How to practice gratitude during hardship, even in a pandemic.
By Karen Hurula, Psy.D.
I have often referred to these pandemic days, and weeks and months now, as an upside-down dumpster fire. It seems to me that the common idiom, of a normal, everyday “dumpster fire,” does not fit what we have been going through. In my work as a therapist, I encourage those in my care to name things accurately, whether they be emotions or our judgment of our circumstances. I think there is immense power in calling out whatever is true for us. The thing about this upside-down dumpster fire we are living through is that it continues to rain down burning coals on our heads. Businesses are hurting and failing, the predicted second wave of COVID is upon us, and we are separated from loved ones for the holidays, all of which are very difficult. What has been and remains challenging is the lack of an end date. We cannot plan how to expend our energy in dealing with it all, because we have no idea how much longer we will be called upon to adjust, and pivot, and grieve. The other thing I have noted to be hard about the ongoing restrictions on our “normal” life is the lack of one specific cause, person, entity where we can direct our anger and frustration. There are many factors at play, and many of those were outside anyone’s control.
It is important for our mental health and resilience to name our losses and challenges; we must name them and give them our attention. It is a fallacy to believe that if we deny or ignore our pain it will simply go away with time. We are merely storing up our pain for another day when we do that, and this amount of pain stored up could very well derail us in the future. But how can we open ourselves up to acknowledging our pain, when more pain is seemingly added every day? The fear then becomes, will we overwhelm our awareness of pain and losses and begin to feel that pain is all that life is anymore? We may wonder how to experience life as more than pain and loss. The answer is simple and well-researched—it is gratitude.
The human psyche is drawn to giving more attention and credence to negative experiences. It is much easier to remember the sting of an insult or harsh feedback than to enjoy a compliment. Focusing on the negative takes no effort at all, and when it is in abundant supply we do not even need to focus; it seems to be everywhere and in everything. Gratitude, on the other hand, takes effort. We have to choose to give it time and space in our minds. It is, however, the necessary balance to thriving through adversity. I have seen both extremes—only naming the negative or only naming the positive—to have disastrous results. When we only see the negative, we can feel swallowed by the pain; when we only allow ourselves to see the positive, we deny and suppress the pain.
There has to be both to navigate the in-between times, the waiting times before the last of the fiery coals hit the ground. Expressing gratitude can be done in countless ways; there is no specific magic about it. Whether you write a list in a journal, or on a note in your phone, or on sticky notes around your house, on your social media, or entirely in your heart and mind, acknowledge your gratitude. I will be honest, some days I feel like I am scraping the bottom of the barrel with what I can find to be grateful for. I feel the pull of my awareness drawing me back to my disappointments and frustrations, so I will write them down, then find something to be grateful for, even if at that moment I am grateful for a delicious flavored coffee creamer. This practice of acknowledging both the positives and negatives can keep us honest and integrated as whole persons while still navigating difficult days.
Resilience is not pretending you are fine when you are not fine, and it is not ignoring the pain by focusing only on what you can be grateful for. Resilience is being present during each day of the trial, naming what is hard and painful so you waste no energy in holding on to it. Gratitude is giving yourself permission to experience light and hope before the trial ends.
Dr. Karen Hurula, is the interim director of the Wheaton College Counseling Center. She earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Master’s degree in Theology from Wheaton College. Karen specializes in the integration of Christian faith and mental health, and offers her readers straightforward guidance in self-care.