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Gratitude: A Practical Guide to Manning Up (Part 2 of 2)

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In the previous gratitude installment we discussed the process of establishing a gratitude practice backed by scientific research on the benefits of gratitude. The second portion of this article examines a few more strategies as well as results one may find by keeping such a practice. Again, these are observations from my own gratitude practice (with my friend Kyle) for both your edification and amusement. 

Strategy 4: Emotional colonics

I found a stream of conscious gratitude list worked best for me. Each day I would start the list with the first thing that came to mind. “I’m grateful for coffee and the legal high it provides. I’m grateful for Netflix.” I recommend starting as fast and as unedited as possible. Perhaps contemplating your life and extrapolating the most meaningful aspects of it is how you would like to start. To me that sounds hard. I say, start with the simple stuff.

Many times Kyle’s list began with an observation about his location. “I’m grateful the subway is air conditioned. I’m grateful I made my train on time.” Sometimes mine would begin, “I’m grateful this stall has toilet paper.” This is a method of scanning your thoughts and addressing the things that are on your mind in that moment or day. Remember the exercise is a means of connecting with and taking ownership of your feelings. It’s a place to be obsessive, if obsessive is your thing that day. Try your best not to manipulate your list or “perform” for your partner. Just let the thoughts flow.

When I write my list I don’t correct typos. I don’t try to sound smart. I just write a bunch of things that I’m thinking and begin each sentence with the words “I’m grateful for…” This may seem disingenuous, but remember we’re taking baby steps here. Use each “I’m grateful for…” statement to usher you to your next thought. Try to connect with what pleasures and anxieties may be lingering in your mind but have yet to be pronounced.

Strategy 5: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

When writing stream of conscious, I found that my thoughts often led to some pretty dark places. I’m grateful for this day, quickly reminded me that I had an unwanted birthday on the horizon. I’m grateful for my parents, quickly reminded me of my parents. Instead of ignoring these things I found that accepting the negative thoughts and adding them to the list made for a better practice. In some small way this gave me ownership of the negative influences and events that were out of my control. “I’m grateful for my receding hairline.” “I’m grateful that I skipped going to the gym last night.” These may seem self-deprecating and perhaps even a bit sarcastic, but they are our honest thoughts and they shouldn’t be discounted.

Now, here’s where the gratitude comes into play.  When four or five of these statements take a turn to the negative or tell a cohesive narrative of hopelessness or anger, I’ll take a moment to examine what’s bothering me. I visualize this almost as setting a trap for the negative thoughts in my mind. Once ensnared, I can examine them, articulate them, and take a moment to actively find something good in the scenarios they depict. “I’m grateful that I skipped the gym” yielded “I’m grateful I’ve been on a gym streak before yesterday.” “I’m grateful for my receding hairline” was followed by “I’m grateful I still have hair.” Often even greater epiphanies reveal themselves such as, “I’m grateful I don’t derive my identity from arbitrary concepts of male virility like what percentage of my cranium is cover by hair.”

Through the list I was able to see a source of discomfort. I was able to give it a name (aging) and I was able to reexamine my outlook. This is when I started to see a change.

Strategy 6: Go until you feel it.

In Melody Beattie’s “Making Miracles in Forty Days,” Mel B (aka Self-Improvement Spice) recommends writing your list each day until you “feel something.” Soon after beginning the gratitude practice I asked myself, “What is this elusive something I’m supposed to feel?” The truth is, this will be different for everyone. When I began my practice I was very angry. I had moved to another country to pursue a relationship which ended only weeks after I had arrived. I had uprooted my entire life at great expense to my career, moving to a place where I had no friends, few cultural similarities, and limited resources. “Feeling something” for me was about cutting through my anger. Some days I would finish the practice feeling excited, others I would end up feeling drained. I realize pursuing happiness by forcing one’s self to feel sad everyday may seem counterintuitive, but when your natural state is adrenalized and vitriolic, sadness is an improvement (gratitude).

I needed the gratitude list to articulate what was bothering me and I needed it to appreciate the exciting prospects that were ahead of me. Take, for instance, the sentence “I had moved to another country to pursue a relationship…” At the beginning all I could think about was a failed relationship; by the end all I could see was a powerful opportunity in a new environment. No friends, few cultural similarities and limited resources became anonymity, amazing learning possibilities, and a chance to reinvent myself. For Kyle his “feeling it” seemed to take more intellectualized forms. He couldn’t find an adequate feeling to signify an end to his list, so he simply decided to dedicate exactly ten minutes to the process each day. Your practice is your own; trust your instincts and you’ll figure out how much time to put into it.

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Strategy 7: Appreciating changes

As previously mentioned, the start of my practice was about cutting through anger. This lasted about fifteen days. The second phase was a more observational process. I started to notice that I was more conscious of other people’s gratitude.

My sister and I went on vacation together. She had booked a room for us last minute online. As we were heading to the hotel, we noticed a billboard which stated that our lodging was advertised on a naturist website. (Naturist is the PC term for nudist.) The two of us were panicked as our cab pulled through the gates. “Damn it! No wonder it was so cheap,” my sister said. When we arrived, we saw the hotel: it was a total dump. I instantly receded into myself. “I can’t even get vacations right,” my inner Eeyore groaned. We went up to our room. My sister decided to take a shower, as I examined the suite more closely. Not to my surprise, I found a clump of human hair in the bed. Was it the maid’s? Best case scenario. Perhaps it served as filling for the flaccid, coffee stained pillows — a macabre sort of Martha Stewart Living with living tissue. Moments later my sister emerged from the bathroom. A huge grin appeared on her face. “I love this place.” I looked at her inquisitively. “The water pressure is amazing and so far not a swinging peen in sight!” For the duration of our stay, anytime something would go wrong we’d just look at each other and say, “at least there’s clothes.”

Over the next month, my brain seemed to rewire. Not only could I appreciate the gratitude of others, I was beginning to find gratitude in my own life. At first it was small things. I’d see a rainy day and think, “The Underground is going to be comfortable and maybe today I’ll get to catch up on some writing.” Then came more monumental epiphanies. “I was with someone who lacked the courage and resources needed for honesty. I’m grateful that I realized this before investing any more of my time. I’m grateful I don’t have that problem to overcome, as it makes life more difficult and less interesting. I’m grateful to have found sympathy for my ex.”

Through Kyle’s list I witnessed transformations as well. A palpable serenity became evident in his daily narratives. Arguments with people from his work were accompanied by moments of poignant insight. He seemed less inflammatory in his language, less reactive in his interactions. Essentially he became a gratitude Jedi. It was an exciting thing to witness. By the end of his practice, he realized he wanted a career change and felt emboldened to make that change.

If you choose to assume a practice like this one, you are taking the first steps to bettering yourself. Celebrate that as a victory. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right. Nobody is doing anything right; we are all on different paths to various destinations. The best thing I’ve taken from this practice is that my life is a story about me. The feeling that our lives have somehow been derailed or are not going right, are the result of comparisons to other people or a false perception of where we should be.

By celebrating the small wins, we improve our outlook. We begin to understand qualities about ourselves that our friends and loved ones assume we know. This is the reason for their simplistic views on our betterment. Through the practice we begin to see ourselves as happy, effective, and worthy of love. In a sense, chinning up and letting go is incredible advice. It’s a beautiful result that helps us focus on what’s ahead. But when we’ve been deceived, abused, or misunderstood — it’s difficult to simply “move on,” cold turkey. Through gratitude I found an avenue for my analytical tendencies and an instruction manual to make these simple but important goals a reality.

Give it a try. If you’re miserable, this may help. If you’re happy, this may provide you with new skills. If you’re too embarrassed to approach someone, send this article with the headline: “Man tried gratitude practice, what happens next will amaze you.” Because you know people click that shit.

Take Away Summary:

-Gratitude practice is cool

-Try it with a friend

-“Gag Rule” is critical

-Be honest before being insightful

-Try pairing the gratitude list with stream of consciousness journaling for any feelings, grateful or not

-To make it stick, set a length to your trial period 

-Pick and stick to a frequency (whether weekly, daily, or M-F)

-Appreciate the small changes

Have you ever tried a gratitude practice? What’s worked for you in the past? Are there any specific blind spots not covered in this series? Could you see yourself trying this once a week? Please leave your comments below.

A few other resources:

http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/mmccullough/Gratitude_Page.htm

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/504/how-i-got-into-college?act=2

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/How-do-you-define-yourself-Lizz

-@steven_robi

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Gratitude: A Practical Guide to Manning Up (Part 1 of 2) | XY Culture

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