The practice of gratitude is a powerful tool. It can boost your mental health, lift your spirits and perhaps even lead to enlightenment. I’m a great believer. However, like any tool, it can be misused. This is what I learned from my three year adventure with a gratitude practice.
My experience in the corporate world
Many years ago, I got a job as a health writer for a prestigious consumer organisation. I had the right qualifications and relevant experience, wrote a good application and performed well at the interview. I was thrilled to be offered the job.
Once in post, I gave every assignment my usual 120%. Whether I was writing about indoor air pollution, food hygiene in supermarkets, toothpaste claims or tap water quality, I did the best I could and what I did was good.
My gratitude practice
I was grateful to have been chosen over the hundreds of other applicants.
I was grateful that my skills and experience had been recognised and deemed worthy.
I was grateful that I had a job when so many others didn’t.
I was grateful to have a job that was interesting, challenging and well paid.
I was grateful to be of service. I was serving consumers with accurate and helpful information about products and services.
I was grateful for the feedback I was given on my reports.
I was (and still am) grateful for all that I learned about project management, research, and the topics I wrote about.
Working in a blame culture
Gratitude was my story and I repeated it to myself more and more desperately over the next three years. I soon discovered that I was working in an organisation which valued appearing to be right above appreciation and kindness. It was a culture of blame, hostile criticism and endless dramatic crises.
Every time one of my drafts went through the internal fact checking system, my stomach was in knots. External fact checkers always gave positive feedback but the internal ones were vicious. It seemed to me that they tried to outdo each other in writing caustic, scathing, personal criticisms and drawing red lines across my carefully researched and composed text.
When I complained about the bullying and mismanagement, I was referred to the occupational health therapist. She advised me to practice gratitude.
So I did. I kept practicing even though my self confidence was at rock bottom. I became convinced that I was not good enough for the job.
Enter my Inner Voice
My Inner Voice became louder and more insistent, communicating to me through high anxiety and stress levels. At the time, I didn’t know about my Inner Voice and wasn’t accustomed to tuning in to it. I perceived the stress as a further sign of my failure and was ashamed of my weakness.
Finally, my Inner Voice staged a dramatic intervention. It obviously has a sense of humour. When I was given an assignment to evaluate insomnia remedies, it cut off my supply of sleep. After several weeks of not sleeping, I became a gibbering wreck, incapable of anything but churning over my grievances at the organisation.
The organisation, true to its toxic nature, responded by disciplining me for insubordination. I resigned before any more damage was done to my self esteem. It took a long time to recover from the trauma and I have not worked in the corporate world since.
What I learned about the practice of gratitude
Now for the first time in 26 years, I can look back with compassion and consider what I have to be grateful for. Here’s what I learned about practicing gratitude:
1. Trust your Inner Voice
I am grateful to the organisation for giving me the opportunity to meet my Inner Voice. I learned that I cannot afford to ignore what it has to say to me. Nor can I power through its messages and over-ride its counsel. I learned to consult my Inner Voice at all times.
The Inner Voice never criticises. It is always loving. It speaks the truth. It is there to protect us.
But the Inner Voice can be distorted and twisted by the stories we tell ourselves. You might have to dig deeper to find out what it is really saying. When I heard an inner voice telling me that I was stupid and worthless, I eventually realised that these were untrue judgements overlying feelings of fear and shame. I learned to pause for more than a few seconds and let myself become quiet and still before checking in with my body. I learned that the Inner Voice communicates through feelings which are experienced in the body. I learned to listen to the tune, not the words.
2. Don’t use gratitude to invalidate your feelings
I learned that you can practice gratitude in such a way that you feel worse about yourself. Gratitude is meant to evoke feelings of joy and happiness and a sense of connectedness. Or at least, you should feel some relief from the heaviness of dissatisfaction and misery. If you’re not feeling a bit better after your practice, then reconsider how you’re doing it.
Rabbi Meir, a great Jewish sage of the 3rd century, is quoted as saying that a person is obligated to say 100 blessings a day.
When I proposed this idea to my 11 year old granddaughter, she laughed. ‘That’s easy,’ she said, reaching for a strand of hair on her head. ‘I can do that. One, I’m grateful for this hair. Two, for this hair. Three, thanks for this hair…’ She would have reached 100 in a matter of minutes if I hadn’t stopped her.
‘Are you feeling grateful?’ I asked her.
‘No, but I said 100 blessings,’ she said.
I don’t know what Rabbi Meir would have thought but I couldn’t see the point. If my words don’t evoke feelings of happiness and appreciation, then in my opinion, I’ve wasted my breath. I try not to say things I don’t mean. Obviously I don’t always succeed but it’s my intention and aspiration to speak my truth and to act with integrity.
There is an argument for saying the blessings even when you don’t mean them in the expectation that constant repetition will eventually work their magic and trigger more positive feelings. I haven’t found this to be true for myself. I only end up feeling irritated. And these days, I honour my feelings, whatever they are.
3. Avoid comparisons
Comparing your good fortune with someone else’s less fortunate situation may fuel the Us and Them mentality that pits us against each other. It can lead to the erroneous belief that some are deserving while others are not.
But if your gratitude enhances your awareness of the unity we share with others and that they share with us, then practicing gratitude is a practice of love and connection. Witnessing suffering can give you a greater appreciation of things you take for granted. When I returned to Bristol from a visit to the occupied Palestinian territories, I felt like kissing the pavement and giving thanks for the freedom to travel. I’d been through the checkpoints manned by the Israeli military and seen for myself the impact of the military occupation. I identified with the Palestinian population and was outraged as if I were one of them. No one is free unless all are.
4. Don’t depend on others’ approval
I am grateful for the lesson to accept myself as I am and not depend on the approval of others. I value authenticity. It’s important to me to be true to myself. I was a round peg in a square hole in that job. There’s nothing wrong with square pegs and many of my colleagues fit well in the square holes the organisation required. But those of us who were round or triangular or irregular shaped pegs could not stay long without serious damage to our essential shapes.
Yet, this metaphor is misleading. The lesson I am truly grateful for is that it wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t to blame. I did the best I could and my best was more than good enough. I did not deserve to be abused, nor did any of my colleagues, whatever their shape.
5. This too is for the good
Rabbi Nachum Ish Gamzu, a Jewish sage of the first century, earned his last name from his habit of responding to anything that happened to him with the phrase, ‘Gam zu le’tovah‘ which is Hebrew for: ‘This too is for the good.’ He believed that whatever happens in life is orchestrated by God for a person’s own good. So he taught the importance of giving thanks even for apparently terrible circumstances on the assumption that the hidden good will be revealed eventually.
Maybe Rabbi Gamzu is right and we really do live in a universe that is conspiring to help us reach our highest good. With the wisdom of hindsight, I can look back at that job and say I am sincerely grateful for the lessons I learned. I learned to accept myself for who I am and to forgive myself for the mistakes I made. I am not a victim, forever resentful of the organisation’s treatment of me. I was traumatised at the time and I have recovered and grown in self love since.
Yes, I can honestly say that this too was for the good.
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