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 

Facing Fear With Movement

So, I’ve been listening to uninhibited women leadership online conference with Ashley Burnett this week and the topic today was about fear. I found it interesting to discuss fear and struggle to know what I am truly afraid of. I spend a lot of time working with people who are afraid, I talk about it most days for multiple hours per day, and here I am not sure how to label my own. As I thought about it, I came up with a movement flow to help you get to the essence of your fear … in case you are like me and find it’s a bit of an enigma for you, slippery, and hard to fully see. You know it’s there, but you just can’t make it out clearly.

Many are afraid of living the life they could, afraid of giving up a label like being depressed, anxious, female, male, successful, a failure – you name it people are often afraid to give up an identity, even if it’s one they don’t like. That identity has protected you in groups, helped you define who you are and who you are not, and maybe guided your path for a long time. Well, what if you could step off that path and become something else. Something more in line with who you want to be today. Would you do it? Would you be able to let go? Dive into the practices that can help you become your highest self, your personal best dream – would you do them?

climbing the stairs

It’s often difficult to really know what you are afraid to give up. The bottom line is who would you be if you weren’t afraid. This question offers you the glimpse into what you might be afraid of. Here is an exercise set to help you cut through the mental chatter and just focus on what’s holding you back. Movement always helps me see more clearly and decrease the mental chatter that clouds me.

Step One:

Complete an easy warm up or use this set in the middle of your regular workout.

Step Two:

Get a Tabata Timer – this is very helpful and there are a number of free apps that will help you do this (and other interval workouts). If you don’t want to get one a simple kitchen timer can work, your watch, or phone. You need to do 20sec exercise intervals with 10sec rest intervals – 8x.

Step Three:

Start by picking your mantra. This could be a question – what am I afraid of? What’s holding me back? etc. or a statement – Fear. Let Go. – you get the picture. Find a phrase that works for you and visualize it – maybe it’s a picture, maybe a set of words, etc. You want to truly feel it deep within you.

Step Four:

Begin a jumping squat tabata. With the help of your timer, you begin your jumping squat set for 20 sec, rest 10sec, 8x. Total of 4min. Tabata’s are hard, just know that. If you have to take a break, try to keep the movement going, even if you take out the jump or begin to alternate legs, etc. You want to be completing the full movement at the end of the set.

As you complete the tabata focus on your mantra or visualization. See what arises. There is nothing to do, nothing to fix. We just want to see what remains when it gets really hard to focus. Often this is the essence of the thing we can let go of, we fear, we want to transform. Sometimes we even transform it in the tabata. I’ve seen clients start with “I am not good enough” to yelling “I’m fuckin’ rocking it” with conviction by the end of just one 4 minute round.

Step Five:

Repeat Steps 3 & 4, this time with the thing you want to gain or embrace in your life. Again, take a few moments to breathe, see your goal clearly in your head, and find the right set of word(s) to represent what it is you really want.

Then begin another tabata – any exercise will work.

I often like to superset pushups, lunges, low rows, squats, high rows, jumping lunges/split lunge, plank hold. This order will get you a full body workout in about 40 min with 2-3 min in between each tabata for meditative work and visualization preparation. Finish with whatever core/abdominal work you are focusing on and a full body stretch. If you complete all the steps you’ll have an hour worth of movement with a meditation and self-growth focus. It’s not an easy workout, but one that will help you distill your thoughts into what you want next, see where you want to go, and help you feel confident enough in your own abilities to actually complete and live the practices you’ll need to reach your goals.

Have fun finding your FEAR!

 

*Please remember that exercise is physical and in the event you have a medical condition or other reason to be concerned about completing hard/intense exercise or movement that you check with your doctor.

 

Taking the Risk, Facing Your Fear

I was talking with my supervisor yesterday and we discussed how some people are afraid to try new things. This is not my nature and I am amazed when I am reminded how many people pass up opportunities because they are afraid. When do you hold back because you are afraid to leap or even step? Have you missed out on awesome opportunities in your life because you held back? How will you face your fear next time and not lose out?

Being able to discern valid opportunities that will move your life forward is important. Often many of us are afraid because there is so much out there. We become overwhelmed trying to wade through it all. So it is very important that you are able to pick and choose which things you want to reach for.

First, get really clear on what you want. Do you want more health? Wealth? A more fulfilling relationship? A brighter garden? How can you know what opportunities are out there if you don’t even know what you are looking for? It is very important to get clear about what you want. Research shows us that what we are conditioned for we will see more of. This means if I am conditioned to think I can’t do something, I will find all the ways in which I cannot get it done. On the other hand, if I think I can I will look for solutions to getting it done when I get stuck because I believe I can.

Second, know your own limits. We all have them. And this means we all have strengths, too. It is important to know both. Once you have a clear idea of your strengths and weaknesses it will be important to find others who are strong where you are weak. This allows you to fill in the gaps in your own abilities. If your task is beyond the help of a friend, hire a professional to fill in your gaps.

Third, don’t be paralyzed by fear. We all get that last minute feeling of fear when we jump from the cliff into the unknown. Don’t let it stop you. Again, it is important to determine if the fear is telling you something you need to listen to, like don’t give all your savings to a Bernie Madoff type, or if it is a natural result of pushing your own limits.

Finally, enjoy the ride. Life is a journey and no matter what you journey you are set to embark on enjoy it.