When I initially planned to write about gratitude, I had a vision of writing two pieces—one about my personal gratitude journey and a second on the gratitude journeys of others. What I had not known was that when I sought out to interview people about their experiences with gratitude, I would ultimately receive such an abundance of amazing stories that this topic would transform from two pieces into a gratitude series. I’ll begin this series with my own story of how gratitude has changed my life.
Two Different Lives
Sometimes I cannot believe that I ever lived my life without gratitude at the very center of it. In fact, that time of my life seems so far removed from where I am today, that it almost feels like the life I remember is not my own. But, it is. And as silly as it may sound, I am grateful that I know what it is to live without a strong center of gratitude, because it ensures that I will never go back to that place again.
A Domino Effect of Damage Done By Wanting More
For at least 10 years, I existed in a state of waiting for and wanting more. If I wasn’t in a relationship, I pitied myself for being alone and wished I wasn’t. If I wasn’t doing well in a college class, I envied those who were because I felt I deserved to know whatever secret they had to be successful. When I was in graduate school and people around me who were my age were working, making money, and buying houses, I felt like my time would never come and I’d just keep living in limbo forever. I lived my life in my past and in my future, and my present slipped right by me without even a glance. I mourned past losses, regretted previous mistakes, and pondered all kinds of “what ifs.” I looked to the future for the time when I’d get to finally be happy, while simultaneously catastrophizing all of the ways things would never really work out for me. I beat myself up for not being perfect and believed I was as far from it as I could be. I had moments of being self-destructive and had pretty low self-esteem overall.
To fill all of my perceived voids and deprivations, I shopped. In fact, I earned the first D of my life during my first year of college because instead of going to Geology, I went to Joyce Leslie and Shoppers’ World. I thought, “Hey, how tough can understanding rocks really be?” Clearly, I came to realize, rocks are hard (bad pun intended).
More and more, I saw happiness in life to be achieved in buying material things. The true irony was that all the stuff I accumulated didn’t really bring me happiness at all. A new purse could make me feel pretty excited for a day or two, but generally, I either felt guilty for buying it after that or the novelty of it simply wore off. In many ways, it really deepened the void more than anything else. I needed more things, more frequently in order to feel happy, and the happiness lasted shorter and shorter periods of time. Most of the time, I just felt sad, angry, or anxious.
The emotional toll of waiting for and wanting more was already enough. But, it impacted my body too. It began with severe back pain. My lower back felt like the top half of my body was grinding itself on the bottom portion. It was excruciating at times. I also struggled to sleep at night. It wasn’t back problems that kept me awake, it was my mind. I would lay there and think and think and think. I would stress over the future and the past as I tried to fall asleep. It took me an average of two hours, sometimes more, to shut my mind off. I had nightmares often. I’d dream I had a job or a class that I’d forgotten about, and now there was a project due or a test to take and I wasn’t prepared.
In the morning, I’d wake up and my jaw would be so stiff, I’d have to wiggle it around a few times so it would open right. I understood TMJ and knew I must be grinding my teeth at night, though I couldn’t recall doing it. Then, my jaw started to unhinge itself during the day. I’d be talking with someone and my jaw would pop out of place and I’d have to move it back to where it belonged. Afterwards, it would sound like sand was inside of my jaw since it was so ground down.
Then came the panic attacks. How ironic that as someone studying counseling, I didn’t know what they were at first. I thought I had developed Asthma. Every once in a while (like once a month or so), I would just feel like I couldn’t breathe. It felt like something heavy was squashing my chest and I couldn’t get air. It would last a few minutes and then pass. I asked some people I knew who had Asthma and it seemed like I was experiencing something different. Then the attacks came more…and more. By the end, I was having them about five times a day, and they were lasting longer and longer.
Recognizing the Need for Change
After a conversation with my mom when I mentioned I was considering going on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in my life, I had an epiphany—“I CAN fix this, I WILL fix this,” but not with psychotropics. As a counselor, I always treated medication for my clients as a last resort. I owed myself the same treatment.
So, I found myself at Barnes & Noble in the Self Help aisle. For some reason, I was immediately attracted to Louise Hay’s “The Attitude of Gratitude.” I bought it. This was almost 15 years ago.
At that time, I began a practice of recalling the things I was grateful for at the end of each day. It was far from an easy undertaking initially. Sometimes it was hard to come up with much of anything. I was looking for big things, monumental moments, but experiences like that don’t come as often. And I was still clouded by the things I felt went wrong that day, or even yesterday. I realized quickly that I had to shift my focus. And it took real cognitive, emotional, and behavioral work.
I set out to look for things as they were happening instead of waiting to recall moments at night. THEN, I started to see all the good that was happening. It was the little things I started to see, like the person who held the door for me at the grocery store, the individual that let me make a left turn on a busy street, the conversation I had with a stranger/friend/family member, my cat sitting on my lap, the birds tweeting in the morning in spring, the professionals paving potholes in the streets in the middle of winter so drivers wouldn’t wreck their cars, a staff member who went beyond the call of duty, a colleague who understood and related to my perspective, a supervisor who supported my development, a student of mine who thanked me for helping them, or an opportunity that would help me grow personally or professionally. As time went on, my gratitudes even expanded to seeing how a bad experience usually gave me insight that helped me understand and counsel others, and how a seemingly missed opportunity often magically led me to a better one more suited for me.
A Gratitude Contagion that Positively Impacted Everything Else
Being grateful also had the most amazing contagious affect on me.
All of the sudden my faith grew. When I became grateful for the greater purpose in life’s challenges, I stopped questioning God. I started realizing that God knew things I didn’t and I had to hand it over and let God handle it. This made pains and even tragedies easier to process. God has a plan and we do not have to know what it is to live life contently.
Gratitude diminished my anxiety and worrying. When I became grateful for the little things, I worried less about achieving all the big things. And because gratitude grew my faith, I recognized that if the big things I wanted were right for me and meant to be, they would be. I could plan and strategize for the future, but I didn’t control it. And it was okay. The back pain, jaw unhinging, and panic attacks eventually went away and now I fall right to sleep most nights, with an occasional 20 minute lag here and there. And, I only have my “stress dream,” as I call it, a maximum of once a year now—usually about a math class I apparently forgot to take and now it’s the final and I never went to class and don’t even have the book! I guess I’m still working out some things, like my need to have too many things going at once, but that's a separate topic I'll get to another time ;-)
Being grateful allowed me to embrace myself and my life, and let go of materialism and envy. With gratitude, I became thankful for my perceived wrong turns, poor choices, losses, flaws, and quirks. They taught me about myself and others, they made me who I am, some of them held beautiful moments that simply didn’t last forever, and they all meant I was alive and trying. Embracing the ugly made me see my uglies as beautiful, and this led me to finally be comfortable in my own skin. This made me show my authentic, quirky me at all times, it made me bare my soul without fear of what others would see and think of me. It allowed me to not want what others have, because their haves are not my journey. And I love traveling my own now. And, I no longer perceive myself to have voids, so shopping doesn’t quite do it for me the same way anymore. But, when I do want to work out my feelings, now I just write or talk about them. I don’t need to hide them.
Gratitude enabled me to embrace others. If I am grateful for and love myself, flaws and all, I can do the same with those around me. I can see that even when a person does something I disagree with, they still hold their own unique beauty. Their journey is their own and none of us can know 100% what another needs. We cannot know the entirety of another’s experience. We cannot know their heart and soul completely. We want to be allowed to live our lives with acceptance, and we must give the same to those we meet. If we disagree so strongly with another, we can choose to stop engaging with them. But, we do not need to seek revenge or intentionally hurt anyone.
In sum, there hasn’t been an area of my life that gratitude hasn’t impacted. I feel as if it has transformed me on a cellular level, and certainly rewired my brain to see all the good in my life and in this world. I am so looking forward to sharing more specific arenas in which we can practice gratitude and how we can grow gratitude in our lives. I have connected with individuals who have amazing stories that I am excited to share in this gratitude series. Stay tuned ;-)
I would be remiss to write about gratitude and not express my sincere thanks to SourceBottle and ProfNet/PRNewswire, for connecting me with amazing interview subjects for this project. I will thank these interviewees, specifically, in the subsequent pieces they will be featured in. I also want to thank the following awesome PR Strategists who work immensely hard to promote the great work their clients do:
Donna Cravotta: http://socialsagepr.com
John Goodman: www.johnlgoodman.com
Patricia Vaccarino: www.prforpeople.com
Suzan French: www.linkedin.com/in/suzanfrench
Kate Siegel Bandos: www.ksbpromotions.com