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Around this time of year, we hear a lot of talk about gratitude. There are many well-established benefits to practicing gratitude; it’s been shown to lower depression and stress, facilitate positive relationships, and even boost performance at work. As coaches, we frequently recommend starting a gratitude practice by maintaining a gratitude journal, or writing a gratitude letter.
When implemented into our lives authentically, gratitude can help us feel more grounded, humble, and connected to the world around us. And of course, it can positively affect those we interact with.
Sounds simple, right? Feel grateful, be happy, successful, and delightful to those around you. But, in reality, gratitude is a skill, and like many worthwhile skills, there is nuance and complexity to the art and science of authentically expressing thanks. First, there is some criticism of gratitude practices that fail to emphasize prosocial behavior. Sure, there are scientifically proven benefits of tracking gratitude in a journal, but critics argue that such practices can be overly self-focused. Another criticism? Many encounter psychological obstacles that can undermine the potential benefits of gratitude. The main obstacles I hear about from my most high achieving coachees:
Self-criticism: When your self critic is particularly loud, it can sabotage your capacity for authentic gratitude.
Aversion to vulnerability: Acknowledging the blessings of your life can trigger a fear of loss.
More on these obstacles to come, but in short, how we approach gratitude is often an indicator of our levels of self-compassion, connection, and outlook. While there’s no hard and fast “wrong” or “right” way to practice gratitude, let’s explore how you can fine tune your practice to benefit from the positive effects of gratitude and uncover new opportunities for growth.
I once worked with a leader who was struggling with time management, relationships, and a period of transition. Every time she would start to face the discrepancy between where she was, and the future she wanted to create, she would instead find herself turning to gratitude, telling herself, “I should just feel grateful.” But this thought pattern wasn’t helping her get any closer to achieving her goals. Nor was she actually feeling more connected and grateful in her daily life. Rather than dealing with some very real challenges, she was focusing on how she “should” feel grateful. I call this a “gratitude bypass” (a second cousin of the well-known “spiritual bypass”). In contrast to authentic gratitude, it can function as a high level mechanism for avoiding reality.
As she began to work on being more present, she no longer put so much pressure on herself to feel a certain way. In turn, she expressed that she was more genuinely recognizing the blessing in the little things, like her positive relationships with her colleagues, and morning walks with her dog. But then something else happened.
As she connected with her joy and felt spontaneous gratitude, she counterintuitively started to also feel a sense of impending doom. She told me, “As soon as I start truly recognizing all that is great in my life, I almost immediately start wondering, ‘When is the other shoe going to drop? When will I lose what I have?’”
The problem was that the way she was experiencing gratitude was a signal that she needed to develop some critical skills, or as we call them in psychology, “psychological resources.” The next time you practice gratitude, pay attention to your internal experience. This will help you determine whether or not you may want to also focus on other skills, such as self-compassion.
Positive internal gratitude experience
As you think about, express, or write down what you’re grateful for, there is a felt sense. Far from robotic, the practice ignites a visceral experience of acknowledging blessings small and large. After practicing gratitude, your mood is higher, you’re breathing deeper, and you feel a great sense of internal spaciousness.
Negative internal gratitude experience
Gratitude is a practice, not a destination, so if your experience doesn’t feel as you think it “should,” don’t despair. Signals of a negative gratitude experience may include the following:
- Considering what you feel grateful for feels forced or robotic.
- Counting your blessings may even bring on feelings of guilt.
- After practicing gratitude, you’re feeling more constricted than you were before.
- You’re not feeling more connected to people or the world, you’re feeling separate.
- You’re thinking negative thoughts, not positive ones.
Pay attention to your mindset after you’ve practiced gratitude — is it positive or negative? If your internal experience is positive, great! You’re reaping the rewards of your gratitude practice. If it’s negative, I have some suggestions for turning things around. I recommend shifting the focus to compassion, for self and for other.
It’s important to be grateful for amazing things in your life — a family, a job you find meaningful and purposeful — while also acknowledging and validating struggles.
When I start to pick up on a coachee’s negative internal experience, I recommend tweaking their gratitude practice from “yes, I am grateful” to “yes, and…” It’s important to be grateful for amazing things in your life — a family, a job you find meaningful and purposeful — while also acknowledging and validating struggles.
Self-compassion expert Kristin Neff emphasizes that the way you experience suffering is an important signal for high or low self-compassion. We all experience suffering, but individuals with low self-compassion tend to feel like their suffering is isolated as opposed to part of a universal human experience. They may also diminish their own suffering because they feel others have it worse (I “should” be grateful). One key to increasing your capacity for self-compassion (and increasing the benefits of a gratitude practice) is an ability to accept that your suffering doesn’t matter more or less than others’; it just matters. As Brene Brown notes: “…The more we diminish our own pain, or rank it compared to what others have survived, the less empathic we are to everyone.”
Often, a negative internal response to gratitude is deeply rooted in our fears of rejection. We fear we’ll come off as self-absorbed, or un-empathetic, and thus disconnect those around us. But we know from Brene Brown’s work that being authentic and vulnerable increases social success and connection.
Gratitude doesn’t have to be an either or. It’s a “yes, and.” Again, to quote Brene Brown, “When we surrender our own joy to make those in pain feel less alone or to make ourselves feel less guilty or seem more committed, we deplete ourselves of what it takes to feel fully alive and fueled by purpose.” You get to have your joy, and you’re also entitled to your pain. Owning your full experience, with compassion, leads to a more authentic experience of gratitude.
Starting a self-compassion practice, alongside a gratitude practice, can help you feel less conflicted and better able to be with the present. When you’re mentally equipped to increase feelings of compassion for yourself, your tolerance for vulnerability will increase and you’ll begin to feel confidant embracing your joy without questioning whether or not you deserve it. You’ll begin to feel less guilty about feeling grateful — and instead, leverage both practices to improve your well-being and resilience.
Before we move on to concrete practices for cultivating self-compassion and enhancing your capacity for gratitude, let’s get granular about what we mean by “self-compassion.” Like “gratitude,” “self-compassion” has both significant grounding in the scientific literature, as well as a strong presence in popular psychology. Simply stated, self-compassion is “compassion towards the self.” Hardly a new concept, Kristin Neff’s definition of self-compassion was inspired by the writings Buddhist teachers dating back 2500 years. It includes 3 components:
- Self-kindness: Treating oneself with kindness versus critical judgment.
- A sense of common humanity: Recognizing one’s struggles as part of a shared human experience versus with sense of isolation.
- Mindfulness: Holding painful thoughts and emotions with mindful awareness versus over identification.
These three components — quieting the inner critic, enhancing your sense of connection, and practicing mindfulness — directly support authentic experiences of gratitude. Like other practices of mindfulness and gratitude, when practiced authentically, self-compassion is anything but selfish.
Taming the inner critic
Spiritual teacher and best-selling author, Marrianne Williamson, offers the wise reminder: “Everything we do is infused with the energy in which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful.” If our mind is always looking for reasons why we aren’t enough, or don’t measure up, we will find them, given our psychological tendency to overly consider evidence that supports our existing beliefs. This is referred to as confirmation bias. A loud inner critic will impact everything we do — even our capacity to feel gratitude. Taming the inner critic starts with awareness and compassion.
A simple practice that can be done anywhere, at anytime, labeling is a mindfulness practice that creates a distance between yourself and your thoughts. In that distance, negative thoughts begin to lose their power. Psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel says, “Name it to tame it.” What this means is that when you recognize that harsh, berating voice, the one that you would never use with a friend, simply name it. You might say to yourself, “Self critic.” Or if you recognize other negative feelings arise when practicing gratitude, go ahead identify them. How is something so simple also so effective? Studies show that such “affect labeling” tames brain activity associated with fear and negative emotions. Acknowledging the negative, rather than ignoring it, creates more space for positivity.
We can’t expect to cultivate authentic gratitude and compassion for ourselves or others if we’re constantly harried and focused on output. This is why taking regular journeys into the interior is positive for both peace of mind, as well as our capacity for empathy. More than the specific form your inner work takes, it matters that you make it a priority and devote time.
Researcher Kristin Neff offers a number of self-compassion practices on her website. The self-compassion break is one of my favorites.
We’ve armed you with some critical foundational practices but this post is about gratitude which is, of course, also key. Pay attention to your internal experience as you practice. As you weave self-compassion into your life, notice how your practice shifts. Here are a couple of options for focused gratitude practice: 1) Write a gratitude list. 2.) Set a timer for 3 minutes, and without overthinking it, start writing down what you are grateful for in your life. 2.) At the end of the day, write down three good things that happened to you that day.
Enjoy this season of giving authentic thanks. In the words of Maya Angelou, “This a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”
Original art by Theo Payne.
Director of Clinical Design & Partnerships, BetterUp