LA Psychology ~ Los Angeles Psychological Services

On Gratitude

We hear it all the time: gratitude is not having what you want, it's wanting what you have. Alright. Great. Now that we've solved that… But how do we get there? However deeply we believe this truism, we often fail to understand how to practically implement into our lives—to not just say it, but to live it.

As a licensed therapist I have the unique opportunity to closely observe broad-spanning groups of people and witness how gratitude develops in their lives—whether it is cultivated into bloom or starved until it has shriveled and died. Across age, socio-economic status, ethnicity and whatever eclectic mix of problems they may be suffering- from alcoholism to relationship problems to trauma- a few principles about gratitude seem to transcend the specifics of any specific situation.

Here’s what TV sitcoms, our parents and new age self-help books got wrong. They told you not to feel the bad stuff. They told you “big boys and girls don’t cry,” sadness is weak, and anger is out-of-control and will cause people not to like you. Here’s what they didn’t tell you. They didn’t tell you that suppressing feelings wreaks havoc on our lives: internally, relationally and functionally. When you restrict your experience of sorrow, anger and pain, you restrict your ability to feel grateful. You constrict yourself. You become small. You begin to feel numb, detached and disconnected. Because, unfortunately, you can't rid yourself of the so-called negative emotions without restricting your experience of positive ones and confining your experience of yourself. The baby goes out with the bathwater.

Gratitude is not the exclusion of anger, sadness and vulnerability; on the contrary, gratitude is the natural outgrowth of embracing, accepting and experiencing all of your feelings, including the “negative” ones. This takes practice. When you're in the habit of dismissing and minimizing your feelings it takes a great deal of awareness to change. You can't just recognize this intellectually, you have to consciously repeat the habit and change the way you think about feelings such as sadness and anger. You have to fight back and create new messages to combat the old ones. For example, when you notice the message coming up, such as, "anger is out of control," notice that and replace it with "anger gives me strength, clarity and confidence to stand up for myself." Create a list of your current beliefs about emotions and another list of new beliefs you'd like to replace them with. You have to constantly flex the muscle of allowing yourself to experience all of our emotions before it will become second nature.

When you allow yourself to experience the depth of all of your emotions you create a bountiful emotional landscape, you magnify your internal expanse so that it is large enough to contain soaring joys and deep gratitude. You must open yourself up to experiencing the full spectrum of your humanity, the good, the bad and the ugly, before you will feel a deep sense of gratitude, contentment and vitality.