Reaching for Gratitude When “Everything S*cks”

Have you ever talked to someone who wants you to see the positive in a situation or to take a look at the bright side when you’re struggling? They think they are helping, but how does that make you feel?

Seriously. When you’re facing mild inconveniences to full-on tragedy, is it ever helpful when someone invalidates your experience by trying to “silver-line” it? Probably not.

This time of year, many of us think about what we are thankful for, posting memes and attempting those Facebook “30 Days of Gratitude”. If that’s what keeps you going, please, by all means, do that, no criticism.

For me, however, my annual gratitude blog just felt a little empty in light of what has seemed like an endless barrage of challenges. It’s no news that this year has been challenging. And, the difficulties of the past eleven months have affected some more than others. I’d be willing to bet some folks would describe their 2020 as traumatic while others, just a bit frustrating. There is indeed a continuum of experience going on here. And all those experiences are valid.

But experiences are funny because two people can have a very similar experience and feel that experience in very different ways. There are plenty of reasons this is true; none of those reasons are good or bad; they are. But thinking about this phenomenon reminded me of a conversation I once had with a therapist.

It was early along in the therapist-patient relationship, so I gave a lot of background information on my life. At the end of that conversation, the therapist took off her glasses, set them on a table, leaned forward, and said, “How are you so well-adjusted?”

I laughed! First, I never thought of myself as well-adjusted. Second, I started to wonder if maybe I should be feeling worse about my life’s struggles and trauma. I mean, what’s wrong with me? Why am I not worse off?

There are plenty of legitimate reasons that struggles affect one person more than another, and there’s no judgment in those reasons from me. But this conversation did cause me to reflect on what has helped me live and thrive despite things like abuse, abandonment, lack of finances, job loss, divorce, mental illness, and more.

I can tell you what never helped me: pretending none of it happened and just ‘thinking positively.’ To live through something, I need to live through it, and any attempts I’ve made to go around the awful thing fall short. But surviving and thriving are two different things. Sometimes, survival was all I could do from moment to moment. But as I look back, all that surviving has accumulated to thriving. So maybe it’s not about surviving or thriving but both!

Before my session ended with the therapist mentioned above, she asked me what I attributed my thriving to, and I’d like to share one of the keys here.

Last night I shared my working title for this blog with my husband: “Finding Gratitude When “Everything S*cks” and he said, “I think reaching is more like it.” He explained that the word ‘finding’ implies we have to go looking when, in fact, the things we can be grateful for are all around. It’s just that we might have to stretch ourselves to reach for what’s already there in tough times.

And thus, the title changed.

Reach. I like that. I love the idea that when things are hard, I’m stretching. When I reach for something, I can see it indeed. I just need to stretch to get to it.

Reaching for gratitude defines the critical way I have lived through and continue to live through hardships: I go for the gratitude I can see. So what do I see in every single terrible situation that never changes? Me. I am always there choosing what I will or will not learn. Choosing who I will or will not be. And all those choices better prepare me for the next challenge. I focus my gratitude on who I am becoming and what I am learning.

Tasha Eurich, in her book, Insight talks about a similar shift in thinking. If we can move from focusing on performing well in our life to learning well, we will be happier and more prepared. When I am focused on performing well, I’m not in a grateful space. I can’t see the good created inside of me as a result of my trial. Why? I’m so focused externally on “getting it right.” (And when I’m that hard on myself, chances are, I’m being pretty hard on others too.) But when my gratitude shifts to my learning, the pressure comes off. I no longer have to do an excellent job of surviving the next thing. I can focus on the process and let go of the outcome.

And what I love about this method is it helps me acknowledge and eventually accept the challenges I’m facing. It helps me stay in reality instead of wishing for things to be different. (Remember, acceptance is not approval.) Wanting something to be different when it cannot change, is a form of resistance. In these times, the most effective action I’ve taken is from a place of acceptance, not resistance. My mind is in its most open and creative state when I accept things as they are. When I’m resisting things, my mind closes up in fear, and fear always limits my creativity and problem-solving. When I take action from a place of resistance, I’m essentially taking action from a place of pain. When I take action from a place of acceptance, I’m taking action from a feeling of peace. Acceptance does not mean inaction, rather, it allows for more productive action.

So yes, 2020 sucks. And for some of you, that’s a grave understatement. Wherever you are on the continuum of how bad this year has affected you, I hope you can find what is always there to be grateful for: what you are learning and how you grow as a person. Choose actions and thoughts aligned with that best version of who you want to be next year and the year after that. The challenges you’ve survived will add up to a story of thriving through it all. It’s there. I know you see it. You just have to reach.

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