There have been times, oh so many times, when the thought of compiling a list of things for which to be grateful was a little more than I could bear. Those are moments when gratitude is difficult.
Life can be difficult. Excruciating, even.
Sometimes, getting through one hour after another, means holding your breath till you remember that you are supposed to inhale and exhale. Then, those repeated steps become your occupation until you think of something else to get you through the next block of time. I’ll just hold on till the end of this show, or till Mom gets here, or till Aaron gets home, or till the baby wakes up. Then you make another deal to get through the next time span.
What is your touchpoint?
I remember those days during chemotherapy, when my stomach churned and my head spun, but the worst part was the unbelievable pain from the bone marrow stimulating shots that I had to give myself the day after each chemo. My shins ached and burned; they felt like the bone would split open, and no pain reliever would touch it.
My husband would place one of his palms on each shin and somehow found just the right amount of pressure. The combination of the heat of his hand and the pressure lifted the pain just enough. The first time he did that, I let out a sob. He stopped and quickly pulled his hands away, afraid that he had hurt me. I struggled to find the words to tell him that the sob was relief. Please, please, put your hands back.
As long as he held his hands there, the pain was held at bay, but it returned when he pulled them away. So we sat like that; his hands on my shins, my hands holding them there. Sometimes we talked, and sometimes we just sat there holding each other. These were the moments I could let my guard down.
Start with just one thing
Even in those worst moments, you can look around and find that one thing that is getting you through to the next moment. What is your touchstone right now? Find something, anything, that you can focus on, that you can appreciate. Is it the chair you’re sitting in? Your favorite pillow? The grain pattern running through your wood floor? A quiet moment? A distraction? A cup of coffee?
Now, really appreciate it.
Focus on it.
Allow yourself to lean on it.
Vulnerability isn’t easy
I felt so guilty about not having the strength to take care of my baby, unassisted. I’d just had a mastectomy and was going through chemotherapy, and later, radiation, yet I managed to heap guilt on myself for being an inadequate mother to my 1-year-old daughter.
It took me a while to see how blessed I was to have my mother and my friends there to help me care for my daughter. I could not bring myself to ask for help, but they showed up anyway. They sat with me and the baby, keeping us both company, just there to help with the heavy lifting, especially in those days when I was not even allowed to pick her up.
My baby was happy, and healthy, and well cared for, whether it was me lifting her out of the crib, or one of my helpers. I felt relief immediately, but it took a bit to fully embrace the feelings of gratitude. It took an attitude shift to appreciate the fact accepting that help was not a signal that I was failing as a mother, but just the opposite. I was doing what my child needed most for her own safety. With my helpers there, I was free to nap as needed and regain my strength, so I could stay awake to watch her another day.
Sometimes gratitude requires an attitude shift
That change from thinking I am supposed to be super-mom, to acknowledging that I’m only human was difficult.
I had to redefine for myself what it meant to be a mom. I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, and I had to accept my own hypocrisy, and then allow my village to participate in raising my child.
Ultimately, I also had a learn to have a little compassion for myself. By asking what I would want my daughter to do in this situation, the answer became easy. It was easier to be compassionate with myself, after experiencing a little compassion for my daughter in a hypothetically similar situation.
The process of shifting my attitude towards gratitude allowed me to have a little more compassion for myself and ultimately, it made me a better mother, because I was able to fully embrace putting my daughter’s well-being ahead of any feelings of guilt.
I also understand, even more as she gets older, that I don’t need to be, nor should I be, her everything.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult because it means accepting that we have weaknesses.
Sometimes, gratitude is difficult simply because we lack the creativity, or the will, to think up a list.
It’s easier to hold on to what’s wrong, because there’s more energy in that.
There are times, especially when I’m really enjoying wallowing in a good funk, that I don’t want to do the whole gratitude thing because I know it will mess up my funk, and I’m quite comfortable there.
The power of repetition
This emotional morass we experience through life doesn’t always adhere to logic.
It does, however, respond to repetition.
Thought patterns become habitual.
Emotional patterns become habitual.
So, whether the habit is wallowing in a funk or in gratitude, that becomes the default. But, that default is pretty easy to change, in either direction.
I’ve maintained a gratitude journal for a little while now. It’s nothing complicated, I just try to think of 5 specific and timely things for which I am grateful and write them down at the end of the day. It takes less than 5 minutes.
One day, a particularly bad day, I opened my journal with the intent of unloading everything that was wrong with the world. But while I was thinking through my plans of everything I was going to whine about, my hand, completely out of habit, wrote the word “Gratitude” at the top of the page. So, I decided to go ahead and do the gratitude list first, and whine later. By the time I finished the short list of five items, my mood had completely changed and I lost the desire to whine.
It’s not always that simple and easy and straightforward, but it usually is.
Over time, I have come to realize that gratitude is not just a means of cheering myself up, or engaging in the socially acceptable practice of being thankful.
Gratitude is a coping mechanism, and on those bad days, it’s one of the things that helps me get from one time span to the next.