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 

Ground Hog Day in Your Life? The pain of staying the same or the pain of change? 7 Steps to master moving your life forward for the better.

Have you ever thought “I’ve been here before. This thing keeps happening to me. Why am I destined to repeat this experience”? Many people looking to change how they behave in the world experience this. It is the impetus for change. That feeling of being stuck and repetitive. The uncomfortable feeling of doing the same thing over and over hoping for different results is often what drives us to change. Ever heard the saying “the pain of staying the same, must be greater than the pain of change”? That is part of why we find ourselves in repetitive situations we do not like. We are getting ready to change. 

Everyday I deal with people who want their lives to be different, but cannot figure out necessary steps to get where they want to go. We are all like that, and we all have those experiences. Those times when we want our lives to be different and do not know how to make it happen. It can be one of the most maddening feelings – to know we need to do something different and not know what to do next. It can be hard to ask for help or even find the people we need to guide us well. Many of us do not know who to ask or how. Today take a look at your life and note if you want to change. Below outlines some common experiences and then steps for making change happen in your life. 

It can be helpful to understand why we find ourselves in the same sorts of situations over and over. It starts with our culture and our communities. We only know what we are taught and those items come from where we come from (this generation and those past). Everybody’s culture is different. I have road-tripped through most of the lower 48 and although we share the label of being from the United States of America we are so different. We might look alike, but our cultures are different. Within each family system our cultures are different. You might find the family next door does things very different from your family just a house away. Each of us is also influenced by our communities.

Each of us is also influenced by our communities:

  • Who is in our peer group?
  • What do they focus on?
  • What activities do they do?
  • What do they value?

Once we have the lenses of personal culture, it is really hard to take them off. 

Think about having colored glasses on. When you are wearing yellow lenses it is hard to see yellow things. When you wear red glasses, red items are difficult. This is what it is like to wear the lenses of your culture. You do not know what you are missing because you cannot see what your lenses cover up. It is just the way you have always done things. The way your family is, and this translates into the way the world is … even when it is not. The global leap to “this is the way everybody is, … should be, … does it” gets in our way of relating. We think we know what it is like for other people only to find out it is not the same which is hard for our personal identities. 

For example, I like peanuts. I have eaten them many ways throughout my lifetime. Being from the upper midwest I had never encountered boiled peanuts until I was taken to a boiled peanut stand in the backwoods of South Carolina. Everyone raved about how great they were going to be and I had no idea what I was in for. I had no lens to understand boiled peanuts or why you would cook them that way. I had never been exposed to boiling peanuts in the shells and then eating them as though they were a special item. I did not have a lens to understand the reasons, what to expect, or even how to find them – I never would’ve found that shack on my own, even if I did I wouldn’t know why to stop there. I had never tasted boiled peanuts before. 

This is why it is so hard to break free from repetitive situations. You have lenses that shape what you know and what you see, therefore you keep finding the same things over and over with no way of knowing what you do not know. I did not know boiled peanuts existed or what they would taste like because I had never been exposed to them before. I never thought of having boiled peanuts, therefore did not even know to look for them.

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Lets broaden this out to relationships. Ever wonder why you or someone else continues to pick partners that are similar, even when you have sworn off that type of person forever? It is because the lens you are wearing shapes the people you find. Our exposure to relationships begins with our earliest ones, our primary caregivers. The cultural lenses we were handed are the role models we saw in our first years. How they treated each other, how they treated us, ways they communicated, words they chose to express their connection, what they gave value to and what they ignored all create the foundation for our intimate relationships. We often do not know we wear these lenses, it is just “how marriages are”, “how lovers treat each other”, “what men / women are like”, etc. We speak as though it is always the same, because it is all we know. When we encounter a partner opportunity different than our personal lens we think they are weird or we do not even notice them. Their personal style of dress, hair, stature, way of communicating, interacting, or being does not match our lens so we do not see them as options for us, thus we cannot shift our picks. 

Another common area where people struggle is money and work. For many we work in similar jobs and live at a similar social-economic level as our family of origin. We may break out a bit ahead but often we stay stuck at the same levels. This is because the lenses we were shown about work, money, material comforts, location of living, etc. were handed to us by our earliest experiences. Often we are not aware of what those paradigms were or why they existed. We may remember messages about “value of hard work”, “money is the root of all evil”, “poor equals dirty/stupid/lazy/___”, “money equals love” or “nothing easy is worth anything”. We may have been present to arguments or worried conversations our caregivers had about finances and taken information in without awareness. As a result we continue to repeat the patterns with work and money we know. If we felt included in the culture we often find value in being “blue collar”, “redneck”, “high class”, or “well off”and as a result we are likely to repeat them. If we felt discomfort at the lenses we were handed as children we become determined to do it differently, often with gusto. This is the pain of staying the same and it drives us to initiate change. 

It can happen externally, like the above example, or this pain can be driven from internal strife. Take the concept of weight management. If you feel uncomfortable enough in your physical body, you will make necessary lifestyle choices to change your current predicament. You go through the process of shifting your lenses for what your weight should be – this may have come from pictures, physical health issues, family or friends who have made a change – and you find people to help you. You might check out a magazine, buy a book, hire a personal trainer, join a gym, enlist a friend, the list goes on for ways we drop our old lenses. Once we drop them we learn how big the world really is. We begin to see how much the world has to offer us in the particular area of interest. We finally begin to see the possibilities and we go after our goals. This is the pain of change. It takes time and often numerous failures before we get it right, but we are learning and expanding our lenses all the way. 

So if you are looking around your life and saying it’s like ground hog day – happening again and again and I do not like it – it is time to takes steps to make the change. Here’s how to begin:

  1. Determine what you want to be different
  2. Decide what you want it to be like – get specific in your vision of what could be, see it clearly in your head
  3. Create a goal statement & post it where you can see it everyday, multiple times a day. Make a vision board of pictures and sayings that represent your goal. Hang it where you will see it often.
  4. Break your goal into smaller chunks using SMART goals
    1. Specific
    2. Measurable
    3. Attainable
    4. Realistic 
    5. Timed (when will you complete, how long will you work at it). Change is best done in 10% increments. So just make a SMART goal on the 1st 10% change step. When we complete that we’ll make the next and then the next until you reach the big goal. 
  5. Find a helper. Enlist family, friends, trainers, therapists, coaches to help you get to the next level. Find a couple new friends who are mastering what you want to accomplish, watch videos of people succeeding like you would like to, read about them. Get exposed to what they are doing to have what you want as much as you possibly can.
  6. Decide how you will reward yourself. Is it praise, a new item, an experience? What is it you want for accomplishing your goal? Find pictures and post them where you will see them often
  7. Finally, make it social. Tell your family, friends, join a group, hire a coach, see a therapist. Get someone on your side and find support to help you stay on track. 

Can You Accept Yourself?

Can you truly accept yourself? Fully accept yourself? Just as you, today, in this moment, whatever it brings? So many of us answer a big fat Loud NO. We have all sorts of reasons we aren’t good enough and plenty of ways we could be acceptable … If we’d just ____________ (Get it together). Today lets focus on what we are doing well. 

In what area of your life are you proud of yourself? Really proud of yourself, not in service of your children, parents, employer, or anyone else. Where are you really proud of you, your actions, behaviors, commitment, follow though, etc.
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Why do you love this part of you? What’s so good about it?
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How does it make you great?
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What is a small change you can make right now, today to be a little better at this? Keep in mind sustainable change in lifestyle habits happens in small (think 10%) increments. Must be realistic within your time frame, make it specific, and measurable. This is the SMART goal principle developed by George Doran (1981). You are better off stating “I’ll eat 2 more servings of vegetables today. One at breakfast and one at dinner” rather than “I will eat more healthy today”.
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Next what are you going to do to make this change happen? Here we are looking for a change in behavior. What will you do differently?
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How was that exercise? Easy? Difficult? Were you able to find something you love about yourself? If not, I wonder why not. I may not know you and yet, I do know if you found nothing to be proud of it’s bullshit and old learning. I have seen the under belly of human experience and still find treasures there. It doesn’t have to a huge thing. We are looking for the big AND the small things. For example I was really proud of the way I used a new skill of asking questions this morning while I was talking to my husband. This mattered to me because it helped me be more effective in my communication and if I can use this skill in one more conversation today (2) and add 10% more tomorrow (2.2 conversations) soon I will be having effective communication in more than half my conversations, and then most of them before you know it. With each interaction I will feel a little more mastery (the key to building self-esteem) and pride. As I build those I begin to approve of myself more and more, leading to more and more positive change in my life. So I’ll ask you again …
What’s one thing about you, you can be proud of?
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Follow the above prompts now that you’ve found your thing. If you are still stuck … Maybe that one thing to be proud of is that you don’t give up on this exercise. ?
Know that getting stuck isn’t the problem. We all get stuck. It’s staying stuck that is. The way out of the muck is to shift your thinking. It isn’t easy if you’ve been caught In a negative rut, to turn toward the positive, drop your judgment of yourself and others, and stop listening to the negative vibes of others. Commit to yourself and work on remaining in a positive frame of thought for 10% more of your day today.
If some of these words are too strong for you right now change them to make sense for you. I challenge you to consider why not use these words?
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Does whatever holds you back from using them need to be released?
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Is it an old belief or message you can drop?
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What would happen if you did embrace words like love, great, good enough for yourself as descriptors?
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