A Season of Gratitude
“Every day, for the next 100 days, you will write a letter of gratitude to some thing or some one different. You are not allowed to repeat any person or object. Do this, and you will feel begin to feel grateful. I know this will help. There is a lot of research on gratitude lists.”
My friend shrugged his shoulders as he recounted his therapist’s instructions from just days prior. He admitted feeling burdened by this task, and his body language reflected that understanding back to me. Nevertheless, he muscled his mouth into a smile, and we continued conversing. However, I could not help but notice how his seemingly relaxed posture better represented a high school student carrying too heavy a backpack—filled with well-intentioned information but the circumstances not inspiring any joy in the learning of it.
November is the month of Thanksgiving, and it is customary in our culture to both eat turkey and express gratitude for that turkey and everything else. But what if we are not on board with all of the customs of the season? What if Thanksgiving get-togethers are painful reminders of past traumas or present hurts? What if we feel weighed down by the expectation that we “should” feel a certain way? What if we even feel weighed down like my friend by well-meaning help? How could anyone feel grateful then?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and no set solutions. Just like a Thanksgiving recipe, the best recipes are often made from scratch. Consider adding some of the following ingredients to yours:
1). ELIMINATE THE SHOULD STATEMENTS---“I should feel grateful”; We all recognize how harsh this sounds when we replace “I” with “You”; so, why would you treat yourself with any less kindness than you treat others? In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), “should statements” are examples of distortions in our thinking1. And when we allow these statements (alongside “have to”; “must”; “need to”) to tell us how to feel, we end up with distorted guilt, shame, and/or anxiety—never gratitude.
2). SET BOUNDARIES WITH YOURSELF—The word “gratitude” derives from the Latin word gratus meaning “agreeable” or “pleasing.”2 Avoid the people-pleasing aspect here. Check in with yourself and try to determine which of your frequent thoughts, words, and behaviors are really in line with your own values. This has echoes in a type of therapy known as Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). This type of values-based commitment to yourself is associated with real gratitude3—and you would be the one giving yourself the gift!
3). YOU ARE NOT ALONE—Consider that if you are still reading this blog post, then you probably have some experience with the issues raised here! Remember that you share your pains and disappointments (and ingratitude) with countless others reading this—even if you never know their names. And there is room for gratitude in that.
This November, give yourself the space and flexibility to step outside of the pre-determined holidays and lifeless lists. Gratitude is, in fact, an attitude and it is one that we know by the buoyancy and lightness it invites into our lives.
1). Burns, D. D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook: The Groundbreaking Program with Powerful New Techniques and Step-by-Step Exercises to Overcome Depression, Conquer Anxiety, and Enjoy Greater Intimacy. Penguin.
2). Romero, L. (2017, November 22). Gratitude: The Ultimate Spiritual Practice (A Thanksgiving Special). https://www.forbes.com/sites/luisromero/2017/11/22/gratitude-the-ultimate-spiritual-practice-a-thanksgiving-special/?sh=9689a1627066.
3). Frinking, E., Jans-Beken, L., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Lataster, J., Jacobs, N., & Reijnders, J. (2020). Gratitude and loneliness in adults over 40 years: examining the role of psychological flexibility and engaged living. Aging & mental health, 24(12), 2117-2124.