Gratitude: A Practice

Having a gratitude practice or keeping a gratitude journal is somewhat trendy right now. You may notice friends on Facebook or other social media platforms listing their daily thanksgivings. Therapists, including myself, may even assign clients the task of keeping a gratitude journal at home. And, while I certainly speak gratitude to those I love and care about, I have never actually kept a gratitude journal or had a daily ritual specifically practicing gratitude. But here is why I am going to start, and why I would encourage you to, also.

Robert Emmons, one of the leading scientific experts and researchers on gratitude, has found that practicing gratitude can transform people’s lives in several ways. First, he says that because our emotional systems like novelty and positive emotions quickly wane, gratitude allows us to celebrate the present while highlighting positive feelings. And by noticing the positive, we are more able to show up and participate and are receiving even more from our good experiences and interactions.

Second, he found that gratitude reduces and even eliminates negative or toxic emotions. He also identified that grateful people are more stress resistant and generally have a higher sense of self-worth.

In his research, Emmons discovered that people who practice gratitude tend to have a stronger immune system, lower blood pressure, are more likely to exercise and take better care of their health, sleep better, enjoy more positive emotions, feel more alert and alive, report more joy, optimism, and happiness, tend to be more forgiving, outgoing, helpful, generous and compassionate, and feel less lonely and isolated.

Shame author and researcher Brené Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “We’re a nation hungry for more joy: Because we’re starving from a lack of gratitude.” If you find yourself longing for more joy, connection, and peace, if you are feeling like contentment is just out of reach, or if you would just like to be healthier and happier, you might consider one of the following suggestions from Emmons to begin your gratitude practice.

  • Keep a gratitude journal, recording three to five things each week for which you are grateful
  • Write a gratitude letter to an important person in your life who you have never thanked
  • Practice being present and grateful in the moment when good things are happening.
  • When receiving a gift or something positive in your life, consider the effort made by someone to bring that goodness into your life.
  • Practice recognizing the positive by listing three good things that happened each day
  • Start a gratitude practice with your family

Shame Resilience and Connection

We are biologically hardwired to feel a sense of belonging and connection with others. However, we all experience times where we feel disconnected, lonely, unworthy, or less than others. Sometimes, shame is the culprit of these feelings of disconnection.

Author and researcher Brené Brown defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” The truth is, we all experience shame. In the clients that I work with and in myself, it often comes up as feeling “not __________ enough”. Fill in the blank with words like: good enough, sexy enough, smart enough, manly enough, feminine enough, physically fit enough, and so on. It often plagues us in all of our roles including as parents, partners, employees, and family members. It dresses up in words like “should” and is prevalent when we compare ourselves to others. Perhaps the scariest part of shame is that it “creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection,” Brown says. And disconnection, of course, leads to more feelings of shame and a lack of belonging.

Some of the messages of shame we have come from the media, from our peers, our parents or family members, or from society. As humans, we will continue to experience the primitive emotion of shame because deep down, we fear disconnection and a lack of belonging. However, we can become more resilient to it by being aware of when it is happening to us and knowing ways to minimize its negative impact in our lives and on our relationships. Following are a list of suggestions from Brown’s research about shame resilience.

  1. Recognize shame and its triggers. Know where you feel it in your body. Recognize the areas where you experience the most shame.
  2. Practice critical awareness. Remember that we are not alone in our experience and that most everyone experiences shame and feelings of being not good enough. Recognize societal expectations and check within to see if you really want to adhere to those expectations. Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be?”
  3. Reach out. Be empathetic with others and remind them that they are not alone. Share your experiences when you didn’t feel like you had/were enough. Have compassion with yourself and others, and listen with empathy and validation. Remember that shame thrives in secrecy.
  4. Speak shame. Tell your story and share your shame with people that will be supportive and compassionate with you.

Click this link to learn more about the difference between empathy and sympathy. You can learn more about Dr. Brené Brown by visiting her website or you can see her two Ted Talks about The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame.

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