Gratitude is Not an Attitude (at first)


By Chay Tanchanco, LMFT


On the eve of Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S., it seems only fitting that a mental health blog should cover the subject of gratitude.


Oftentimes, we are told "Be grateful!" as a solution to our problems. Recounting things we appreciate, noticing things that we enjoy and granting it a moment of our thankfulness: these are things that are meant to be helpful.


However, the simple fact that "having an attitude" seems to very uncomplicated, when it is the very thing most of us are struggling to comprehend. If we just *knew* how to be happy and grateful, wouldn't we do it? And if we are in the midst of uncomfortable or stressful situations, being told to "be grateful" feels like disregard and disrespect to our emotions.


So, what do we do?


The first piece is this:

Gratitude is not an attitude at first.

We become judgmental when we don't feel successful in the first moments of attempting something outside of our norm. And when we become judgmental, we spiral into a pathway of our brains that has been well-worn leading to how terrible we feel about ourselves. Changing the way we perceive gratitude is the necessary shift.


Gratitude is a skill.

And, like all skills, it takes practice.


If, when you first learned to drive or to walk, someone set the expectation for you to immediately become a professional racecar driver or run a marathon, you would believe that driving or walking was impossible. These things take practice, mentorship, and often many, many hours of trial and error.


It may not feel like being grateful is that high of a skill, but when we have been so used to criticism and negativity, gratitude feels less like a relief and more like an exercise or a workout. When we recognize it for what it is, we realize that "being grateful" is a choice we can make, even if we don't "feel" grateful.


As for feeling that our emotions are disregarded, disrespected, or repressed, we can address those emotions in ourselves. For example, let's say that you have some complicated emotions related to being around your family for the holidays. Maybe it's your mom, dad, sibling, an aunt, uncle, or cousin; that person just gets on your nerves. If someone said to you, "Be grateful!" in response to this irritation, it might add to your anger--- "Grateful!? I should be *grateful* that they always criticize what I wear or make some rude comment?? No. I can't be grateful for them."


In this example, you may be feeling angry, irritated, upset, and hurt. "Be grateful" isn't the right advice for this situation; empathy is. If you're not receiving empathy from someone safe in your life, you can start by giving empathy to yourself. Recognizing your own emotions, noticing that the anger is pointing out injustice in your life. Forcing yourself to "be grateful" for the person without acknowledging your own values will ultimately reroute itself back to you being upset again.

Then, you decide: how do you want to respond? What outcomes do you want from this holiday gathering? How do you want to feel when it is over, and how can you get there?


With practice, you may even notice some gratitude for yourself in these moments. Your decision to put your mental health first is an act of self-worth and why not be grateful for that to start?


Attitudes are built with practice.

So if you want the attitude of gratitude, exercise it.


Further reading: Four Ways Gratitude Helps You With Difficult Feelings

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