Gratitude and sweating the small stuff
I started intentionally expressing gratitude about 18 months ago. I had read quite a bit about coping with stress and increasing happiness and people say that expressing gratitude is good for you in a number of ways (including decreasing stress, increasing happiness and generally improving well-being*). I thought the idea of expressing gratitude fit in nicely with my journey towards self-compassion and the things I've written about so far in this blog (e.g., acceptance, noticing, etc.). But, I'm a bit of a sceptic, so, honestly, I'd have to admit that I started this practice with a bit of blind faith that it might work - and it certainly couldn't hurt. And, until relatively recently, I'm not sure I would have been able to say that it was 'working'. Was I less stressed? Was I happier? If I was, was this because I was expressing gratitude regularly? So, as one who likes to point to evidence, it was pretty big for me when I noticed just that - how expressing gratitude seemed to be shifting my mindset and, ultimately, helping me manage my stress.
One of my truths (those ideas we have about ourselves that make us who we are) is that I’m bad at change - or if I’m not ‘bad’ at it, I most certainly don’t like it. And I especially don’t like making decisions that involve potential change. Knowing that I have a decision to make, it has become clear to me how my brain creates stress around the decision. The bottom line is I don’t want to make the wrong decision, when actually, in most cases, there won’t be a right or wrong direction to take. Even so, I am aware that thinking about my options makes my stomach turn with the anxiety. I understand where this feeling is coming from and I can accept the anxiety and know that I am ok even though I feel uncomfortable. But, the anxiety is still there, along with a deeply ingrained supposition that I may do the wrong thing.
Recently, when faced with what seemed to me to be a pretty big decision to make, in crept the familiar anxiety. Alongside the anxiety this time, I also noticed some other thought patterns that came with the anxiety. This time, it was not only about making the ‘wrong’ decision; I could also be letting people down. This is my ‘go to’ people-pleasing reaction; it seems I would do just about anything in order make sure everyone else is ok. Unfortunately, what I can see when I take a step back from this behaviour and notice its consequences, is that, generally, when I aim to please others first, my actions have a tendency to result in the opposite of my intentions. So, generally, I end up not pleasing anyone – and perhaps most important, I end up displeased with myself. Having noticed this some time ago, I developed a mantra to try and combat such ingrained tendencies. Regularly, I would find myself saying, ‘I am worth putting myself first.’ (In fact, if you've read any of my previous blog posts, you will see I say this a lot! Though this mantra may seem counter-intuitive initially to someone striving to be self-less and kind to others and though it is not something that we are encouraged to do, I believe we must be able to put ourselves first to be of service to anyone else. As they say, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’)
Anyway, it turns out I’m an anxious people-pleaser. But what does this have to do with gratitude? As I’ve explained before, I’ve got my 5-year diary, which allows me to write a few lines every night about the day just gone. I have done this every night without fail for almost 18 months, and I generally include at least one thing per day for which I am grateful. When faced with this big decision I had to make and noticing the anxiety and thoughts that surrounded this decision, I found myself writing in my diary, “I am grateful for this dilemma and the learning that’s coming with it.” And, what was most striking to me was that I actually meant it! As I was writing this in my diary, I realised that this is a very kind and compassionate way to make decisions and ‘do’ change. Yes, I felt uncomfortable and yes, I felt scared, but instead of beating myself up about this, I was happy (enough) to just sit with my discomfort at that time. And in being able to sit with my discomfort I was able to recognise that whatever I decided will be the right decision for now. Furthermore, with that knowledge that I could make the best decision for me for now, I felt assured that - once the decision was made - there will surely be more learning to be had.
And that’s no bad thing. I am on a journey, after all, and being grateful for all aspects of the journey makes it far easier to accept the ups and downs of the journey itself, without getting overly caught up in final destination. Cause let’s face it, how many of us truly know where our journey will take us? Would it not make the journey more pleasant if we were able to notice the good in it, even when we are struggling - or especially when we are struggling? It occurs to me that this way of being is a way to 'not sweat the small stuff'. Or even the big stuff. I'm pretty sure intentionally expressing gratitude on a regular basis has supported this shift in my thinking - I am far more able to notice 'the small stuff' and I'm starting to believe that it is actually the small stuff that matters most. As a sceptic, I'll need to gather more evidence that this is the case. But in the meantime, I'm feeling more able to follow Rainer Maria Rilke's ideas: "... try to love the questions themselves.... the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Perhaps for 2018, we can commit to doing our best to enjoy – and be grateful for – the small stuff, the big stuff and all the questions and answers that live in between.
*For more reading about gratitude and its links to research evidence around decreasing stress, increasing happiness, improving well-being and positive psychology, see https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-appreciation/