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Cultivating Gratitude: Reshaping the Mind through Practice

As a child I thought the phrase, "count your blessings" was obnoxious. Adults seemed to use it a lot when I was frustrated, but never really broke it down for me. I didn't recognize regular gratitude practices in the adults that raised me, and I don't recognize a regular practice in my younger years when I look back on my life now. However I have been cultivating a very regular and multifaceted gratitude practice over the last couple years that has shifted my perspective on life in ways I wouldn't have imagined possible.

I have had a history of feeling stuck in a victim role. I genuinely was a victim in some circumstances early in life, and I recognized from a young age that these situations had occurred because of other peoples actions. Although I was correct at the time that I was recognizing abusive behavior being taken out on me, I took on the extreme position of victimhood for too long and in too many aspects of my life, as many trauma survivors do. Life's challenges started to seem like bad things that were happening to me because of other peoples lack of empathy for me. I started to blame others for the problems in my life and became oblivious to my own agency. I became highly critical and defensive which are two out of four of the, 'four horseman', or the most detrimental characteristics in relationships according to the Gottman Institute, world renowned experts in interpersonal relations. I learned about the four horseman and the Gottman's work in couples therapy in 2019 and recognized that I could even sometimes adopt the other 2 caustic characteristics-stonewalling and contemptuousness. My interpersonal relationships were practically destined for pain, combativeness and ultimately loss, which is what I had been experiencing throughout life. I finally realized that I was contributing hugely to my own suffering. I knew I needed to change.

My gratitude practice came into my life around that time of deep self-reflection and commitment to changing myself. The practice seems to have crept in like fog in a valley, descending in from all sides. Although I can't quite pinpoint when or by whom the seed for my gratitude practice was planted, I do remember it being nourished in its early days by the public practice of a friend, Mollie Jimmar. Mollie was making regular social media posts about gratitude and I asked her about it. She told me about an interview she had done for the What About the Mama podcast and I resonated with what she shared on the show about shifting away from a negative complaining mindset and finding opportunity even in difficulty. I started to ocaasionally make lists, but I needed more reinforcement to take on my regular practice. Little did I know how much encouragement was soon coming.

Around the same time that I heard Mollie's interview, I was also starting to participate in a group focused on healing interpersonal relationships. The group suggested making gratitude lists and there were multiple occasions over the early months of my involvement that friends and I would send lists to each other. I remember feeling a bit phony doing it since I was only making gratitude lists if other people were going to read them, but in the long run it ended up getting me into a habit. I found that sending lists back and forth would tend to fall off with other people, but eventually I kept it up on my own. I started to make lists more regularly, even if no one else would be reading them.

One of those early gratitude list exchange buddies gave me an idea that really stretched out and expanded my practice-she told me to write 3 things on my list of 10 about someone who I was having serious and persistent issues with, who was my romantic partner at the time. I was not excited about giving that much positive mental attention to someone I thought was behaving poorly, but I took her opinion seriously and decided to give it a try. At first it was difficult to find something good about my partner, but I was told it could be very broad. I realized I could be grateful for small tasks that he would do, even if they were just basic responsibilities. I was raised being told I wouldn't be praised for doing the things I was supposed to do, but only the exceptional things. This practice was going against that notion, and changing me in the process. I found I could be grateful for my partners contributions to our home and relationship, even if I didn't like the specific way he doing things. I learned to say, "thank you" instead of always having some suggestion for how things could be improved, and I even began to see the good in his actions. I started to realize that how he performed tasks was not as important as I'd previously thought. Practicing gratitude rather than focusing on improvements was making our relationship so much more peaceful and pleasant. I was humbled.

In addition to listing my gratitudes and including ones from my problem relationship, I also started saying 1 thing I was grateful for before eating at mealtimes and encouraging my family members to share as well. Sometimes in moments of tension with my spouse or children this could be difficult. It can be hard to share soft feelings or find something to be happy about in that collectively negative energy. But again, allowing myself to focus even on the small things would always allow me to say something. I can always be grateful for for food I am eating or the shelter of my home. I can always be grateful for the end of the day or the opportunities tomorrow will bring. There is always something, and I find that when I share it, it can soften the atmosphere for others as well and allow them the space to feel more grateful as well.

Nowadays it seems there are so many things to be grateful for. My attitude towards life has shifted dramatically during my healing journey and I know that this practice has been key. I find myself experiencing and speaking gratitude regularly. Life is full of challenges for all of us, but I no longer see the difficulties I endure as pure suffering. I no longer feel like a victim in life. I can now find the blessings in my life easily and the only reason I have to not count them is because they are infinite. Although I can't possible list all the things I am grateful for, I do typically list 10 daily and say at least 1 thing before each meal. I make sure to include on my lists gratitudes about people or situations that I have issues with.

Whatever I encounter, there's an opportunity to learn how to support myself better. If an individual is causing me problems and I can't work it out with them, I have a responsibility to myself to distance myself from that person. I can be grateful that they showed me that they are not going to meet my needs and that I neeed to learn how to meet them myself. I am happier in life because I have a regular gratitude practice. I can find joy or a positive twist in any situation. I see opportunity everywhere and appreciate the efforts of others much more than I did before my practice. And I am more grateful and patient with myself. I can be grateful for the small things I do and the small moments of peace I experience. Gratitude practice is also an important aspect of Non Violent Communication, a communication technique that I study and employ in my personal life.

I am grateful to you for taking the time to read this post! I hope you find something in it that inspires or affirms you. May you notice a moment today that might not have otherwise stood out. Feel free to share it with me, I'll be deeply grateful to hear about it!


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