Clichés surround us that say things like, ‘look on the bright side’, or, ‘count your blessings’. Like most clichés they can end up making us feel worse rather than better. Trying to force ourselves to see past our difficult experiences to either others whose lives are worse than ours, or to what may happen in the future if we just try harder can increase our sense of guilt and shame.
At the same time, there is increasing evidence that taking time each day to reflect and experience some sense of gratitude allows us to gain more perspective in our lives. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein suggests that both envy and gratitude are very early ways of relating to the objects around us and especially those who care for us. Whilst envy for Klein is about seeking to possess, destroy, and grasp at, gratitude is the experience of open-hearted appreciation of, of love, and an ability to recognise and enjoy something or someone without needing to control. These ways of relating are always with us in various ways, and being able to notice them and slowly develop our capacity to express gratitude allows us to create space between us and those things which are important to us, whether a situation, person or object.
Developing gratitude is not easy. If a developing child is given enough in the moments when they feel most fragile, if their caregivers can respond in the ways that are needed, without giving too much, then we could imagine a child developing quickly the ability to be grateful, to allow their world around them to be without envying and seeking to control or be fearful of others. However this is rarely the case even with attentive parents who have the capacity and time to tend to there infants well, and we enter the adult world torn between envious ways of relating and grateful ways.
Ideally as adults we are able to enter into relationships where we receive what is lacking within us, and can slowly let go of the more intensely envious ways that we relate; our need for more things, people, money, praise etc. This can of course be found in counselling, and also in many caring relationships where the person can respond in ways that you can take in a sense of you being valued for who you.
We can however also help ourselves learn to be grateful through various activities. One of these is through keeping gratitude lists. This task takes five minutes a day, and involves writing down any experiences that you have considered to be positive. This could be the smell of someone’s perfume as they walked past, someone who smiled at you, the warmth of the sun, having had enough to eat, or anything that was a positive experience. Don’t force this or twist it to become a ‘I’m grateful that my boss wasn’t as nasty to me as normal’ comment; this is just an exercise in experiencing gratitude for the mostly small moments of joy in your life.
This in no way invalidates the difficulties in life, but rather allows you to begin to relate to yourself and the world in subtly different ways, allowing you to not be as bound up in less helpful ways of thinking. Practically, this involves keeping a diary or perhaps using one of the many phone apps called ‘gratitude lists’ that are now available. Try and keep what you write short, and the list to under ten things. this means that you are less likely to struggle to remember things that have happened. Through doing this daily not only do you have a regular activity that is designed to help you broaden your experience and way of being in the world, it also means that over time you can look back over your life and remember past good experiences.
If you would like to know more about counselling and how I practice, feel free to visit my website at: http://www.richardpicklescounselling.co.uk