious – While we are not great at reading our partner’s minds, we can also fall into the trap of expecting them to read ours. Nothing good can come from this. Your intentions, thoughts, and/or feelings might seem obvious to you, but verbalizing them can only increase the chances of being on the same page with your significant other. So instead of assuming your partner knows you feel hurt by their actions or ignored when they’re on their phone too much, clue them in and say it aloud.
  • Ask for what you need – To do this you first have to know what you need. Here’s an example: I get angry because my partner forgets to take out the trash. There is a fork in the road here – I either focus on my partner’s absentmindedness, they get defensive, and we end up slinging insults at each other OR I ask myself why this is bothering me first. What need is under the surface? Maybe it is the need to feel supported or cared for. I can’t tell you how many times I have helped couples connect dots between fights over seemingly mundane things that are actually fueled by much deeper needs. Getting stuck talking about the trash is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There’s always more to the story.
  • Avoid harsh conversation start ups – I’ll use the metaphor of a package to illustrate this point. If you receive a package wrapped in barbed wire, you’re going to get hurt so much along the way just trying to open it that by the time you get inside you almost won’t care what’s inside. Or you won’t even open it at all. The barbed wire represents the harsh method of starting a conversation about a conflictual topic. Something like, “You always mess this up” or “I’m so pissed at you”. The contents of the package (i.e. the point you are trying to get across) could be entirely valid, but your message gets lost in the delivery and a fight ensues. The moral of the story: wrap your packages in brown paper. A soft start up follows this formula: 1) I feel ________ 2) about _________ 3) I need _________. If it sounds basic and boring, that’s because it is. The idea is to stay emotionally regulated and focus on what you’re really trying to communicate to your partner. Otherwise you’ll just get lost in the weeds of strong reactions.
  • Adjust your expectations – You can’t wrap every long talk up with a bow. If you have been gridlocked over an issue for an extended period of time, expecting that every conversation you have must yield a solution in order to be successful is only going to make you feel defeated. Work toward developing a dialogue in which you are taking turns suspending your own judgement in order to understand your partner’s position more clearly. If you both do this simultaneously, it can do wonders for your connection even if you don’t immediately arrive at a solution.
  • Table it…but go back later – Be aware of when you’ve reached the point of no return. If you’re emotionally flooded or exhausted from the intensity, it is ok to take a break. You’re probably at a point where nothing productive is going to come from forcing the conversation anyway. There is a bit of an art to doing this though. If you’re pushing pause, find a time that you can agree to try to come back to the issue. Otherwise it’s easy for things to get swept under the rug, lie dormant for a while, and then come back up again at the most inopportune times. The key here is to be honest when you need to take a step back, but also intentional about regulating yourself and revisiting the issue with a clearer mindset.

If gridlock is something you’re struggling with, I encourage you to share this list with your partner and try these tools out. It might feel cumbersome at first or even a little silly, but those experiences may be helpful because they can slow down the process of communication and increase your awareness.

One last thought to take with you into tackling this – conflict can be an incredible opportunity for long-term growth and stronger connection if you can learn to tolerate the discomfort in the moment. In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning (which I highly recommend reading), “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”. You’ll probably never look forward to disagreements with your partner, but viewing them as a means to grow closer and improve intimacy can radically transform the outcome.