Living and Growing: Gratitude during difficult times

If the title of this article invokes mixed emotions for you, I totally get it. I am a self-professed, lifelong, “glass-half empty” kind of gal. For years I had an adverse visceral reaction to anything resembling positive thinking, or as I called it, “Pollyanna thinking.”

 

My beliefs were formed early in life from many factors; the typical dysfunctional and crazy family, living through two large natural disasters that severely disrupted our lives, and growing up absorbing the pessimistic and unhappy beliefs modeled in my family. When reading Winnie the Pooh stories, I identified with Eeyore.

Thus, later in life, when introduced to the concept of gratitude, never mind cultivating gratitude during difficult times, it seemed a totally frightening, unrealistic and naïve concept. It seemed safer to expect the worst, rather than risk being open to other possibilities and being disappointed once again. There was no point in being happy because inevitability the proverbial rug would be pulled out from under me (as had been my experience so often).

However, when I began to learn about gratitude practices and actually did them, I found they worked. I was not one of those lucky souls who could just “think positive,” or change their minds to be happy. I needed to do the work of reprogramming my Eeyore attitude.

While learning the practices I realized there is a difference between practicing gratitude and positive thinking. Certain positive thinking beliefs would not work for me, such as, “everything always works out for the best.” I also discarded the idea of “visualizing” what I wanted to have happen in my life or other’s lives. To me, this meant living in a fantasy future. Instead, I work with the concept of “it is what it is,” realizing everyone has a different view of “what is.”

Gratitude practices that do work for me include: (1) making a hand-written gratitude list. Writing is a powerful tool because of how the brain processes and absorbs information; (2) the alphabet walk and talk – while taking a walk say out loud something you are grateful for starting with “A” and working your way through the alphabet. By the time I get to “x, y, and z” I always feel better; (3) reach out to someone or something where you can help – calling or visiting a sick friend, volunteering at the food bank, or picking up garbage are just a few ideas. Do any physical action to get out of the negative loops in your head and into the moment; (4) limit exposure to the media. We all know media focuses on the negative and actually breeds fear, uncertainty and doom.

I am not an advocate for using gratitude practices to avoid facing grief, anger or any other emotion. Recognizing and processing our emotions are an important part of mental health. Ignoring or repressing our pain often creates its own set of problems.

However, there is a big difference between facing and processing our emotions and getting stuck in a doom-and-gloom spiral. I call it “the bobsled run of negative thinking” that sucks one down into a morass of endless horrible scenarios. This type of thinking is self-centered, self-absorbed, not based in reality and living in an unhappy future.

I have learned many pithy sayings over the years about negative thinking. My favorites are, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened to me”, “Is this the end of Western civilization as we know it?”, and “This is a first-world problem.” Have I turned from Eeyore into Winnie the Pooh? No. But I have learned how to recognize and change some of my negative thinking patterns.

This holiday season make a written gratitude list with at least 20 items on it – they don’t have to be big, even small things like being able to brush your teeth count. Then call a friend and tell them you are grateful for their friendship. A passing acquaintance told me recently he was having a “terrific day.” Curious, I asked why. He said, “I woke up this morning.”

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