Gratitude: The Force Awakens

Gratitude journal

Every now and then in life, you get those “goose bump” highlight moments… you know the ones? Only you feel them, only you know what those moments are and what they feel like. For me, it’s like a little spark of gratitude that I experience in that moment, like smiling from the inside. A feeling of contentment, inner peace and calmness washes over me, and in that moment I feel completely alive, whole, inspired and like I have unlocked a major piece of the puzzle of life. In that moment, it all makes sense. I feel connected to myself and to everything. It’s like feeling a sense of enlightenment, if only for a moment. In those moments I also feel really hopeful and I feel like I can tap into a source of unlimited potential. It feels like anything is possible and that dreams can come true.

Grateful for the trees.jpg

For me, gratitude doesn’t just mean reeling off a list of cliché things that I’m grateful for, it means genuinely asking myself what has happened in my day, week, month or year that has sparked up one of those moments that I described above. It could be as simple as the taste of my tea, an interesting conversation I had with someone, a philosophical reflection, a feeling of nostalgia or a fond memory, eating an ice cream, going for a walk with my fiancé on a warm summer’s night, cooking a meal, reading a good book, seeing a lovely piece of art, listening to an awesome song on my drive home from work, writing, the smell of spring, swimming in the ocean, a beautiful butterfly fluttering through a patch of pretty flowers, watching a gorgeous sunset, a good movie, looking at a nice photo, having an epiphany with a client or being in awe of their progress over time and the power of the therapeutic alliance, painting or drawing, going on a bike ride or run and listening to a cool track, being in nature, dancing and laughing at Zumba, a warm hug, a good coffee…

Grateful for a cup of tea and a macaron

But wait…. let’s be real here: it can be really bloody hard to focus on that fluffy stuff when life isn’t going well, or when you’ve had a shit day, week, month or year… but that’s probably when we also need it most. We don’t necessarily have to like or approve of what is happening, and sometimes we will never even understand why. Life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine, but without darkness, we wouldn’t really know what the light is. It doesn’t make it ok when bad stuff happens, and gratitude doesn’t take away the pain or sadness or hurt of those experiences… but I guess when we bring a sense of acceptance to whatever is happening and allow it to unfold as it’s meant to, without a struggle, we save ourselves a lot of suffering. You might get sucked into the void of darkness every now and then, and feel like you’ll never get out or experience the light again, but you inevitably do, and I find that to be reassuring when life deals me with shitty cards. Being grateful during dark times is like shifting the lens of your camera from the shitty stuff going on onto something that is a bit nicer… If life were a picture, it would be like shifting your perspective from the parts of the picture you don’t like, onto a part you do like – even if it’s only a tiny speck!

Grateful for a nostalgic moment

I recently watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I had never seen any of the previous Star Wars movies and I didn’t really even know what it was about. I have to say, I was quietly impressed with the philosophical messages behind it.

“The Force, it’s calling to you. Just let it in.”

 Maz Kanata, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I feel like we all have that kind of “force” within us, and that we are all capable of tapping into it. It’s just a matter of learning how to and practicing. I believe gratitude is one of the ways that leads us to finding that force. It is that same sense of hope, resilience, strength and courage in the face of darkness that eventually leads us to the light. However, it’s also a choice, and one that is difficult to make when you’re overcome by the darkness. Sometimes you don’t even recognise that you have choices or options… but you do, you always do.

“The Force is neither light nor dark, master nor slave, but a balance between extremes.”

Lanoree Brock, Star Wars Dawn of the Jedi: Into the Void

I love the above quote because it’s what dialectics is all about. Two things can be true, even if they completely contradict each other, and we can always find the middle ground or the balance between the two. It’s tricky, but when you do, you’ll find that it’s magic.

Grateful to be at the beach

If all of that still doesn’t convince you of the power of gratitude, the science behind it is also quite interesting. Did you know that “people who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems”?

Grateful for ice-cream and sunny days

Some people like to do a regular gratitude practice or ritual to help them tap into their light. Here are some ideas you might like to try:

  • Take a moment before eating your dinner to list 5 good things that happened to you that day.
  • Watch this TED talk on Gratitude
  • Keep a gratitude journal and write in it every night.
  • Do a loving kindness meditation.
  • Collect moments that make you happy by taking pictures of them and storing them in folder on your PC labeled “gratitude”.
  • Give compliments and show your appreciation when someone does or says something nice for you.
  • Start a gratitude jar: On January 1st write all the good things that happen to you on a little pieces of paper and pop them into a jar. On December 31st, empty the jar and read all the amazing things that happened to you during that year.

Gratitude Jar

Has gratitude helped you? Do you have any other gratitude practices that you do in your life? Please share them with me! I’d love to hear all about them!

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Inside Out: How to Validate Your Feelings.

In my last post, I spoke about stories, and how we all have sets of stories that form our sense of identity. The social researcher and best-selling author, Brené Brown, also likes to talk about stories. She reckons it takes courage to own your story.

when we deny the story

It takes more courage to be vulnerable and own your story, than it does to hide away in shame. It involves standing in your truth, examining your story, making necessary changes, and sometimes it involves sitting with discomfort and pain.

Last night, I watched the Disney Pixar movie ‘Inside Out’ for the first time. It was an awesome film! It highlighted the importance of validating your own (and others’) feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, sad, painful or awkward they may be. All of our feelings serve a purpose. We can’t always be “joyful”, and that’s ok! Forcing yourself to be positive and happy in response to events or situations that incite feelings of sadness is likely to result in more sadness, anger, frustration and ultimately, denial of your emotions.

In dialectical behaviour therapy, when we talk about regulating emotions, we firstly educate clients on getting to know their primary emotions. People who have difficulty regulating their emotions have usually experienced some form of invalidation in their life. That is, someone important in the person’s life has potentially criticised them, disapproved of them, invalidated their feelings, invalidated their story, or invalidated how they see the world. In the film, there are five primary emotions – joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Sometimes people add in a sixth: surprise. Primary emotions are the first emotion a person feels consequent to an event. These primary emotions are often then masked by secondary emotions. The interesting thing about secondary emotions is that they are emotions we have in response to a primary emotion not being recognised or expressed. So, when we, or others, invalidate our primary feelings by denying them, judging them, criticising them or shaming them, we then move on to secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are longer lasting and profoundly more intense. For example, say you were a child and you felt sad and your primary caregiver consistently got angry with you for being sad, you may have then started to judge yourself for being sad. A story was created. The story isn’t necessarily true or valid, but the story continues on into adulthood. The story tells you that it’s not okay to be sad. So you mask the sadness, and you also try anything to escape the intensity and discomfort of the secondary feeling. Perhaps you start drinking, gambling, self-harming… it’s a bullshit story, but it sticks.

Oftentimes, people deny that sadness serves a purpose. You see people’s social media feeds these days, and it’s like a highlights reel of their life. “Be positive!” “Smile!” “Be happy!” people say in response to someone who is slouching their shoulders or looking glum. The result is a culture where we are taught that it’s not ok to be angry, sad or disgusted. “Stop being so negative!” people say, or “Cheer up!” When we respond to sadness with joy, we create a culture of invalidation, and it’s so unhealthy!

Of course, that’s not to say that being clinically depressed is ok or normal, and that we should just validate this profound feeling of sadness and move on. No, that’s not what it’s about. But why can’t we sit with them alongside their sadness for a little while? Why can’t we feel their feelings, and in turn allow them to feel their feelings too? Yes, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes even painful… but it’s also an appropriate and healthy human response.

What’s to say we can’t accept them for where they are right now, and still strive to work toward change and improvement? What’s to say that we can’t validate a person’s sadness, but also help them to move on to a place of joy? It’s not a contradiction; it’s the middle ground. And doesn’t have to be black and white. Why should it be? Life isn’t black or white; it’s all shades of grey.

So, how about instead of conforming to a culture of invalidation and shame we embrace all of our feelings? ‘Cos they all serve a purpose.