Do you keep a gratitude journal? Have you ever participated in a gratitude challenge? It's certainly the time of year when those gratitude practices are getting the spotlight! And for good reason--practicing gratitude has been scientifically proven to increase our joy, improve our physical and mental health, better our relationships, and even help us sleep better. The great thing about gratitude is that it builds--the more we look for things to be grateful for, the more we see! The things we see to be grateful for, the more joy we feel.
Why is that? Well, at its most basic level, gratitude is appreciation for the gifts we have. Giving thanks and living with appreciation has a meditative quality that helps us live in the now and feel more peace and joy. And who doesn't need more peace and joy??
Well....some of us might have a little knee-jerk reaction when we hear the word. Why is that? When I was in toxic relationships, I heard the words, "you should be more grateful" way too often. I heard this when given a gift that I didn't respond over-the-top enough to (and trust me, it didn't matter if my response was, in fact, over the top). I heard this when I tried to talk about an action that had hurt my feelings (because apparently asking to talk about a verbally abusive interaction meant that I was ungrateful for every good thing he had ever done) and even when I asked to spend a date together (ungrateful for the time he spent with our family). I kept gratitude journals and did gratitude challenges and tried my best to focus on everything that was good in my life. And I still struggled. I still felt worthless. I still felt broken every time I read about how practicing gratitude would change my life. I thought I must be doing it wrong...and tried harder. Sound familiar? You aren't alone. And like everything else in an abusive relationship, the grateful or ungrateful response from me isn't actually what mattered. I could sing about my gratefulness from the rooftops and it would never be enough to someone who wanted to make me feel like he was doing me a favor to stay with me. I could show my appreciation for every good thing and it would never be enough to balance out a request to spend a couple hours together with someone who wanted to shift blame, instead of acknowledge he didn't actually want to spend time with me. I could focus on every good thing that did exist and it would never be enough to keep my spirit from being squashed by words designed to hurt and break me.
As it turns out, I was doing it wrong. In my attempt to change my life through gratitude practices, I neglected to truly look at what was also real. Gratitude practices aren't about pretending something isn't real! They aren't about trying to coerce a situation into being different! I was trying to divert my focus, and while that can work for some things, ignoring abuse rarely makes it go away. I was trying to pretend this whole part of my life didn't exist and I was trying to manipulate the Universe into changing my circumstances and taking away someone else's agency. Not really how gratitude is designed to work.
And here's the other missing piece. If gratitude is about appreciation, and I wasn't including myself on my gratitude list, then I also wasn't showing appreciation for myself. Which is a rather big missing piece!! Not having those moments of appreciation for my own value, my own contribution to the world and my relationships left me open to accept whatever version of treatment people wanted to give me. I didn't know about boundaries and how they are designed to protect my heart and spirit by keeping out hurtful treatment. I didn't know that putting myself on the gratitude list wasn't selfish and was actually the way to be able to show up as my best self for my relationships and place in the world.
Learning to appreciate my own value allowed me to begin to feel gratitude at a deeper level. I learned to truly feel gratitude for myself, for my qualities and purpose in this beautiful world. I began to set boundaries for how I would allow myself to be treated and how I would value myself. I stopped letting the words of someone else take away my worth. I continued practicing gratitude for all of the blessings and goodness that are in my life. I continued to practice gratitude for all of the beautiful qualities my partner did have. I stopped trying to manipulate my world into something it wasn't and started appreciating what it really was. I put myself on the list and saw what was truly real, allowing me to make better choices for my future.
It isn't self-absorbed to be grateful for your life. It isn't being ungrateful to acknowledge the things that hurt. It isn't doing gratitude wrong to see what's real and make a different choice. Gratitude is appreciation for the good things, yes. But it has a second definition, too. And that second definition is a "full understanding of the situation." All of it. The good, the bad, the ugly. And that appreciation, my beautiful friends, is what changes our life.
Put yourself on the list. Put yourself at the top of the list! Practice gratitude for the good and appreciation for all that is. Nourish your spirit. Care for your body. Strengthen your mind. Know that you are loved. Know that you are needed. Know that you are seen and heard and that you matter. Do not try to make yourself invisible for one more second. It will never be enough to make someone else give you the gratitude and affirmation that your soul needs you to give your self.