Beyond a Gratitude Practice: Some paths need more than a positive attitude

Thanksgiving, a time for yoga teachers, therapists and the Oprah’s of the world to do their yearly classes, blogs and specials on the importance of a gratitude practice.  Gratitude is a powerful force in our lives that can help shift our focus away from the negative AND it can be complicated and nuanced, especially if you have had conflict, grief or trauma in your past.  Gratitude is often touted as a way of healing pain and I wouldn’t disagree, but let’s discuss some of the seemingly conflicting messages we may be getting around healing pain with gratitude.

There are two major schools of thought when it comes to pain.  There is the idea that we can really grow from pain, that struggle is necessary to build resilience and that we can actually learn to have gratitude for our path.  I don’t disagree with this; one of my favorite sayings is “Sometimes our most painful experiences can crack open the most beautiful parts of ourselves.” However, there is another school of thought around pain and trauma that some things are not meant to be merely learned from and let go. Some pain, like the loss of a child or sexual abuse from a parent, some pain is so deep, that the burden of it must simply be carried.  To tell someone that has gone through a deeply painful or traumatic experience that “it is God’s will” or “everything happens for a reason” or “just find something to be grateful for” can be deeply hurtful and invalidating.

I work with many survivors of sexual abuse and many of them do reach some point in their healing process that sounds something like “if I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be as strong, compassionate and empathetic as I am today.” I do believe, in part, that going through horrific experiences has the ability to grow our capacity in powerful ways and that we can reach a place of gratitude for walking through that pain. AND we want to be careful not to justify abuse, not to minimize trauma or give it permission.  This is also true for the trauma around surviving oppression. OPPRESSION AND ABUSE ARE NEVER OKAY! For one to suggest that someone finds gratitude for having gone through a difficult path is gaslighting the impact of the experience, bypassing holding perpetrators accountable and minimizing the strength that it takes to keep going.

My clients are some of the most courageous people I have ever met.  Their paths have been incredibly painful and they dig in, find bravery to look at that pain and come out the other side with love.  The fact that I get to walk next to them on their journey is something I am truly grateful for, but it isn’t a trite practice of gratitude or a positive attitude that is needed on such a journey.  It involves a willingness to carry a burden that is often caused by someone else. Walking a path of healing requires a willingness to radically accept that most of the things that have happened to them are not their fault, but are now their responsibility to cope with.

As with most things in life, I find that a balanced approach, one that is rooted in dialectical style is what fits best.  In regards to a gratitude practice, YES! Practice gratitude! Practice mindfulness around little moments with loved ones, for access to clean water, for morning coffee or for a moment of quiet while watching the sunrise.  Express gratitude to those that show up for you and celebrate who you are, maybe even find gratitude for when your toddler dumps the whole bottle of new conditioner into the bath and looks up at you with a sense of wonder AND also know that sometimes, it is okay not to be grateful for things; that sometimes, sadness and pain are just meant to be carried.  To greet yourself with compassion wherever you are and to know that sometimes, things are just hard and it is okay NOT to be in a place of gratitude. When we do that, we can lean in to all aspects of ourselves, to be with the whole truth of our experience and cultivate gratitude for the strength to both grow from AND carry our pain.

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