In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed that gratitude actually comes after a process of surrendering to our painful emotions, not after willing in something positive.
We feel grateful when we can have a sip of water after a period of intense exercise and thirst. We experience pride when we successfully set healthy boundaries with family—a practice that comes only from acknowledging the harm that has and could come about when we haven’t done this.
So often we resist experiencing aversive feelings. After all, we are hardwired for protection, even from the smallest perceived threat. It’s hard to trust that those very emotions can actually be important—even good for us to feel. Each emotion has a function, an evolutionary purpose. Take anger, for example. It lets us know something is wrong, and it gives us energy to do something about it. If we suppress our anger, not only does it stay somewhere in our body, but we miss out on our anger’s message. Gratitude can only be an experience we have after we allow ourselves to take in what our anger is trying to communicate.
For instance, let’s say we discover someone has lied to us. This makes us feel angry, but we may be afraid of ruining the relationship, so we say nothing and bury the anger. If instead we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are angry, we get the message that this person may not be trustworthy. Or maybe we get an urge to investigate why they told the lie because there might be important information there for us to know. Once we surrender to feeling angry, we can get the message anger contains for us. And once we get the message, we feel grateful because we are now better off.
This may not sound like the gratitude practice you are familiar with, which is often about cultivating positive feelings.
Another example: Very often we seek feelings of gratitude when we experience envy—something so common in our consumer-driven society. Journaling about the gratitude we feel for the meal on our table, or the roof over our head, comes in response to allowing ourselves to acknowledge the pain of not having. Once we surrender to our envy, we can feel grateful for what we do have. It is by contrast that we develop appreciation for what is positive.
This is very different from what many people practice as “positive thinking.”