Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It always has been.
Children are supposed to love Christmas above all, but to me Christmas was too heavy with expectation (Would it snow? Would I get the presents I wanted? Would they actually make me happy?) and a little too confusing (Am I supposed to be thinking about Jesus or Santa?) to relax into. My mom also seemed stretched thin by the holiday, and my dad was uncomfortable with all the presents.
Thanksgiving, in contrast, was an uncomplicated joy. Everyone had time off from school and work to gather for a feast (What a concept!). I loved the day off, and I loved the food. The meal was a lot for Mom to produce, but I could at least be with her in the warm, fragrant kitchen. My dad also enjoyed it unambivalently.
Finally, I liked the gratitude: the enjoyment of having, over the expectation of receiving.
You would think, then, that I would love the current vogue in self-help for a daily gratitude practice. But not so fast.
Gratitude is great as far as it goes. But what of the things in my life that I’m not grateful for? An honest self-help practice engages actively with both the wanted – what you’re grateful for – and the unwanted.
More Honest Than Positivity Alone
When the self-help industry is accused of being a cult of positivity, I think this is why. Furthermore, simply being told to feel something that I do not believe in won’t work. Like telling an upset person to “just relax,” it’s coercive and shaming, which makes you feel worse!
When there are things in your life that you are ungrateful for, you don’t have to ignore them or paste a happy face on them. Feelings are prompted by the thoughts underneath them. If you want to feel truly better, get to the root of your feelings.
The most efficient, elegant, and effective way I’ve found to get to the root of your feelings and engage actively with the unwanted is The Work.
The Work is not a prescription. It doesn’t tell you what to do or how to think or feel. (If it feels coercive, ever, reach out to me and I’ll help you). It is a meditation. It leads you on an imaginative journey: you begin at feeling bad, confused, and victimized, and end at compassion, clarity, and agency.
Yes, you arrive at gratitude! But you get there honestly.
Aim for Understanding. Gratitude Will Follow Naturally.
For example, this morning I did The Work on a situation with my son. He refused to even taste a soup that I made, and I was offended.
I have a history, sadly, of fighting with him over food. He is a picky eater, a concept I fail utterly to comprehend (see above comment about loving food). I have felt like a failure for not “making” him eat “good, healthy food,” and then I feel guilty for being unable to stop myself from shaming him about preferring anything in a cellophane wrapper over home cooked. It’s been awful, frankly. I’ve always known the power was within me to shift the dynamic, but I felt stuck.
When my sweet husband gently raised the issue with me last night, I knew I had to get unstuck. So, this morning, it was the subject of my self-coaching.
Self-coaching begins with a very basic agenda: to understand. Understanding leads to compassion, clarity, and agency, which leads to feeling better, which leads to honest gratitude.
I felt very confused, so I filled out a Judge Your Neighbor worksheet on the situation. Then I began with the first statement on the JYN and did The Work on it, and then on the next statement, and on down. I trust the process. I knew if I stuck with it, eventually I would feel insight arising. For me, insight feels like a sometimes subtle, but always noticeable, shift in my energy.
I felt that shift when I saw how I was clinging to a belief that I was right, and he was wrong. Is that true?
I found that I could not be certain, and the whole situation began to unravel. I saw that my belief in my rightness and his wrongness was harming our relationship more surely than his love of prepared foods. I remembered who he is: generally compliant and easy-going, so when he digs in his heels, it means something to him. He is also deeply imaginative – when something captures his imagination, he is all in. (Right now, the food culture of his peers has his heart. One day, perhaps, home cooked food will have it.) I saw a stream of images of my son showing appreciation for me.
And there it was: an honest, uncoerced wave of gratitude for him and for this situation – which, ultimately, is about me letting him go.
A Thanksgiving Challenge
In the spirit of the season, I invite you to give thanks not only for the easy delights of your life, but to engage actively with what you don’t love. What thoughts underlie your painful feelings? Understanding them is a path to greater gratitude.