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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.
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.
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