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I woke up hurting again.
It wasn’t the aches and pains of physical injury though. I opened my eyes and felt it wash over me like a wave—the searing intensity of anxiety mixed with grief.
This is how my mornings felt after my marriage suddenly ended. In a newly empty house, I wondered how I’d find the energy to drag my ass out of bed. I was wrecked.
My life had evaporated in an instant. Left with only pictures and memories to file away, I struggled through the days.
I was a mess, and it scared the sh*t out of me.
As I struggled through those dark days, a friend suggested that I adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” I should get up, put my feet on the floor, and feel grateful for what I had.
The suggestion irritated me because deep down I feared I had not been a grateful person. But I was willing to try. The next morning, I awoke and swung my legs out of bed. As I touched my feet to the floor and stood, I felt…nothing. Nothing but pain and anger, and the fear that my life was ruined.
Gratitude? Not so much.
Ironically, my failed attempt at feeling grateful only worsened my shame, as I was unable to fulfill even that simple act.
I didn’t know it yet, but I had come face to face with a lifelong issue—my struggle with gratitude.
I’d never considered myself a negative person, but I began to realize that negative experiences had had much more influence over my life than positive ones. When I struggled mightily, gratitude was out of reach, and I was in the midst of the hardest struggle of my life.
I discovered the work of Brené Brown when I needed it most, and it changed the course of my life. As a research professor of shame, vulnerability, and gratitude, she spent a lot of time studying whole-hearted people and what made them joyful.
“I did not interview in all that time a person who would describe themselves as joyous who did not actively practice gratitude. It is really practicing gratitude, not the ‘attitude of gratitude’ but tangibly practicing, that invites joy into our lives.”
I was stunned and energized by the revelation that I was not alone in this. We are not born with gratitude, but it can be learned.
With a consistent practice of gratitude, we can rewire our brains to search for the positive first instead of the negative. When we train ourselves to look for positivity and gratitude every day, we start to find it.
I was excited to get to work. I bought a journal and committed to practicing every day. But it wouldn’t be easy. Negative experiences flooded my mis-wired brain much easier than positive ones did.
I realized just how much I struggled with gratitude when I sat down to write about things I was grateful for.
At first. I stared at the near-empty pages where I had written only “my son, and my health.”
But I kept at it. And little by little, other expressions of gratitude began to appear on my list. Beautiful sunrises, walks on the beach, and good friends were written about in my journal. I became thankful for days of peace and calm.
I still struggle sometimes. But I have also learned to be more grateful than ever before. I am even grateful for the negative experiences in my life because I’ve learned some of my most valuable lessons from them.
Learning to practice gratitude has been incredibly rewarding and well worth the effort—it has changed my life.
If you struggle with gratitude as I did, here are five ways to make a gratitude practice part of your life:
1. Accept that we have the power to change.
Many of us have lived our lives struggling with gratitude. Because of circumstances, or the nature of our personality, we just don’t feel it as it remains beyond our reach. We may believe we just aren’t the type of people who feel gratitude.
But we can change that. We all have the power to change, and we can learn the tools. It takes work, but we can end up in a place we never imagined.
2. It starts with awareness.
Becoming aware of our feelings is the foundation for our work. Many of us have never thought about our feelings around gratitude and how we process experiences.
It took me a while to realize that negative experiences affected me so much more than positive ones. I was operating completely unaware that I was reacting to things as I had done since I was a child—never realizing the connection between joy and gratitude, or that there was anything I could do about it.
3. Practice gratitude daily.
For many of us, learning gratitude is a new skill. Like many other skills, the more we practice, the better we’ll get.
Every evening, after dinner, I wrote down three things in my journal that I was grateful for. I did this for 21 days straight. Consistency is important, so we can find a routine that works for us. We shouldn’t be discouraged if it’s harder than we think at first—it’s supposed to be. But it gets easier.
This is a process, so let’s be gentle with ourselves. It takes weeks, not days, and it’s about progress, not perfection. There will be days of struggle, and that’s okay.
I tend to be busy, and my mind races with a multitude of thoughts. Add anxiety to the mix, and there wasn’t a lot of space for gratitude.
I dedicate 10 minutes a day to meditation. It is space just for me, to connect with myself through breath. I have a difficult time clearing my mind, so I don’t try. If stray thoughts come up, I notice them and return to my breathing.
When we connect with ourselves, it makes it easier for us to hold space for gratitude. We become more open to appreciating our experiences.
5. Express gratitude toward others.
When we can express our gratitude to others, we are making real progress.
There are many people in our lives who have shown up for us—sometimes in big ways, sometimes in little ones. As part of my gratitude practice, I recognized people who were there for me or showed me kindness. At least twice a week, I reached out to someone and shared my gratitude with them.
Kind words of appreciation are a gift we can give. Recognizing others in this way also increases our joy. A little gratitude goes a long way.
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness—it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” ~ Brené Brown