Beyond 101: On Guidepost 4 (Cultivating Gratitude and Joy)
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
For an introduction to Dr. Brené Brown’s 10 guideposts, see this post. For more on the topic, see her book “The Gifts of Imperfection.”
Guidepost 4: Cultivating gratitude and joy (Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark).
Sometimes I find that my work and my personal needs dovetail in creepy ways. This is one of those ways. I find myself needing to cultivate joy in my life and at a total loss for how to do so. Then, I sat down to write this article and surprise, surprise: Here were some ideas on the subject.
I’m going to start with my favorite quote from this chapter of “The Gifts of Imperfection”: “The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”
Dr. Brown argues that joy and happiness are different feelings. Joy is a deep, spiritual feeling, where happiness is often related to something external. Both, she says, tend to come and go, which jives with my own personal take on feelings; no feeling is permanent. I like to think of my own emotions like a bunch of barges floating around the sea of my mind. Even the best feelings will float out to sea again, replaced by another feeling.
How, then, do I cultivate a feeling of joy in myself? It’s not going to be anything external; I can’t find it in stuff or circumstance. I need to turn inward for joy. Dr. Brown reports that her research shows a high correlation between joy and gratitude.
Well, I have to say I have a problem with that.
I may be the only one on the planet still resisting the idea of a gratitude practice. I don’t like it. I find that when I try to make a list of everything I’m grateful for, I experience a growing sense of resentment and end up wanting to throw the list across the room. Yes, yes, I’m glad for the air I sort of breathe (asthma) and the house I live in, and I have a lot of privilege and a rather nice, comfortable life, and believe me I am actually grateful for those things. I wake up every day relieved I can pay my bills and that my car starts and that my kids are well. That wasn’t always the case. However, when I go to make lists of my gratitudes I get angry. Very angry.
It took me a while to realize that for me, gratitude can’t look like listing off all the great things in my life. For me, it feels like a way of telling myself, “You should be glad for what you have; quit your bitching.” I feel false and punitive making these lists, especially when I’m struggling with joy. It’s like, here’s what you do have so stop being so dang sad and mad. What I notice is that the emotions of pain and anger do not want to be silenced by false gratitude platitudes.
(Gratitude Platitudes is my next band name.)
So, I have to redefine gratitude practice for myself. Diving into the guidepost more, I love how Dr. Brown talks about joy and fear being opposites. That the barrier to joy lies in feelings of scarcity and terror that something bad will happen. As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, the “something Bad will happen” philosophy has guided many of my decisions throughout my life. Sometimes those decisions were wise, sometimes they were not, but all of them were designed to keep the Bad away. Poor, anxious me sometimes still believes I can keep bad things from happening. I suffer and blame myself when things go all wrong.
Honestly, Dr. Brown says it best:
“We think not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less. We think that if we can beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining loss, we’ll suffer less. We’re wrong. There’s one guarantee: If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.”
What I’d like to do is define gratitude not as the list of ways I “should be happy with things” but as the things I can do or have that allow me to cope with hard times and feelings. I may be suffering, and I honor that suffering, and also isn’t it cool that I can lean into that suffering bravely? I am having a hard and lonely day, and I am so glad that I can reach out to a friend just to say hello. I am feeling trapped in my life, and I am so grateful to know that the feeling is just a feeling, because if that were real, that would really suck. And also I will give myself a little hug because that feeling sucks, too.
I can focus on my scarcity fears, and give them room to be afraid without judging them. If part of me is being Chicken Little about something, I can offer that part of me compassion and be glad that I know it’s just a barge on the sea of my mind. I can even name this panic as a feeling of vulnerability. After all, I know that vulnerability is what leads to greater depths of joy. If I’m feeling vulnerable, I’m on the right track. It just feels scary.
Instead of assuming gratitude should change the way I’m feeling, I’m going to try to practice gratitude as an addition to fear or pain. I am afraid, and I’m also glad I can notice this fear. It’s practicing a kind of faith in my own abilities and the life I’ve built to support me. Now that’s gratitude I can get my mind around.