A while back, I stopped writing a gratitude list. Which seems crazy because every self-help guru plus Oprah PLUS SCIENCE will tell you that regularly practicing gratitude is one of the best things you can do for your mind and heart.
But I declared dominion and finally admitted that in my attempt to cultivate peace and contentment through gratitude, I was inadvertently causing myself harm. Let me explain… and let me tell you what I do now instead.
I have tried so many different gratitude practices! I’ve kept gratitude journals, I’ve written down five things every day without repeating, I’ve led my family in “the gratitude game” over the dinner table. But I finally realized that every bite of gratitude had a little tiny bit of poison in it.
The reason I’m sharing this vulnerable story is because it’s so easy to do this– to take something that is supposed to be beneficial for us and turn it into a way to be mean to ourselves. A way to beat ourselves up. I see people doing this ALL THE TIME and I realized I was doing it too.
I finally admitted that the very word “grateful” is trigger-y for me. It sends me back to a folding chair in Sunday School, back to all the ways I believed I was wrong.
It took me back to the old mantra I used to repeat to myself over and over, growing up in the church: “I should be so GRATEFUL, this is what is GOOD for me, I just need to be BETTER, why do I have to be so WRONG instead, this should be ENOUGH, why do I have to want something so DIFFERENT–” cue the anxious churning in my gut, the faint gag reflex at my own terrible self.
Just writing the word “gratitude” in my journal could take me back there.
Darlings! This is not helpful.
(Incidentally, this is also how I feel about exercise regimens and meditation and waking up early. The shame runs down me SO FAST, filling up my lungs and soaking my underwear and pooling in my shoes. How did I EVER become a life coach, friends??? It’s a hilarious little joke the universe played on all of us.)
We don’t need more shame in our lives.
Truly, if there was ONE thing I could Konmari out of all our lives, it would be shame. It is corrosive, paralyzing, and it reduces us to the smallest, meanest versions of ourselves.
So when everything felt so hard last year, I gave up my gratitude practice. Because for as much good as it gave me– it did, indeed, cause me to look around and feel grateful for the beautiful things in my life– it gave me even more shame.
What do you have to complain about? Stop being so selfish. Look how lucky you are. Look at these beautiful children, look at this work you love with people you adore, why can’t you just be happy? So what if you don’t have the city or trees, so what if you miss your community of friends, look at this beautiful living room!
It twisted inside me as guilt. It made me feel so ashamed that I had such complicated feelings about what is, let’s be honest, a marvelously privileged and unscathed life. Sure, Nick’s surgery last year was hard. Sure, bureaucracy and paperwork have me caught in a maddening gridlock in certain parts of life. Sure, life is crazy overwhelming. But look, my beloved is healthy. Health care paid for his surgery so we aren’t drowning in bills from it. We have civil rights denied to so many around the world and even in my home country. All five of our children are whole and with us and thriving– a veritable miracle. We live in a lovely house.
That’s when the poison would sneak into the apple, and it sounded like this: With all this goodness around you, how can you feel anything other than good feelings?
And there it is. The shadow side of relentless positivity: the commandment to only feel positive things. (And all the Law of Attraction propaganda whispering, Because if you feel anything negative, you’ll attract it! You’ll bring bad things upon yourself!)
Ironically, the more I beat myself up for not being more grateful, the less I was able to actually SEE the beauty around me. I’d look at a tulip and instead of delighting in its beauty and elegant courage, I’d think dully to myself, “See, you should be happier. And braver. And more successful.” And the berating in my head stole even the beauty that was right there around me.
I needed a bigger practice, friend. I needed something that embraced all the messy glory of everything in my mind and heart. Something that made room for me to cry thankyouthankyouthankyou at a sunset but also crumple into tears when everything felt impossibly hard.
This has always been my trouble with religions, both the Christianity of my upbringing and the self-help personal-development world I now (uneasily) swim in. I’ve never found one that didn’t try to reduce life to something smaller and neater and tidier than it actually is. I’ve tried so many systems and formulas and at the end of the day life keeps bursting out of every rulebook I try to put it in. I’ve been craving my whole life for a philosophy that makes room for the fact that it’s all kind of a mystery and none of us really truly knows what this life means but DAMN sometimes it’s beautiful.
I craved a space inside myself where there was room for all of me, all the conflicted feelings and paradoxes and glory and fear and heights and depths. And over the years, I’ve built one. But now it was time to make it even bigger.
I have been working my way through some heavy inner work this past couple of years. (Is this always the case when you hit 40? I’m now 42 and I’m ready to be done now, thanks.) I have been getting bigger on the inside– like a fucking cathedral— to be big enough to hold all of my life in its glory and complication and intensity and new love and sweetness and adventure.
But a lot of the time getting bigger has felt like demolition.
There goes that beloved hallway in my heart, the one where the dancing happens. There goes that steeple I was so proud of– it’s dust now. There goes that rich magnificent stained-glass window– just open space, the wind whistling through.
I can’t say that I’m grateful for that part of things.
I can’t get there. I’m not nearly spiritually evolved enough.
But! I can say, even as it’s happening, I love you. I love you, hallway. I love you, steeple. I love you, colorful window. I love you, broken glass. I love you, new empty space. I love you, you wreck.
I found that what sustains me most deeply when I can’t contort myself into gratitude is simply to express love. For me, it works best to do it in pen, on paper– that’s where the alchemy is most potent.
I love you, stars. I love you, loneliness. I love you, golden floors and fluffy white rugs. I love you, self-who-wants-to-cry-at-paperwork.
The wonderful thing about the word “love” is that it means so many things. It can mean “I delight in you” but it can also mean “I will treat you with respect and dignity even when I’m angry at you.” It can mean “I welcome you right into my heart” but also “I send care and best wishes out to you from a healthy distance.”
It’s the only word i’ve found with enough expansiveness and fluidity of meaning to let my heart accept it as true.
So now I write it in my journal over and over. I love you, blue painting. I love you, snow. I love you, yearning. I love you, disappointment.
To tell you the truth, at first, I couldn’t bring myself to write, “I love you paperwork.” (And I’m using “paperwork” as a stand-in for all the painful parts of our life where being a blended transgender immigrant family make life extra extra complicated.) “Paperwork” brings up all sorts of rage and panic and frustration. No way could I love paperwork.
But then I thought about the way I love my kids. Heaven knows, sometimes they are extra complicated and bring up plenty or rage and panic and frustration too. But I can still honestly say, every minute, “I LOVE YOU.”
Sometimes what that means is, “I am so full of tenderness and adoration that it’s coming out of my eyes and I just have to kiss your FACE!” But sometimes it means, “No matter how I FEEL right now, I will treat you with love and care and fairness. I will have integrity with you. I will not allow you to hurt me, and I will not hurt you.” It’s more of an action word than anything to do with how I feel. And so I brought that meaning to bear on my daily practice, too. I love you, paperwork. WHOAH. It blew open some new holes in my cathedral. But those new holes brought new breaths, fresh air where there had been stagnation.
Expressing love honors that I might feel joy but also grief. It makes room for tenderness but also fierceness. It holds space for things that I long for, things that I miss, and all the things I’m holding in my hands right now with wonder.
I love you, my old circle of friends who I still miss so intensely. I love you, my own jealousy that I find so appalling. I love you, kiddos, the babies that I held in my arms or didn’t get to hold. I love you, kiddos, the people I can see you trying to grow into as you get bigger. I love you, my old body. I love you, my new body. I love you, chin, no matter where you go with this whole sagging situation. I love you, my intense longings and yearnings. I love you, persistence. I love you, Katherine.
Allllllllll righty then. Gosh that’s tender and squirmy. So I’m going to send this out quickly, before the vulnerability hangover sets in and I lose my nerve.
But we’ve been talking about tenderness the past couple of weeks, and so I wanted to share this tender, oh-so-intimate practice with you. It’s how I hold my own heart with utter tenderness. It’s how I make room for all the wild glory and complications of my life and my soul. It’s brought me incredible relief and solace over the past few months and– hilariously– it often moves me to feel deeply grateful for this messy, gorgeous life. (Ha!)
May it help you make room for all of you, too, dear one. Room for all your beauty and all your complications and all your regrets and all your hopes, all of it ALL OF IT every last bit of it.
I love you, readers. I love you, clients. I love you, friends. I love you, kindred spirits. I love you, I love you, I love you.