I am sitting here in my living room/pandemic office surrounded by bottles of hand sanitizer, masks, wipes, and sprays. My formerly fun and silly social media platforms are now inundated with videos, images, and articles highlighting any number of scenarios that read like possible plot lines in a dystopian novel. But this is not a creative writing class; this is my life. No space feels safe from the constant barrage of chaos and uncertainty, and my former distress tolerance skills are either inaccessible or feel as if they’ve lost their potency. As the weight of these circumstances continues to mount, I am tasked with writing about “gratitude.” I would normally chuckle at this paradoxical predicament, but anger, fear, sadness, and hopelessness are taking up almost all my space.
I cannot avoid these emotions because they are vessels that contain information about how to meet my own needs and ensure my survival. These emotions feel different than they have in the past, as they frantically swirl around my brain; the information seems impossible to grasp, and I feel more and more powerless. On one hand, asking myself “what are you grateful for?” almost feels invalidating, dismissive, and even condescending while I have all of these other emotions to attend to. One the other hand, I have been giving attention to those big feelings for hours without any clear answers, hope, or relief, so I might as well take a break.
I am grateful for my partner, my job, my friends, my current health, my…ugh! That feels so perfunctory. I notice the fear, anger, sadness, and hopelessness getting louder once again. Maybe I need to think about things that are more in my control, more specific. I am grateful to have a partner who sees me for who I am, who leaves space for my highs and my lows, who knows that I deserve a place to cry and yell, who generates joy and laughter day after day. I am grateful that I love my career and that it gives me space to lift others up, that I can validate and strengthen the voices of the vulnerable, that I can provide safety and solutions to combat helplessness and hopelessness. I am grateful for friends who check in and let me dictate the terms of my support avenues, who share their vulnerability with me and demonstrate genuine reciprocity, who display compassion and love in the purest of fashions.
I am noticing a shift in my mood. The overwhelming din of those chaotic emotions is now a dull murmur. I am noticing that I no longer have the urge to run, hide, or avoid the cacophony of uncomfortable feelings. I can finally hear what they are trying to tell me. Although there are various messages, the main takeaway is that I fear for the safety and rights of vulnerable populations, including myself and my partner. The recognition of the fear seems to turn the volume back up, and the urge to avoid these emotions creeps back in.
Okay, breathe, let’s try the gratitude exercise again. This time I will focus on my power as I learned that is where I feel most threatened. I am grateful that I have a loud voice that I am not afraid to use in most spaces. I am grateful that I am able-bodied and can wield my voice in multiple settings. I am grateful that I have the training and communication skills to spread information effectively. I am grateful for my self-love which frees me from worries about how I will be perceived by others and allows me to advocate for my needs and rights. Again, I feel more peaceful, safer, organized, and empowered, and these emotions are accompanied by ideas about how to use those strengths I found in gratitude.
Not one thing in my life or environment has changed or shifted since I began to practice gratitude. I am still sitting on this couch, deepening the divots in the cushions forged by many months at home. Although the concrete injustices and issues remain constant, my mood and perspective feel stable and clear. I have ideas about how to use my power, fight my fear, channel my anger, validate my sadness, and increase my hope. Gratitude did not distract me from these painful emotions, nor did it coat the harsh truths of current events with a thick layer of sugar. Practicing gratitude did not require me to rationalize or dismiss the realities of suffering around the world. Instead, focusing on my gratitude allowed me to hold the opposite and equally true strengths that exist alongside the more sinister realities that had filled all the space I had to tolerate distress. Through my gratitude lens, I finally found the answers and validation I had been searching for while soaking in my pool of suffering.
Gratitude has the power to decrease feelings of hopelessness and helplessness while simultaneously fortifying one’s power and ability to affect the changes necessary to meet needs. Consistent actions in the direction of your goals and values result in a greater sense of agency, reinforcing feelings of safety and overall capacity to manage the most difficult parts of life. If you would like to build mastery around utilizing gratitude, you can find 13 ideas here, and don’t forget to ask your therapist for strategies and resources!