Acceptance of What is vs. Changing What You Don’t Like.

Ever learned how to surf? Surfers will tell you it’s about being patient and accepting the ocean just as she is. You have to be present to the moment if you are to be ready. To ride the next wave as it changes energy and crashes to the shore you have to be open to accept what it is, as it is. Today we are looking at how to use self regulation to bring acceptance to the moment you are in, not the one you wish was happening.

Many people I see in my office are able to regulate themselves when things are going good. When things get challenging however … many struggle to maintain practices that keep them focused on what is working. 

Many ask me how they are supposed to maintain hope when things are hard. It is a tricky dance between acceptance of what is and awareness of what is not wanted. Holding this paradigm in balance can help make sure you are focused on what is working and what needs to be changed. This can be a tough balance to find and relies on maintaining enough self regulation to help yourself be present to what is, just as it is.  

An easy way to remember how to care for yourself is the acronym HALT. Are you:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

If you are any of these things you will be more irritable and struggle more relationships and completing daily activities. As you work on taking care of yourself, making sure these areas are covered goes a long way toward helping you handle difficult situations with grace. 

Let’s break down each of the letters into actionable steps. It is here that you have power and control. You may not be able to change the situation you are in, however you can change how you are orienting to it and how you show up. Thus helping yourself accept what is, just as it is.

H – Are you hungry? Then eat. A nice balance of good fats, protein, and carbohydrate goes a long way to help you regulate your emotional experience. In its basic form, this is about taking care of physical needs, however, it can be about much more. If you have enough to eat but still feel hungry, what are you hungry for? What are you feeding yourself? Is it nutritious? Does it fill you? Think about not only the food you eat but the media, music, social experiences, physical spaces you find yourself in. Are they nourishing or do they feel depleted and bland? Take care to feed all of your senses well. Without nourishing intake you will feel empty and life will lose its sweetness. When those things happen we begin eating for reasons other than physical hunger. 

A – How are you with your anger? Many of us were taught that anger is bad or violent. That is not true. Anger is only violent when you act out violently to discharge it. It is only “bad” when the results of your actions have created further complications (guilt and shame) to deal with. When we are suppressing anger it leads to all sorts of issues. 

Anger revs up our inflammation system, thus we feel more body aches, joint pain, have concentration issues, memory problems, and heart stress. It wrecks havoc on many of our tissues because all that extra inflammation has no where to go. It cycles through the body looking for an outlet only to circle through the system again and again. 

Emotionally suppressed anger often leads the despair that underlies depression. When you feel so trapped to influence anything well, the world looks pretty hopeless. I often coach people to feel their anger in little bits. This keeps it manageable,. As noted above may of us have seen and experienced negative outbursts of anger. Anger doesn’t have to be explosive, but it does need to move out. Anger’s job is to help you notice something unjust or when a boundary has been crossed. It is a catalystic emotion, one that makes change happen. It wants something done and feels better once expressed. It is in the expression mistakes of acting out are made in ways we are not proud of.  

Learning how to gather the information and then make decisions based on the most effective expression of those emotions is called emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is something we all learn. Emotions are just here to give us information. Once we get the information and respond to them, rather than impulsively react, they dissipate. 

L – Feeling lonely, even in a crowd. There is a great quote on the poster “How to Build a Community” it says, “no one is silent, though many are not heard”.  Often we feel like no one is listening to us even when they ask for our thoughts. Many of us do not have someone in our lives who can deeply hear us, beyond our words and actions, but really hear what underlies our experiences. Sometimes we can’t even hear ourselves at this level. 

Again on a basic level, if you are feeling lonely reach out to your support system. Get around people where you can smile and feel at least a little connected. Notice how you keep yourself disconnected when you are in a crowd. Do you go to the coffee shop and make no eye contact, wear your headphones, and make sure you are nowhere near another body? You might want to take off your headphones and try to make some eye contact, you can decide how close to stand in line, but paying attention to natural connections in our surroundings is a way to begin to reconnect the world. If you are feeling lonely in a crowd it may be time to start doing therapy to experience the sensations of being deeply heard or to learn skills to be more effective in your communication patterns

T – Tired. This could be truly physical, you didn’t sleep well last night or it could be deeper and more extreme like I am tired in my being. If you are feeling physically tired, work to get better quality sleep by practicing sleep hygiene. If you are feeling tired in your being you might want to look at the emotional load you are carrying. Many of us are unaware of our deep sadness, anger, or fear, it has always been there. It may be something that was handed to us by our families and so we know it well. 

Or it might be that life has been hard and you are weary of the burdens related to living or losing. In this case, relieving the fatigue is about taking a life inventory and beginning to get rid of that which no longer serves you, grieve what you have lost, and work to build positive experiences into your day no matter how small. Again, this may require the help of a professional and someone who can really support you through your process. 

As you work to help yourself navigate changes in your life with grace, remember it is acceptance of what is that makes all the difference. It does not mean you have to like it, want it, or agree with it … but you do have to accept it is what you are dealing with if you want to shift. 

By taking care of these 4 areas you are already moving toward being able to move through change with less disruption and strife. 

Want to feel more regulated and in control of yourself? Remember: HALT

  • Hungry – feed yourself well. This included nutritious foods as well as everything you consume – media, social experiences, music, art, nature, anything you let into your body.
  • Angry – feel your feelings, notice what boundary needs to be set and take action in a productive way. Work to let it out a little at a time if it feels too big to do at once. Be patient with yourself. This can be difficult. 
  • Lonely – reach out to a member of your support crew. Notice how you keep yourself separate and defend against connecting. Work to engage with your environment and others with more ease. 
  • Tired – get some rest. Even a small break, short walk, or simple breathing exercise will help shift your mood. Get some sunshine. Sunshine is known to help raise energy levels. If you are feeling the heavy burdens of living life, get some support and help to determine what you can let go of and what to keep. Then learn new skills to cope with in more healthy ways that leave you feeling energetic not depleted.  

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Social Distancing While Parenting and Being a Social Worker

How many of us are feeling the effects of trying to balance our lives while social distancing? In this post a good friend of mine outlines her experience parenting, while working from home, while worrying about the effects of the global pandemic on her children. I think many of us can relate on all sorts of levels – parents or not.

Guest Post By: Megan Murphy, LCSW

I begin writing some scattered thoughts after the third night of tossing and turning and waking up with a sore jaw and neck, from all of the things my brain must be trying to work out at night.  I notice that mornings, I tend to feel strong and hopeful.  I am noticing that afternoons are really hard, and my mind truly wishes it could download or shut down, sleep or reset.

I am familiar with anxiety and depression.  I have dealt with these emotions at many different times in my life, and overall, I have been able to overcome them, or at least survive, cope with, and accept them in my life. 

This has been a very confusing time for my mind, like it is, for so many others.  My career as a Social Worker, who works with many vulnerable populations, including the severely and persistently mentally ill, has given me more strength and hope than I could ever explain in words.  I have seen people survive and thrive in circumstances, I am quite sure I would never survive.  I’ve seen the communities of the homeless, helping one another, and caring for one another.  I’ve seen families doing their best to support their own, with limited resources, sometimes limited intellectual capacities, and very often, with judgment from the outside world.  My career has taught me so much about resilience.  I am so grateful for these clients and to so many people I have worked with along the way, who put their hearts, souls, and brains into this work.  I have no doubt that the clients I work with, have taught me so much more than I could ever teach them.  I THANK them to no end!

It has been heartbreaking not to be able to support these people face to face, to help get them the resources that they need now more than ever.  However, I am grateful for a job that knows that keeping all of us (clients included) healthy in the short term, will only help, not hurt our mission, to help them in the long term.  Or, as a wise man (thanks Dad) told me, “sometimes you have to stay in the fight, to win the fight”. 

Parenting has been a whole different level of anxiety, acceptance, and resilience during this time.  I have two sons, ages 14 and 9.  We are beginning to work on schooling from home.  I have so many worries about this time in life for them.  For my 14-year-old, I worry about this time in his life.  He is supposed to be working on independence, separating himself from his parents and working on finding himself.  Peers are also such a huge part of learning and growing at his age.  It’s so hard to tell him that we don’t have answers about when life may be “normal” again.  It is so hard to say “no” to so many requests.  I am so proud of him.  I can tell he is frustrated and worried.  It always seems that right when it’s needed, he invites his brother into his room to play games with him.  He is an amazing human being.  I worry about my skills to work and teach him from home, while also paying attention to emotional needs.  

For my 9-year-old, I worry about his enthusiastic, open view of the world and an absolute need to connect, move, and be excited about life!  Lately, he has denied every request to go outside on a walk.  At first, I didn’t think much of it, but then I noticed he is anxious about it.  “Is it safe”, “what if I see a friend on a walk”, “Can we talk to each other”, “am I sick”, “are you sick”, “will we all get sick”.  “Are we safe”.  While my husband and I do our best to reassure him, we don’t have the answers.  He seems to feel best when saying, “family first, right mom”?  

While these things worry me, I am reminded of how much gratitude I have.  I do not have to parent without a partner.  We are able to do this as a team and take turns when the other is feeling overwhelmed.  So many do not have this and they are HEROES!  Sometimes, I get frustrated with my own anxieties and worries because I am SO aware of the hard times others have and are experiencing.  My life has been so easy overall.  I have never needed for a thing, and have always had an abundance of love in my life.  I feel guilty and ashamed sometimes that I have so much fear. 

I have parents who give me strength.  My father, a Vietnam marine, has this way of saying just the right things, to keep me focused and strong, during hard times.  My mom, an independent woman, who has been a caretaker of many kinds, keeps me sane with love and constant communication and ideas of ways to keep myself busy.  My brothers are both amazing and show me love and support, and I hope I do the same for them.

I have an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, who check-in, send me love, and inspire me.  

I have friends that keep me grounded, strong, and grateful.  Each of them gives me something so special and unique and I cannot imagine life, or this crisis, without them.  We send each other videos, love, and ideas.  Let me tell you, these are amazing women!

The lack of answers is what continues to be the hardest.  I told my friend Jamie the other day, that while I am so aware that I am not alone, I “feel” alone.  She said, “yes, we are trying to accept and process something we have no answers to, and only fear.  We feel alone because we are not allowed to be around others”.  That felt so validating.  

So, for the moment, I plan to give myself grace.  I plan to accept that some moments I will feel strong, and others I may not.  I will do my best to show up for my family, friends, children, husband, and clients, with love, and understanding, that they too, will have good moments and not so good moments.

Upcoming Programs:

How Not To Take Things Personally. Your Guide To Managing Your Emotions.

Understanding and owning your emotional experience is key to staying grounded in a variety of relationship patterns. From getting swept away with actions that may not be best for you to getting in fights and prematurely (or waiting too long) to end relationships, understanding impact and influence versus handing over your emotional power is key. Many of us avoid feeling our vulnerability in relationships by blaming the other person for “making me feel this way” instead of taking our power back and recognizing our control in our responses. The fears of being hurt and the feelings of vulnerability associated with disempowerment are scary. It is natural to work on avoiding them. However, if you can take ownership of your emotional responsibility and own your role in your feelings you do not have to fear hurt and vulnerability.

I meet with a lot of people who feel that it is someone else’s responsibility to make them happy. They are easily knocked off course when negative things happen because they have put their emotional experience in another’s hands. They often feel out of control and play games in relationships – “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me” kind of mentalities. Getting hurt is a matter of life. We love people and they leave us. We want something and we do not get it. We work really hard and we still fail. We want to feel good enough, but we don’t. In each of these situations, acceptance is the key to navigating the difficult emotions. By accepting what is in this moment just as it is we have an opportunity to objectively examine what is happening. From this place, we can determine what worked, what did not and where we can learn more about what to do next for a better chance at success. 

Understanding Impact and Influence

We are not responsible for another’s feelings. This means I cannot make you mad, happy or sad. And you cannot make me mad, happy or sad. We cannot “make someone feel something”. They are 100% responsible for their feelings and actions. I am completely in control of my emotional experiences and you are in control of yours. Many want to feel the good sensations that come from “making someone happy” and work to avoid feelings of “I made you sad”. In reality, you did neither. You cannot make someone happy or sad because you cannot control how they are internally reacting to your actions. I have no control over how you experience what I say. I might be able to influence you but I cannot control you. Your experience of what I do gets filtered through your past experiences and is based on how you are feeling at a particular moment. I cannot control if you are hungry, annoyed with something else or overwhelmed by another situation. Therefore I cannot control how you will receive my actions (actions include statements, behaviors, and even emotions). As a result, I cannot control how you will react to me.   

In our relationships, we often “take things personally” when the other person does something that impacts us. As I am impacted I have a reaction. I may feel sad, hurt or angry. This response may be based on similar past experiences. My reaction to another’s action(s) may be based on an expectation I had about the situation. When I am impacted it is hard to remember that what they do is about who they are, not about me. How they speak to me, the words they use, the actions they do are all about how they orient to the world. I am only responsible for how I orient to the world and how I react. I am in control of my emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

What other people do and say reflects the experiences of the other person. However, we tend to interpret what they do as a reflection of us. This misguided interpretation leaves us dealing with our own core wounds and struggles. We feel unsafe, unheard, negated, less than, etc rather than full in our experience of being. As a result of the negative impact, we are experiencing we respond as though what is happening is happening to us rather than just impacting us at the moment. We control our response to everything that impacts us and do not have to be knocked off a positive track just because we were negatively impacted by someone else’s behaviors. 

What to focus on so you don’t take people’s actions personally

To help ourselves maintain focus on our goals we need to be able to recognize what is happening. When we slow down and recognize that their actions are about them we can take control of our reaction. We recognize we can feel our full selves just because we exist. We no longer need anyone else to tell us otherwise. We can embrace our full experience and decide how to deal with it – especially when we do not like it. 

In order to do this well, we have to be willing to take responsibility for our own experience and our own actions. You have to decide how you want to be in the world. What are your goals for your experiences, expectations for yourself and what do you want to accomplish? We have to look at how we speak to others, the word choices we use, the body language we project, and the actions we do or do not do. We have to take ownership of how we have hurt others. We have to notice when we are triggered back to early wounds and experiences that hurt us so we do not perpetuate the hurt. And we have to take responsibility for our own healing. This is hard work. Many people want to say – “there is nothing wrong with me, it’s so and so’s fault. I am fine and good and right”. This way we protect ourselves from our own experiences of feeling less than. 

Healing

If we can take responsibility for our own experiences we can determine how to heal them. We can take our power back and find ourselves strong in our sense of worth. We can embrace being good enough, smart enough, wanted, needed, etc. We can own our individual gifts while allowing others to own theirs. We do not need to tear them down so we feel big anymore. We can allow them to be who they are, doing what they do without getting caught in our own story, old hurts and core wounds. We can choose to set boundaries, choose to engage with them or not. We can decide how we want to react and who we want to be without worry about what anyone else is doing. 

Easier said than done, I know. One way to make sure you are moving in a positive direction is by helping yourself focus on what you can do. Find a daily routine that helps you feel grounded. Maybe it is a morning meditation, reading, and reflection or movement plan. Your job is to focus on what you want, your goals for your future, and what helps keep you moving toward them. It might be building new behaviors or letting go of old ones. Sometimes actions needed will be clear and other times it will not be clear. Sometimes this will be small and sometimes it will be big changes in your life. 

Your job is to stop and pay attention to you. What do you need in this moment? What do you need to do right now – not what you want the other person to do, or say or be. What would help you take care of you? Put your attention where you want it to go … on creating the life you want to live. 

Ready to Make a Change?

And as always, if you are struggling you can schedule a 15 min Q&A appointment to see if it’s time to give yourself the gift of therapy. When else can you talk about yourself for an hour with someone trained to deeply listen to your core, not just the story you tell yourself. 

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How to Handle Holiday Let Down

Holidays are full of positives and negatives for most of us. We might enjoy the excitement, schedule changes, time with family or not, but when they are over many of us feel a let down in one way or another. We might be depleted and tired, pocketbooks less full, or we might be feeling down and sad because our holiday season is full of loss, grief, past hurts, trauma, and disappointments. If you are someone who feels mood shifts during the holiday season, read on for reasons why and what to do about the holiday let down.

For many of us, coming off a holiday weekend can be tough. Maybe things went really well and we enjoyed family, maybe we hosted the best gathering yet, or maybe we finally figured out what to enjoy and ignored all the annoying parts of being together

It is also possible that it did not go well for us. Many of us struggle to engage with family and friends in positive ways. We continue to revisit past issues and get stuck in old patterns of behaving and thinking. Ever ended a weekend with your family only to wonder why you feel like you are 10 again? 

For some, family hurts and trauma are so great that being together is one big trigger or family gathering is no longer an option. For some of us, the fun happy memories of childhood shadow the reality of our adulthood and we keep looking for ways to go back to the “good old days”. 

No matter which camp you are in, the ending of a holiday usually leaves us feeling tired, sad, and a bit flat. Here are some reasons for those feelings and what to do about them. 

The Gatherings That Went Well

Let’s start with the gatherings that went well. If this was your experience and you enjoyed your family and friends over the holiday, it is possible that you are feeling a bit sad to be going back to your routines. It can be hard letting go of closeness and shared experiences like cooking, eating together, or playing games with each other. Maybe you have fun traditions and foods that you enjoy, they help you feel like you belong to a group and add excitement to your regular activities. 

It can be really hard to leave our family home or groups of people we enjoy and want to be with more. Especially if you have to travel, you may be feeling loss at leaving to go back to your house. It does not have to be a far commute to create sadness and sense of loss. There is often so much excitement looking forward to the holiday, time off, and living outside routine, it can be a let down when it ends. After the fun of the holiday, when you are looking forward to the mundane and regular routines of life, you may be feeling less than enthused about heading back into your world. 

You might also be feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. For many of us, we enjoy the excitement of the holiday and we work hard to make it happen. We spend weeks planning the food, prepping the food, the day of making it, serving it, and cleaning up after the meal is done. We spend countless hours decorating, getting the right presentation, and shopping for supplies. During this time, we are running from work to the store and back home to put it all together, often with quite a few repetitions of this trip. 

Add in any traveling and other holiday shopping and you might be a bit overstimulated in the days following the holiday. Although it is all fun, just extra trips to stores where things are crafted to engage all your senses and market to your emotions, where there are more people out making the store more crowded, energy higher, parking lots more full, and aisles harder to get through it can wear you out without even realizing it. The sights, smells, sounds, extra people to navigate and talk to, parking and walking more, and hauling supplies in, out the dishes, linens, roasting pans, etc. becomes quite a bit of work. Add in the overindulgence(s) and your body may be feeling really tired right now. 

What can help

To help yourself it is time to rest. You may need a few days of clean eating, get back on your workout path, meditation, and normal sleep timing. You might need a few days to detox from any substances you may have partaken in. Give your body a break by drinking good water, resting, and making sure your diet is supportive of your health rather than adding more it has to cleanse through.

Honor your sad feelings, loneliness, and sense of loss. Grief and loss help us recognize what is important in our lives and give focus toward what we need to pay attention to. 

As you recognize what you are missing, how can you speak to, tell the person, and gather more of that thing into your life on a regular basis? What can you do to make it something you have more contact with? It can be something simple like making a commitment to call more often or learn how to FaceTime.  If part of your grief is about the loss of easy mornings and your regular routine is difficult, how can you shift your daily habits to create more ease in everyday mornings? It can be about re-evaluating your life and how you spend your time. You might find that you want to give up some commitments to have more time with family and friends. 

As you work to honor the sense of ending you have an opportunity to shift your life focus to enjoy more of the things that matter to you every day.

The So – So Gathering

Now let’s talk about family and friends we like (or not), but do not engage with much. When we get together with them, it feels like work. We might find that we dread making the trip to visit or we fear that we will run out of endurance to stay in connection with them because they are difficult to be around, say things that violate our values, or their behaviors remind us what we have grown away from … for a reason. 

When I work with individuals stuck in this group, they often feel so violated by a parent’s off-color joke or put down by a comment their sibling always makes. Yet it happens. By the time they get to the actual event they are already tired because they know it is going to happen. Read on, next time you connect with this crew you will be able to let go a little more and relax into the event rather than brace for it. 

As this group ends the holiday they often feel put down, despair, and a lack of belonging – like who are these people and how did they birth me? At the same time, they are not ready to cut all ties and walk away from their culture of origin. This leads to some confusing and conflicting emotions and ideas. 

What can help

It is important to work on acceptance. Full-on 100% acceptance of your family and friends even when they annoy you or say uncomfortable things. With full acceptance, it does not mean you have to like it, want it, approve of it, or agree with it. All it means is you can clearly see them for who they are right now, in this moment without judgment of what you would rather see. 

As you work on accepting them, you begin accepting yourself too. You will be able to reconcile the gaps in feeling secure in some of your old culture while also rejecting the parts that no longer work for you. You will not feel such a sense of “needing to get them to agree” with your worldview now. You can let them be them, set boundaries and call out hurtful things effectively ways while recognizing you do not have to fight every battle. You will be able to be selective to make shifts while using the strength of the relationship to make it successful.

Another key piece to participating in systems like this is to make sure you manage your time well. For some, they feel so suffocated by family and friends which impacts the enjoyment they have with them when they do see them. The more they feel suffocated, the more aloof they appear to said family, and the more the family and friends vie for time and energy, thus creating a tighter circle of suffocation. 

If your views and values no longer match your family’s, work on accepting them as they are. This is the way they have always been. Say a silent gratitude for their work raising you and showing you want you no longer want in your life. Then allow yourself to take breaks from them. Maybe you need to offer to make a dish or bring a side you know will be healthy for you, maybe you need to bring a good book and take time to read it instead of staying planted in front of the TV that’s constantly on. Maybe you make a trip to the coffee shop, grocery store, or build in walks so you get some downtime. 

It is important to stay true to activities that keep you balanced. Work on fitting in your workouts, look up classes and locations ahead of your trip, pack your rubber tubbing or yoga mat, and commit to making your movement practices happen while you are outside your regular routine. Stick as close to your sleep schedule and eat as clean as you can, while allowing yourself an opportunity to participate in late-night games, togetherness, and activities. Eat the foods you love, even if you wouldn’t make them for yourself. Remember the 80/20 rule to help you stay on track while being present to the festivities. Stick to your goals despite how differently your family and friends may be living while also honoring that they are different and do not need to approve of your lifestyle now. 

It is also helpful to remember, you do not spend lots of time with these people and you are not going to change their mind during one trip. You do not have to work hard to make them see your way of life. Learn some statements you can make that help you set a gentle boundary while honoring your personal values, and let it go. Accept them as they are, and allow them to be who they are. This gives you space to be who you are. 

Hard or Non-Existent Gatherings

Finally, let’s talk about family systems you are no longer participating in. For some, this means that their family is not available. Maybe it is through death or distance, maybe disease or illness, maybe financial patterns or living spaces have shifted and there is no way to go back to what was. 

What can help

With these situations there is a lot of loss during the holiday season. For many, this creates great sadness, loneliness, and even anger at this time of year. It is important to honor what was, while keeping an eye on what is. Just like noted above, you do not have to like it or want it, but it is what has happened and things have changed. By honoring the changes you have a better chance of enjoying what you can. Again, by accepting what is, you have an opportunity to re-create a sense of what you are missing while allowing for the changes that have already been done. In this recreating you are not working to have an exact replica of the past, in fact that will keep you stuck, it is more about saying “this part was good” and looking for ways to make it new for you and those you are spending time with now. 

It is also important to spend time working on your own healing. For some of us, the activities and experiences we had during the holiday times were traumatic, scary, overwhelming, depressing, or disappointing. If you are stuck revisiting old traumas and hurts it is time to get some help. These experiences get stuck in your nervous system and create what we call “loops” in the therapy world. Without help clearing these loops you will get sucked back into old thoughts, behaviors, and emotional states because the body and brain and not clear on accurate timing. They are trying to keep you from experiencing those things again, but have not recognized the distance you have from those past events. It keeps looping as though it is happening or going to happen again, right now. To heal them we must reset the nervous system and give space between your past and your present. Seek a qualified trauma therapist to help you get your work done.

It does not matter which end of the spectrum your holiday gathering was on – amazing or awful, as we end a holiday gathering session we all feel a sense of loss in some way or another. It is important to honor your feelings and allow yourself space to grieve, reflect, and grow from those experiences. 

Why Gratitude Lists Can Be Hard and What to Do About It

As we spend the day of thanksgiving in the United States many people are talking about gratitude. Gratitude is a big buzz these days with people touting the benefits of gratitude lists and journals all over the place. Gratitude has been touted to heal all sorts of things from the psychological to the physical and is advertised as the skill you must have if you are going to be successful. However, there are many people who struggle to complete this task or who feel worse after attempting to craft a gratitude list for the day. Here is why gratitude practices might be hard for you and what to do about it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Photographer: Isabella Rose 444’s portfolio

Are you someone who balks at the idea of doing a gratitude practice? Does it make you angry, or sad, or afraid to count your blessings or receive help from others? Then read on, many of us struggle to enjoy the good things in life and feel grateful for them. There may be some valid reasons for your dislike of gratitude and all the hype around it. Here are 4 things that may be getting in your way and some things you can do to help yourself begin to move past them. This way you can heal your past and embrace your future while paying attention to what is working in your life.

When I Don’t Deserve Good Things

For those of us who grew up in households where our needs were not met it can be hard to believe that we deserve good things. We may struggle to put ourselves in situations where we have good things happening to us or cannot recognize when good things are happening to us. We may not trust the motives of the person giving us something (a compliment, time, attention, money, food, or other form of nurturing), or we might feel uncomfortable or even threatened by gestures of goodwill from others. 

When Good Things Were Conditional

In order to feel grateful one must be able to recognize the good things happening around them or how someone is helping to care for them in one way or another. When a person has grown up in a household where people did not care for each other or that care was conditional it can be difficult to accept helpful people now. 

According to Algoe and Way (2014) there is a genetic and environmental driver for feeling good about giving and receiving gratitudes. In a study involving 128 adults the researchers explored how expressing gratitude to their long term partner impacted sense of relationship satisfaction and sense of loving. They took saliva samples for genotyping to determine if those who were better at expressing gratitude and felt more bonded to their partner and had a particular gene expression related to higher levels of oxytocin secretion (CD38). Oxytocin is the hormone known as the love hormone or the one that socially bonds us. They hypothesized that couples who expressed more gratitude to and for each other would have stronger social bonds and the would be evident through their genetic make up. They found significant results to help explain how gratitude works in the human relationship, “Regardless, in so far as CD38 gene expression affects oxytocin signaling, our results implicate the oxytocin system in the psychological reactions to expressions of gratitude which serve to reward the person for remaining in the relationship”, (p.1860). 

If a person grew up in a home where family members where not expressing gratitude toward each other, had low levels of perceived positive relationships interactions, or felt threatened (relationally or physically) it is possible that the expression of this system was not operating well or at all. As a result of lack of experience around receiving and feeling grateful, one may have a hard time understanding or experiencing it now. 

It can also feel threatening. The person may feel the gesture of goodwill means they will owe something to the other or that the other is trying to get something from them. This can lead to hyper-vigilance in the nervous system. This sense of hyper arousal means threat is near and the body is in overdrive trying to place the source of danger. This makes it hard to recognize the good in what is being presented, causes physical health damage, and hijacks the attention and connection trying to be made. 

When Life is Really Really Hard 

For some, they look around their lives and see a big pile of shit. Everywhere. Sometimes our lives are really really hard. We look around and find ourselves in tough spots everywhere. Although many would say there is something positive to find, and I believe this to be true, it can be very very hard to find that silver lining. 

For many years I have run therapy groups. In these groups we always make people note one positive thing that happened to them since our last meeting. Over the years I have watched people struggle to find those pieces of positive. It can be very hard to find the sliver of good when so much in life is going wrong. I will say that over time, those participants did report being made to find something positive helped “train the brain” to look for the good and it did help change perspective (time and again) in those difficult lives. 

This change of perspective helped create hope and offer light at the end of some very dark tunnels. However, in the beginning, it was really hard, and being told to find 3 things every day to be grateful felt like an overwhelming task that set them up for failure. 

When good things got taken away

Are you someone who fears the good things, because to have something good means it can be taken away? Did you grow up around people who enjoyed stealing the joy from you? Or would put down your dreams, excitement, or continually remind you bad things were just around the corner, no matter how good things were going in the moment?

These negative folks can leave a mark. We get used to looking for the other shoe to drop and stop getting excited about the good things surrounding us, no matter how small. We do not want to experience the pain of losing the good. This attachment to wanting to feel good, not wanting to feel or deal with disappointment, and fear of the unknown catches us in a cycle of negative thought patterns. In turn, we start looking at the world with a cynical and critical eye.

Sounding Familiar?

If you are in any of the above camps working on a gratitude practice can be painful. It can stir up all sorts of feelings about past trauma, fear, and loss. It can feel like we are being complacent in approving of “bad things” or “ignoring what is not working”. We can feel like an accomplice to bad things in the world or feel like we are not being honest about what is not working.

Here’s What You Can Do

First, recognize that you do deserve good things. No matter what you have done in your past or what you are doing in your current life, you deserve good things. Then recognize that gratitude is called a practice for a reason. We have to train ourselves to locate and notice the positive things going on around us. We are biologically wired to find the things that will harm or hurt so we continue to survive as a species. It can be hard to find the positives when you are being bombarded by the negatives. It can help to remember that we are not ignoring the bad stuff, just shifting our attention toward the positives that are also present in the moment, no matter how small.

This does not mean you do not have attend to the negative consequences for your poor behavior or blatant disregard/respect for others, societal laws, or your commitments. In order for society to work, we must work on participating in pro-social behaviors and helping one another. The level you choose to engage in these things is up to you, however the more anti-social your behaviors or the more disregard and disrespect you carry with you the less positive interactions you will have and the more fearful you will feel over time. 

This may lead to mood or anxiety disorders or could lead to violent situations. If you feel like you are so bad that you do not deserve good things (or that someone else is so bad they do not deserve good things) you are setting yourself up for a life of feeling judged and judging. This leads to misery in the end and a lack of focus and attention on what you want to accomplish and creating the life you love. Instead of focusing more on what you want, you end up with a life full of other people’s expectations and rules and focusing on what they are not doing that meets your value structure. 

Second, work on understanding conditions and let go of expectations. Many of us grew up in conditional households and are always carrying around the burden of tit for tat score keeping. 

Begin to see your life as something you engage in because you want to, not because you will get something out of it. Work on doing things because you feel good about doing them, not because someone else wants you to do something. 

Many things in life are trade-offs however if you are always feeling like others are only doing something for you because they want something from you, or you are only doing nice things for others because you want something from them, it will lead to a less than fulfilling life. The Dali Lama says that doing good things for others is about making ourselves happy. 

Fox, Kaplan, Damasio, and Damasio (2015) hypothesized that receiving help from others and feeling gratitude for it would be experienced through circuitry in our brains related to moral cognition, value judgement, and theory of mind explaining how humans interact with the good will of others. To explore this hypothesis they placed twenty-six participants in a functional magnetic resonance machine and watched how their brains responded to imagined experiences of receiving help from others and feeling grateful for that help. They found that the circuits related to moral cognition and positive emotion were involved in considering the feeling of being grateful for help from another.

When we do things that uplift others we get a boost of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin (the feel good chemicals in our bodies). When we smile at others we get the feel good chemicals and so do they – even if they do not smile back. In an essay discussing the neurological underpinnings to why we participate in prosocial behavior, Zak and Barraza (2013) outline a “neurologically-informed mathematical model of collective action that reveals the role for empathy and distress in motivating costly helping behaviors” (p. 1). By recognizing that we are getting something good out of doing good for others, we do not have to worry about what we will get out of it from them. They are going to do what they are going to do, and we cannot control those reactions. What we can control is what we do, why we do it, and how we feel after our action. We control our reactions. 

Do good things because they make you feel good and you’ll stop second guessing others’ motives. Even if they are conditional, you will stop feeling the need to engage in the tit for tat score keeping. Maybe you respond with something nice for them, but it will be because you want to. If you do not want to, you will not feel the need to complete the task they are trying to push upon you. This may mean that you look for the positive reason you may want to complete it – like making dinner for my household. I may not want to in the moment, but in the overall picture it is important for me to feed my family healthy food and have a set time to be together in the evening. Making the dinner makes the larger goal happen, plus recognizing the larger picture helps me orient toward what is good about the task I do not like and get it done. If those positive aspects are not there, it is a good reason to stop and reevaluate why I might be engaged in the activity. 

Finally, when you are going through hard things in life it can feel like there is no way out and nothing will get better. Remember that things always change. You may not feel like you have a lot of choices in your life so look for the small ones you do have. A shift in perspective is a big deal and can make all the difference when things around falling apart around you. What you find does not have to be big or profound, it can be simple and small, but it will make a difference to shift your attention from what is not working to what is working. 

In addition, it is important to understand that acceptance of what is happening in your life right now does not mean you like it, approve of it, want it – it just means it is happening. When you can accept what is truly going on in your life right now in its full honesty and truth, you can start to find solutions to your problems. Without acceptance it is very hard to change the negative thought patterns circling round and round in your brain. 

If you are struggling with any of the above and feel like you cannot find the good items located in your life, it is time to seek help. If you are struggling with a situation, such as living in a violent or traumatic environment, dealing with great loss, addiction, or were never taught how to shift your perspective, it is time to seek help. 

Seek out a qualified psychotherapist who can help you gain insight and reflect on your experiences. In the end you never have to complete a gratitude journal or nightly list. Those may be exercises that do not work for you, or you may find that getting creative and making it your own (drawing, dancing, photography, lexicons, art, etc) is more important to help you find your voice, stay on your personal path, and enjoy your life as it is in this moment. 

References:

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 1855-1861.  https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst182 

Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1491),1-11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491 

Zak, P. J., & Barraza, J. A. (2013). The neurobiology of collective action. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7(211), p. 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00211