Monthly Reflections: Gratitude Not on Tap
Giving thanks on demand can feel forced and become toxic. As we enter "gratitude month" let's practice a better way.
I’ve been told to write a gratitude journal on more than one occasion. I nod, fake a smile, then promptly ignore this advice. It’s probably undermining my ability to be upbeat and happy, right? At least, that’s what the gratitude pushers are thinking.
Of course I’m aware that gratitude, when genuine, is a powerful emotion with numerous benefits. I don’t live under a rock. I haven’t missed the positive psychology trend towards cultivating gratitude, nor the slew of articles on the subject.
So yes, I know gratefulness can improve mental and emotional well-being, reduce stress, and enhance relationships. Cultivating gratitude encourages us to appreciate the present moment and fosters a positive mindset, leading to increased life satisfaction. Many studies have shown the positive effects of gratitude on overall happiness and health. Of course I believe it’s good to feel gratefulness.
However, forcing ourselves to identify things to be grateful for, write gratitude lists, or create gratitude journals— without the important step of allowing our less upbeat feelings to express themselves first, when needed— can transform the practice into a form of toxic positivity.
Toxic positivity is the belief that one must maintain a positive mindset at all times, denying or hiding negative emotions. This can lead to emotional suppression, insincerity, and an inability to confront or process challenging situations. Such an approach can have detrimental consequences, as it negates the importance of acknowledging and working through difficult emotions.
Emotional suppression happens when we pressure ourselves to feel grateful and bury our true emotions. We may neglect and invalidate authentic feelings of sorrow, anger, or frustration. In the long run, this leads to emotional turmoil and inner conflict, as these repressed emotions fester beneath the surface.
A new way to find gratitude in the middle of a loss
Years ago, freshly separated from my now ex-husband, I bought a last minute ticket to an ashram that was nestled just down the beach from the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. With the overbearing pink facade of the Atlantis not far away, I turned my back and faced the aquamarine waves at an angle, settling into a quiet section of white sand where I proceeded to unpack the strange new circumstances of my life with a journal and a few books I’d brought with me.
One of them was about to change how I saw everything.
"Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity" is an unusual book, written in colorful marker in the handwriting of the author, the artist SARK, whose real name is Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy. It’s also a heartfelt exploration of coping with loss, grief, and life's inevitable changes while finding gratitude and opportunities within these challenges.
In the book, SARK shares her own experiences with loss, including the death of her mother, and how her most difficult moments became opportunities for personal growth and transformation.
Even in the face of life's most challenging circumstances, SARK realized there are gifts or lessons to be found. However, she does not advocate denying the hard aspects of those circumstance in favor of forced gratitude.
She does not say to those of us who are hurting, “I think you should really consider writing a gratitude list right now, since it will make you feel better.”
Instead she writes, “This is not a book about feeling glad when you don’t. How annoying. This is a book about finding and living from the glad parts of all your experiences. I call it practical gladness.”
This was such a relief to me as I grieved the ending of a relationship that had long been full of turmoil but which had also always contained so much hope for transformation.
As I read how SARK’s idea of practical gladness honors the hurt, loss, and grief we experience, I began to accept those feelings as natural and okay. Of course this began to reduce the pain they were causing me, as I stopped struggling against them, which is an action that only adds pain on top of pain.
I was starting to see that I was experiencing not just a loss of relationship, but a loss of the hope I’d had for our future. It felt awful to lose that hope. I had to let go of my attachment both to a specific outcome and to the person I had married. This was deeply sad.
There on the beach, I let the tears fall as I wrote in my journal.
Then I turned back to SARK’s words. The death of her mother was a great loss for her. She says she felt “unbearably sad at times, and also resigned, hopeless, lost, orphaned, angry, wistful, wishing for more, lonely, helpless, grief stricken.”
All of these are true, and also, she began to see that there were some good parts to her new experience of life. Within each loss was also a gift.
Just as much as SARK missed being witnessed by her mother’s keen eye and great memory, and supported in her dreams and activities, she also is now free of being witnessed or monitored, of seeing her own life through her mother’s eyes. That is the gift.
Just as much as she missed her mother’s storytelling, SARK now gets to be the main storykeeper and teller in her own life, which she describes as coming with a wild freedom. That is the gift.
Just as she missed introducing her mother to people in her life, and still loves to be around friends who knew her parents “back then,” she is also now free from this obligation to introduce her mother, or to attend “guilt obligated holidays” and other occasions. She now gets to show up on her own and create her own rituals. This is the gift.
SARK calls it her process of “weaving” the loss with the gifts. This creates honest integration.
As I read her words, I felt like I was watching her perform a magic trick. Luckily, she offers up many helpful practices designed to direct us through the maze of conflicting emotions and find our own magic.
As I tried her practices, I began to see my own experience differently.
My transformation began with integration
I started to see that while I had lost hope about the transformation of my marriage from turmoil to peace and harmony, and had to grieve that loss, I was also now gaining the gift of new hope for a peaceful harmonious life on my own or with a future partner.
As I grieved the loss of a significant relationship with a person who I dearly loved, I also now registered that there was an opportunity to re-establish a stronger relationship with myself and my own desires and dreams. I could let go of a life experience that frequently disrupted me emotionally, often blocking my ability to turn inwards and connect with myself.
I grieved the loss of all the years I had allowed a dead-end relationship to go on because I thought it would improve. But now I also saw I could plan and envision my future with no dead-ends. I envisioned my own transformational journey, one which would lead me to a much better understanding of myself and much more ability to find and cultivate joy in my life, something which had been so lacking for most of the years of my relationship with my ex-husband.
The new story I began to tell was that I was completely fine on my own. Actually, more than fine. Happy!
I found joy in my ability to be present right there on that beach. The beautiful sunshine and palm trees. The bright waves and my long, daily swims up and down the beach. The calming effect of twice-daily yoga and chanting at night. The warmth of the many families who had come to the ashram together to celebrate New Years, and who embraced me and the many solo travelers there. We ate at communal tables under the trees, laughing and talking. I was filled up full. It was obvious I didn’t need anything from my ex. I could find all I needed on my own.
I was starting to shift from a state of fear around my separation and my future, to acceptance that the way forward was alone.
My new story still included the hurt and challenge of all I had been through in my marriage, the loss of hope and relationship, but it now also included my own capacity to be filled up full and create my own future. Both-and. I was happy and sad. Grieving and hopeful. Leaving and arriving. Shedding and transforming. It was a truly freeing integration, one that left me authentically grateful.
Explore your gifts and opportunities
SARK offers a simple reflection in her “Loss or Change Transformation Sheet.” Try this reflection for yourself and see if it changes your relationship with gratitude, deepening it from a surface practice that might look like writing in a journal that “I’m grateful for my morning coffee, my cat’s cuddles, and my friend’s jokes,” to something that will drive greater transformation in your life.
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