This is not one of those blog posts that is going to tell you that all you need to do is be grateful and you will feel better. In fact, it is the opposite.
I’m not slagging gratitude. Gratitude is a good thing. A great thing, even. It is important to count one’s blessings, and to see the good things that are going on around us. It can help us feel hopeful. Focusing on what is good can stimulate us into thinking more positively, which sometimes orients us to making healthier decisions for ourselves. Thinking about things we are grateful for feels a whole lot better than focusing on what we lack. When times are mild to moderately tough, sometimes it can be comforting to think about the things that we have to be grateful for, and we can get to a “it’s not great, but it’s not that bad,” kind of a place.
Despite this, I am a strong proponent for not misusing gratitude as a band-aid for a sucking chest wound. Gratitude does not take away the very real pain that is a part of living, or the grief that is a part of loss. Gratitude can actually be quite far removed from what is required to feel better. Gratitude, when applied to a scalding burn, can actually prolong the process of grieving whatever loss we are facing, as it can move us away from experiencing, processing and working through whatever we are experiencing. If we don’t really work through the loss and attempt to avoid the intense pain that comes with it, we only serve to lengthen the amount of time that that nagging, horrible, uncomfortable feeling takes up residence within us.
Here’s the thing about feelings: We don’t really make them. They exist. We can notice them. We can use them to help us make decisions some times. We can sometimes decide that our feelings SHOULD NOT be the basis on which we make decisions. But mostly, feelings just ARE. They aren’t good or bad, but simply they ARE. They exist. We feel them or try not to feel them but in the end, we don’t really have a lot of control over whether they arise or don’t arise.
Here’s another thing about feelings: They change. They don’t last forever. Happy feelings, sad feelings, angry feelings…they all change, eventually. Often where we struggle is at the point where we’re trying to control how long the feelings last. In times of great turmoil in my own life, I know I would probably feel much better if I could pin a date on when the hard times would be over…it was the not being able to predict that they would end that would lead me to feel like it would be interminable, and thereby unbearable.
So what to do? I suggest a three-pronged approach. It starts with observing. Observing gives us awareness, and sometimes just enough distance so that the intensity of feelings is bearable. You don’t have to judge or evaluate your feelings, and you don’t have to try to chase them away. They’ll go on their own, in their own good time.
Next comes accepting. Accepting that sometimes we will feel like we need a ladder to climb up to a snake’s tail, and that’s just how things are. You can do things that will try to keep you in better shape so you can cope with the feelings (e.g. get rest, have friends and hobbies, eat well, and yes, even have gratitude for the good things in your life), but there is no magic bullet that will prevent you from having feelings you don’t like. We all experience them, and so the goal becomes managing and working through, rather than avoiding these feelings.
The third-prong is coping. Learning to manage and work through the difficult feelings. Observing, accepting and coping aren’t really distinct stages…and in the end, even if we’ve really accepted something, for instance, the dust can get kicked back up.
There aren’t any tricks to control our feelings so that we feel only the emotions we like. While there is a place for gratitude and positive thinking, it is also quite reasonable to feel an overwhelming amount of grief, sadness or anger when your life takes a horrible turn.
You don’t have to be grateful for “the great lesson you’re learning.” You don’t have to find the good in it. The pain doesn’t actually make you appreciate the good times more. No attitude of gratitude is going to drag you over the mountain. So give yourself a break and feel what you have to feel, accept that it hurts and cope as best you can until you are finished with it. Trying to be grateful for the experience denies your actual feelings (you are no longer really observing or accepting), and you end up wrestling with the wrong demon—the Why-can’t-I-change-this-feeling-demon vs. the How-am-I-going-to-move-through-this-feeling-demon. We all work hard enough at feeling good, so allow yourself the benefits of putting your energies where they will be most effective: observe, accept, cope, repeat. You may be surprised at how much better you feel eventually when you’re not beating yourself with the Gratitude stick.