I remember sitting on the couch in my therapist’s office, my simple, lined journal open in my lap with the attached ribbon bookmark perfectly placed like the good patient I was.
Each week was like this: I would write down things I wanted to discuss throughout the week, and we would approach each topic as if it were an item on a grocery list.
Problem with one of the children? Aisle 4.
Argument with my spouse? Aisle 6.
It was practical, helpful, and mostly pleasant.
Until one day, when it wasn’t.
Until one day when my well-meaning therapist gave me an assignment to start keeping a gratitude journal. And as soon as the words came out of her mouth, an inexplicable feeling of rage bubbled up inside me.
I could feel it in the pit of my stomach, the weight on my chest, the tears that stung my eyes and threatened to spill over onto my cheeks. What in the world is the matter with me? Why would a simple thing such as a gratitude journal—praised by many reputable sources to be the answer to happiness—cause such a reaction?
Nonetheless, like many other times in my life, I did what I was told and blamed any uncomfortable feelings about the assignment on my own selfishness. Each morning, I would force myself to think of someone who had it worse than me, or something simple I hadn’t been consciously grateful for in a while, or, if I really got desperate, the go-tos: food, water, shelter.
The result? I was not happier, as the experts claimed I would be. I was actually miserable—full of guilt and shame at all my ungratefulness.
Several years and three more children later, I came back to this practice during a particularly difficult time in my life, and again, I found myself enraged. This time, however, in the presence of a different and safer, but just as well-meaning therapist, I decided to explore with her the reason why. And after several months of revisiting this topic—not ad nauseam but just as we naturally made connections to my own experiences—I realized it was not something in me that needed to be fixed, but rather something to understand and acknowledge.
Which events in my life had led to this visceral reaction? Maybe it was being told “this is what you signed up for” and “you should be proud” during one of the many deployments I’ve endured as a military spouse. Or, maybe it was the time I suffered a miscarriage and was encouraged to consider it a blessing because the baby was obviously damaged in some way.
There are no shortage of moments to draw from, and they each resulted in a false obligation of gratitude in place of my real emotion, which was far more valid. Consequently, when I read quotes or articles that claim gratitude as the only answer to a full and happy and healthy life (I even read one article that said it will make you “seem nicer,” as if that is something people strive for), it invalidates all the rest of the wonderful and important emotions we experience.
Throughout this work on gratitude, and my emotions surrounding it, I came to three important realizations:
- I am already grateful.
The biggest reason why I find the idea of forced intentional gratitude so infuriating is that it implies that I was not grateful in the first place, and that this gratitude journal will cure me of that particular flaw.
When my son was diagnosed with a learning disability, for example, people told me to “be grateful he is healthy and it’s not more serious.” Well, I am grateful that he is healthy and it’s not more serious. But I’m also incredibly sad for his little first-grade life and worried about his future. Am I allowed to be both? Of course. Gratefulness and grief are not mutually exclusive. They are what they are and should be allowed to freely intertwine—one leading the way at times and then the other in a fluid, non-judgmental way.
- Taking things for granted does not mean I am an ungrateful person.
We all take things for granted—partly because of the simple monotony and over-familiarity of life, and partly because we do not have a fear or expectation that these things will be taken away from us anytime soon. We mindlessly drive our cars, eat our food, drink clean water, hug our children and our partners, exercise, work, and play, all without really thinking about it most days. But that does not make me, or you, an ungrateful person. It just makes us human.
What would a truly ungrateful person look like to you? To me, it looks a lot like my four-year-old: greedy, unreasonable, gluttonous, and hates sharing, as a four-year-old should be, right? (By the way, she’s also compassionate, sensitive, and funny as hell.) I’ll never forget sitting in those playgroups when my oldest daughter was a toddler, the moms all in a circle watching the children play in the center on the rug. When one child would take a toy from another child, resulting in a fit of angry tears, the mother would politely remind the toddler to share—the problem is, their brains are not physically capable of doing so. They cannot yet take the perspective of another person and therefore haven’t developed altruism, but the good news is that if we allow them to be selfish during these formative years, they do develop it naturally as young adults.
- Clearing a space for gratitude.
Ironically, I worked through this aversion to prescribed gratitude, not by focusing on gratitude itself, but rather selfishness. Instead of being grateful for every moment with my children when I was exhausted, I took a vacation from them. Instead of writing down everything I appreciated about my soul-sucking job, I quit. Instead of pushing down my resentment toward my husband when he failed to meet my expectations, I started to share them with him and it turned into an honest, ongoing discussion.
Sometimes, all we need in order to get to that authentic and organic feeling of gratitude is an opportunity to clear the space in between. Instead of a gratitude journal, perhaps we should be assigning ourselves the opposite: an anger journal, a sadness journal, an “it’s not fair” journal, because once I was given permission to express my emotions in a safe place, guess what? Gratitude crept in.