December 12th, 2016
A Light in the Dark
Finding Gratitude in Difficult Times
This isn’t a post on positive thinking, or how to find the silver lining in your heartbreak or crisis or tragedy.
I’m not saying that silver linings are nonexistent, but it’s certainly the last thing we want or need to hear when we are suffering.
This is a post on remembering the goodness life offers us, because you are inherently good and deserving of life’s goodness, no matter how much it feels like you are getting the opposite message.
Gratitude is the act of remembering this goodness. It’s acknowledging that we are worth taking in the good. It’s savoring, to whatever degree possible, the smallest pinhole-of-a-moment of relief, delight, or basic okayness in the middle of despair.
This doesn’t mean we must feel grateful for our recent breakup, or job termination, or death of a loved one, or whatever loss or difficulty we are enduring. Nor does it mean we should deny our pain and only try to feel grateful and happy all the time. It means holding these two truths: that we are suffering right now, and goodness is available.
This can be a challenge. Thanks to primitive brain circuitry that evolved to keep us watchful for threat, our brains have a tendency to be more vigilant for negative experiences than positive ones, and to react more intensely to negative experiences than positive.
In other words, it’s oh-so-easy to fall down the rabbit hole of despair and hopelessness when we’re going through something trying. It’s our brain’s ancient protective mechanism trying to shield us from more pain by making us hyper-aware of every conceivable negative possibility.
Ouch. Helpful 200,000 years ago. Not so much in 2016.
But the good news is we’ve evolved newer brain circuitry that we can call on in these trying times to help us endure pain, find comfort in grief, and ultimately grow as a human being. Decades of research has supported that remembering gratitude during difficult times has a powerful effect on our overall well-being. It takes practice and intention, but it is possible.
Here are some ways of incorporating this practice into your everyday life when you are struggling.
Start with noticing your okay-ness in the midst of struggle.
This doesn’t mean you feel okay necessarily. It means recognizing you are alive, breathing, and have a functioning mind and heart. You may be smack-dab in the middle of some intense unknown right now and can’t see your way out yet, and you are okay and alive and breathing.
Take it a step further and realize you are not only okay, but also courageous because you are struggling. Feel thankful for your courageous and tenacious heart.
It takes strength to feel pain and walk through darkness. Not everyone is willing or able. Recognize that you have the courage to go through this, trusting that enduring the messiness and hardships of life is how human beings grow and thrive. You will be a better person for it. You already are.
Look for what you’re grateful for when you’re not in the eye-of-the-storm part of your pain. Then, the next time you are in that intense place again, remember what you were grateful for earlier.
This can be a helpful way of building a foundation. Our difficult feelings will ebb and flow. Harness what you can when you’re feeling more capable, and it will be easier to call on when the difficult feelings intensify.
Pay close attention, because you can be grateful for literally anything.
During one of my own dark times, when I was having difficulty feeling grateful for anything, I was looking out the window and happened to notice this shade of orange in what was an otherwise gray winter scene. I sat with it for a minute or two, just noticing and appreciating the color. This simple act of noticing and appreciating the orange amidst the gray shifted into feeling fortunate to be able to see color at all. That was something I never considered before. And I sat with that feeling for another minute.
Nothing is too small. In fact, it’s those small things that can mean the most when the going gets tough.
Take in the goodness with intentionality.
A warm bath is lovely. It’s even lovelier when we remember to feel grateful for it. We take it another step further if we really soak in the feeling that we are taking in the loveliness of this bath because we deserve to feel nourished and supported in the middle of our struggles.
This may be challenging for those of us struggling with beliefs about our self-worth. But see if you can find some part of you somewhere that believes you deserve the goodness you find and experience. Give that part some breathing room.
Write it down.
Try journaling at the start and/or end of your day. Or start a daily gratitude jar. Or write what you're grateful for on your bathroom mirror. Explore and find the way that works for you.
When you can’t think of a single thing: keep it simple and savor the good.
Does that slow sip of hot tea or wine at the end of your day taste heavenly? Don’t worry if you aren’t feeling grateful for it. Just enjoy it. It’s pretty close to the same thing as feeling grateful, and will activate the same parts of your brain.
Remember this is a practice.
It may feel forced at first. That’s okay! It will take time to start spontaneously noticing those little things that so often go unnoticed, and to develop that backbone of gratitude that allows you to breathe with your pain and feel a sense of stability amidst chaos. But with practice and intention, it will happen. And we can feel grateful for that.
If you'd like to learn more strategies to take in the goodness of what can be a hectic season, fill out a request form to speak with one of our counselors today.
By Eva Lorini