Gratitude — not a positive expectation

Written by Yasmin Singh

Gratitude can be found in almost anything but the key is to validate the hard stuff first.

The year 2020 kicked off with a Covid-shaped bang and you may have noticed a social wave of opinions and pressures surrounding the idea that other people have it worse. The news was filled with packed hospitals with bodies spilling into corridors and videos of city streets being locked down by the military. So, yeah, things were worse in some places than others.

While thousands were dying, New Zealand had moved into a national lockdown and it was chaos and again comparatively, things were worse in other places. But what good ever comes from a comparison of who has it worse? We often throw support at people in the shape of ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘things could be worse’ and usually it stems from a place of love.

But often it can fall from the realm of gratitude into toxic positivity. This shift often happens when we use words like ‘should’ or ‘must’ as a pre-tense on how we think we should feel, as opposed to recognising how we feel, validating those emotions and then identifying where we can find joy or happiness.

Many conversations over lockdown were revolving around ‘I should bake some bread because we have all this time to do so’. This created a vortex of social pressure that disconnected from the emotional strains of life being turned on its head and making the assumption that we needed to keep being productive. Because, of course, we look to find validation of our worth through the number of exercise videos we did in our living room or how we Marie kondo-ed our entire wardrobe.

Lockdown dawned an era of invalidation surrounding the hard truth that, despite being better off than most countries around the world, it was still an immensely difficult time for quite simply anyone on any level. Even when we delve a little deeper, the social pressures of life outside of lockdown are shifting too. Daggers fly from the eyes of co-workers if you dare arrive at the office with a disposable coffee cup and a confession to shopping at your secret favourite fast fashion store is never spoken louder than a whisper. At the end of the day life is complex and expectations have an impact whether we like it or not.

The practise of gratitude is not simply looking at what good thing you have to be thankful for but recognising the hard stuff and holding it with the good. Often gratitude can make people feel as if they aren’t grateful for the basic necessities that surround us, promoting guilt and shame, leaving us feeling worse or hesitant to try process hard or painful emotions.

But that’s the thing about gratitude, it can look different every day for every different person. Some days, recognising how good the sun feels on your skin is enough to help recognise that there is still joy to be felt. And other days, you can find joy in the more obvious context such as time spent with friends or family.

Gratitude can be found in almost anything but the key is to validate the hard stuff first. The thing about practices like these, is often that they are oversimplified to annoying catchphrases like ‘just be positive’, the last thing you want to hear when it feels like your walls are falling down around you. But like all things in life, nothing is that simple.

Holding the dialect of both good and bad can be an incredibly useful tool to have under your belt when times get tough and also when times are good. Gratitude is functionally a practice and practising this when things are manageable is going to feel easier. But, like any habit, it takes time a repetition to strengthen the neural pathways that build the foundation for a consistent practice. 

Unsure of how to get started? Treat it like a cup of tea before bed. Each day, write down a few things that you are grateful for; be honest with yourself, they don’t need to be the things people expect you to feel grateful for.

Pro tip: Consistency is key but, more importantly, don’t beat yourself up if a week has passed and you only did it that one time before forgetting about it. Keep coming back to the practice, eventually, it will start happening automatically when good things present themselves. Ultimately practising gratitude widens your mental capacity to feel good about positive things in your life or the ones around you. If there was year to start finding more joy, this year is the one.

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