I used to think gratitude practices were new-agey and for people that were into touchy feely stuff that I saw as a weakness. Once I had a mental breakdown and had to learn how to practice self care to dig myself out of the hole of shut down emotions and overly independent living, gratitude came up again and again as a practice that sustained those that exhibited the most self compassion and were mentally healthy. So, with the desire to not fall back into old habits that precipitated my breakdown, I gave gratitude a shot.
I was skeptical at first. Yes, on the surface there are many things for me to be grateful for, but to give time and space in my life to recognize the things I am grateful for seemed silly. At first I tried to write down one thing a day I was grateful for and put it in a jar. I thought having a visible reminder that I was practicing gratitude would be helpful, but it felt too performative for me and I quickly lost interest. Then I took a class in self compassion from Dr. Kristin Neff and she recommended making gratitude a mindful self compassion practice, which at first didn’t make sense to me. I wasn’t sure how practicing gratitude would lead to me becoming more self compassionate, but Dr. Neff’s research indicates that showing gratitude for others helps us to show ourselves gratitude.
Dr. Neff suggests that each night before going to sleep you make a list of five big things in your life that you’re grateful for, like your health, your children, etc. and then also list five small, seemingly insignificant things in your life that you are grateful for that you may take for granted such as hot water or electricity. I’ve now been using this gratitude practice for nearly three years and it's made a significant impact on my life. I now express gratitude in the moment I’m feeling it and don’t wait until bedtime to express it. My list grows throughout the day as I find more things and people to be grateful for. It helps me to be more present in my life because I’m accustomed to finding gratitude for the smallest of things, the way a raindrop keeps its shape on a flower pedal, or the way my dog’s ears bounce when she’s on a walk with me that never fails to make me smile. The more I practice gratitude, the more I find to be grateful for.
I now try to make an effort to let the people in my life know that I am grateful for them. This is something I never did before I started practicing gratitude, finding it a garish display of emotion, but this practice has taught me that Dr. Neff’s teachings are true. The more I express gratitude for others in my life, the more I find to be grateful for about myself. I’m not nearly as hard on myself as I once was and the things I used to denigrate myself about are now becoming traits I can find gratitude for, as I see them in a new light. I can now appreciate that I am human and imperfect. I’m becoming grateful for my imperfections.
In the past few weeks I’ve taken to finding the people from my past that have touched my life in some small meaningful way and writing them a letter of gratitude. This has proven to be one of the most affirming practices for me. It’s a simple act of kindness, but the dividends are great. Who doesn’t want to receive a note of gratitude after all? It enables me to see and appreciate all of the people that have shaped my life and touched it in ways both large and small. While I don’t expect responses to these letters, I have thus far always received one and each one has been a gift and reaffirms that gratitude is an essential practice that fosters deep connection. The chain of grateful energy passed back and forth is touching beyond words and has proven to me the power of gratitude. I find it to be among the most essential practices to affirm my humanity.