Why gratitude isn’t always as easy as it sounds (& what can help)

I can remember a time when hearing people share about good things happening in their lives or sharing gratitude for what was going well made me think thoughts like:

  • “EW! I can’t believe how much she brags about her life!” 
  • “Must be nice to be so happy all the time, but some of us have real problems in our lives unlike her.” 
  • “How naive! She must just ignore everything bad in her life. That can’t be healthy.”
  • “I feel badly about my life because it doesn’t sound as good as hers.”

I would create stories in my mind about the other person and I would project a lot of judgment — onto her and onto myself. I would either make myself out to be a better person than her (because I didn’t “brag” or I “lived in the real world”) or a lesser person (because my life “wasn’t as perfect”). I was stuck in a cycle of feeling badly, judging others (including myself), and thinking thoughts / taking actions that perpetuated that cycle. 

I had gotten comfortable feeling badly for myself, playing the victim, missing opportunities to celebrate life, and focusing on what wasn’t working the way I wanted it to. I was actually pretty “good” at it. It was my normal.

Did I feel a lot of joy in this “normal”? No.

But, was I pretty comfortable feeling judgmental and comparing constantly? Yea actually, I was. It felt safer than trying something new.

This played out in my relationship with food, it played out in my career, and it played out in my relationships. It felt more normal to be constantly judging myself and others, focusing on what could be better about myself / my life, and feeling badly for and about myself than it did to “simply practice gratitude!” Gratitude didn’t feel simple at all.

It’s tricky because there are very few people who would answer the question, “is gratitude a bad thing?” with “yes!! It’s the worst!” Yet, there are plenty of people who struggle to practice it and judge others when they do. (Hi! I was one of them!)

So, if reflecting on 2017 with gratitude feels hard for you, please know that it is ok! Gratitude isn’t always as easy as it sounds. At least, it wasn’t for me.

Gratitude is a muscle that has to be flexed and built up over time. The more you work it, the stronger (and more natural, phew!) it gets. And, there are a lot of fears, judgments, and limiting beliefs that can come up when you start to practice it. Fears, judgments, and limiting beliefs like:

  • I’m terrified that if I stop being so critical of myself and start to feel more grateful that I will become complacent and won’t ever “be better” or “succeed.” (I put those in parenthesis because sometimes those definitions actual change as you become to feel more grateful).
  • My life isn’t perfect… something really hard happened… so I don’t think gratitude even possible.
  • I don’t practice yoga or meditate or drink green juice… I don’t have 90 minutes a day to sit in silence alone… gratitude isn’t for me.
  • I’m really busy and this seems like a waste of my time.
  • I’m too humble for gratitude — it sounds like selfish bragging to me. 

This is a totally incomplete list of some of the fears + limiting beliefs I had and some I have heard clients express to me. There may definitely be ones you’re experiencing that aren’t mentioned above.

Sometimes we are stuck in a cycle where what we get good at not feeling good. Where we spend all of our mental and emotional and physical energy caught in gratitude-less cycles, like:

  1. feeling badly, judging ourselves, and then creating impossible plans to make ourselves better which we inevitably “fail” at. Only to end up back at the start…
  2. judging someone else to make ourselves feel better, only it doesn’t work for very long. Then we feel badly again so we judge again to try to help. Still not helping…
  3. some kind of cyclical hybrid of some or all of the above (which was my personal cycle of choice back in the day)

If practicing gratitude in your own life feels challenging and / or you find yourself passing judgment or creating stories about someone else (or yourself) when she shares gratitude with you, I would love to offer you a little encouragement.

First, it is OK. You are not a terrible person or a judgmental monster. Judgment, fear, and a struggle with gratitude are all incredibly normal things to experience and most (all??) people do at one or many points in their lives. 

Second, if you feel ready to experience more gratitude in your life (which I believe is the gateway to much more joy), it is 100% possible. Here are a few things that can help:

  • Begin to identify any fears, judgments, or limiting beliefs you have that make gratitude feel uncomfortable for you (either when you’re practicing it or when someone else it). The list above can help give you an idea of what these might sound like!
  • If possible, notice when you started to feel that way (was it something a parent said to you? something you heard as a kid? at your first job? in a movie or book?) — this is not always possible to identify, no problem if you can’t!
  • Begin to build up your gratitude muscles with a regular expression / practice — even if it feels really hard (remind yourself that it feeling challenging at first doesn’t mean it’s wrong or not for you — you’re shifting the way you see yourself and the world, so YES it is definitely going to feel hard at times). I would recommend keeping a journal beside your bed and starting small: joy down 1-3 things each morning or evening that went well that day, however big or small! There have been times where all I could come up with was “got a good parking spot today.” Hey! That’s something, right!?
  • Remind yourself that the more you practice it, the easier it gets according to this Huffington Post article, which states: “The more you stimulate these neural pathways through practicing gratitude, the stronger and more automatic they become. On a scientific level, this is an example of Hebb’s Law which states ‘neurons that fire together wire together.'” You can read more about the Neuroscience of Gratitude here, if you’re like me and love to see the science behind this stuff!
  • Start to shift away from judgment toward yourself when you struggle a bit in your gratitude practice. Instead, get curious! This looks like checking in and asking yourself gentle questions: What’s feeling hard here? What limiting belief, fear, or judgment might be holding me back in this moment? How can I move forward toward gratitude one tiny step here?

Wishing you a holiday season full of even the teeniest bit more gratitude than before!

xo, Sim

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