By Joni L. Miller, Ph.D.
I’ve been through some stuff in my life: harder than some people, easier than many others. I was raised being told I shouldn’t “feel sorry for myself,” that other people had it worse so I just needed to suck up my emotions, be grateful for what I have, and move on. When hard things happened I usually pretended everything was fine. And everything was fine … if your definition of “fine” is chronic depression and anxiety.
I now have higher standards for “fine.”
It’s taken multiple years of therapy, two degrees in counseling, and a lot of self-reflection for me to get to this point. I now understand emotions tell a story, a fascinating story. They’re like a roadmap to the psyche. Once I saw the beauty of emotions, I had to change my game.
I’m not always “fine.” When I’m not “fine” there are a myriad of emotions existing within me simultaneously. I can experience joy and sadness, faith and doubt, or hope and despair at the same time. And I can be grateful even in the midst of whatever is going on, not using gratitude to suppress the “bad” emotions, but refocusing on the good to lessen the sting of the bad.
For example, you can be sad and angry you were fired at the same time as being grateful for the solid support system in your life. You can be grateful your tumor was discovered while it was still treatable and still be terrified about your health and future. You can deeply grieve someone you lost and find moments where memories warm your heart.
I’m not using gratitude as a way to not feel those hard feelings – I still know they’re there. Yet finding something for which I am grateful lets me experience the psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude. Research shows gratitude improves physical and psychological health, strengthens resilience, and improves self-esteem. Gratitude either (a) feels good or (b) makes hard emotions feel less bad when you’re going through a difficult time. The most important point is this: Gratitude research doesn’t say you have to be grateful for everything in your life, just that you find something for which to be grateful. Even searching for things for which to be grateful (and not finding any) has some benefit.
A few weeks ago I decided to write letters of gratitude to 40 people in my life to coincide with the 40 days of Lent. As I wrote my list of people (putting a whole bunch on a list for next year), I realized many of the people I wanted to thank had been with me through very difficult parts of my life. They provided support, love, guidance, friendship, or distraction. Even though I was in a dark place, they shone with the light of friendship and compassion so some light could get to me.
I begin on March 6, Ash Wednesday. I will send 40 letters between Ash Wednesday and Easter. I’m handwriting letters where I can find an address, since getting a handwritten letter always seems very special to me. Where I don’t have an address, I’ll send via email or Facebook messenger. I have a few rules for myself:
- no relatives on the list,
- no people to whom I have to apologize,
- no people I have already thanked in writing,
- no people where I’d have to say, “That experience was terrible but I learned from it, so … thanks?”
Just creating the list warmed my heart as I remembered each person and how each impacted my life. I’m going to be blogging about my experience, sharing some stories from my life and the joy I feel as I express appreciation. Stay tuned!
What about you? Who do you want to thank?