I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling—the pain was unreal.
It was always worse in the morning, from the time I woke up until I could muster enough energy to get out of bed.
I was still trying to deal with the sudden and unexpected end of my marriage. I thought I finally had the life I wanted, and then it was gone in an instant. Just gone.
After it ended, I’d spent every day trying to make it to the afternoon, when I usually felt better—like Groundhog Day.
I felt out of control, with no sense of who I was or what kind of future I would have, and it scared the sh*t out of me.
This was the latest in my string of failed relationships and personal disasters. I thought I had left that all behind, so being thrust back into this pain and suffering was the biggest disappointment of my life.
I found myself humbled and split open. I was willing to try anything.
This meant making different choices.
I had spent my years laying the responsibility for my misery at the feet of others. I now realized for the first time that I was the common denominator.
I had to figure out what my part was in all of this.
The first new choice I made was to commit to some intensive therapy work.
I learned pretty quickly that I while I was long on shame, my self-esteem was lacking. Also missing were basic skills such as empathy, compassion, vulnerability, and gratitude. I’d just never learned them.
Shame, the result of a troubled childhood and which plagued me into adulthood, became a focus of my therapy work and I spent time researching it. One afternoon, I discovered the work of Brené Brown, a research professor of shame, vulnerability, and gratitude.
She spent a lot of time studying wholehearted people and what made them joyful.
I wanted to be joyful.
She said, “I did not interview in all that time a person who would describe themselves as joyous who did not actively practice gratitude. It is really practicing gratitude, not the ‘attitude of gratitude’ but tangibly practicing, that invites joy into our lives.”
A revelation: we are not born with gratitude; it can be learned.
There was hope for me.
I never had lasting happiness, and I had always struggled with gratitude. I was too unhappy with myself to feel grateful for anything. It was one of those things that, until now, I would never dare discuss—opting to keep my damage and dysfunction to myself.
I had never known that my struggle with gratitude could be helped with practice.
I felt a surge of optimism.
I learned that with a consistent practice of gratitude we can actually rewire our brains to search for the positive first instead of the negative. When we train ourselves to look for positivity and gratitude every day, we start to find it.
Since negative experiences left a much larger impression on me than positive ones—that’s just where my brain was wired to go—some rewiring would be a welcome development. I made a commitment to practice gratitude every day. Journaling about it was the biggest step for me.
I’ve seen some big changes. I used to think moments had to be huge to warrant gratitude. A promotion, or maybe new home.
Since I’ve begun my practice, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s smaller moments. After all, our lives are mostly made up of many small moments: beautiful sunsets, great conversation, or a delicious meal.
I’ve also learned that I can take valuable lessons from all of my experiences, even the bad ones. What I learn serves me well going forward. I look for those lessons now.
It has made a huge difference in my life. I’ve experienced joy much more than I ever have before. It’s also allowed me to be a more accepting of myself and others. And, it’s what I want to teach my 11-year-old son. I don’t want him to suffer the way I have, and now I have something to share with him that we can learn together.
A lot of things that weren’t supposed to happen in my life happened. I can now say that I’m grateful for them.
Here are four ways to make a gratitude practice part of your life:
1. Practice gratitude daily.
I used a dedicated notebook for my gratitude practice. Every day, I wrote at least one thing that I was grateful for. The more we look for things, the more we will find them.
Consistency is important. We need to find a daily routine that works for us. I wrote after dinner, when I had time to relax and reflect on my day.
2. Be gentle.
It may not be easy at first. It wasn’t for me. I spent lots of time staring at blank pages before I started to figure it out. It takes time, so we need to be patient and kind to ourselves.
It also doesn’t have to be perfect. We are looking for progress, not perfection. With little steps every day, we’ll get somewhere.
I made meditation a part of my daily practice.
I tend to be busy, and my mind races with a multitude of thoughts. Add anxiety to the mix, and there wasn’t a lot of space for gratitude.
I dedicate 10 minutes a day toward meditation. It is space just for me, to connect with myself through breath. I have a difficult time clearing my mind, so I don’t try. If stray thoughts come up, I notice them and return to my breathing.
When we connect with ourselves, it makes it easier for us to hold space for gratitude. We become more open to appreciating our experiences.
4. Express gratitude toward others.
There are many people in our lives who have shown up for us. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes in little ones.
I began making an effort to reach out and express my gratitude to people who have been there for me. It is amazing to experience what a gift a kind word can be. Feeling good about ourselves through recognizing others only increases our joy. A little appreciation goes a long way.
“The root of joy is gratefulness…It is not joy that makes us grateful; It is gratitude that makes us joyful.” ~ Brother David Steindl-Rast