Tag Archives: gratitude

Positivity and Self Harm

Some time ago I decided that maybe the problem is me. I’m too negative. I don’t practice gratitude enough. I invest too much energy in feeling sorry for myself. A better, more positive attitude would, surely, make me happier and nicer to be around?

So I scoured the internet for positivity memes, and I wrote them in my diary. Every time I felt the panic or despair coming on, I’d read them out loud. Everything happens for my highest good. My life is full of blessings. I am grateful for how good and rich my life is. That sort of thing, and other statements like it.

I did this for some days.

It did not result in me feeling happier, better, or more positive. It did however give me increasing feelings about the invalidity of my distress. I did not become more grateful. The final stage of this resulted in me crying, hysterical, howling things like ‘my life is so great and I feel so happy right now’ while pummelling my fists into my body. Which compared to the violence I wanted to perpetrate on myself at that point, was fairly mild. I had to be physically restrained, and it took me some considerable time to recover.

I can’t recommend it.

Trying to paste inauthentic ideas and feelings over the top of distress does not make the distress go away. It adds to the distress. If I hadn’t been in such an awful state to start with, I would likely have remembered that I think this kind of positivity is toxic. But I was desperate and in a great deal of pain, and I felt like the problem was me. This kind of ‘positive’ thinking perpetuates the idea that you, the individual, are the problem. Not your context, not your socio-economic status, not your health or the people around you, but you personally and how you ‘choose’ to think about things.

Not everything can be fixed by changing how you think about it. In some circumstances, trying to tell a more positive story might be a really dangerous thing to do. It certainly didn’t go well for me.

Telling people to be grateful

While I’m largely in favour of practicing gratitude, I’m also interested in the ways it doesn’t always work. Telling people to be grateful can be one of those problem points. I see this as distinctly different from encouraging people to practice gratitude, which is fine. Broad encouragement pokes people towards looking at the good things in their life, appreciating them, voicing that appreciation and so forth. Telling people to be grateful has a very different swing to it. It’s come up recently with newspapers telling black people that they ought to be more grateful over their personal achievements.

If you’re telling someone to be grateful, it assumes you know what’s going on in their lives. They may not see their situation as being one where gratitude is an appropriate response. If you’ve worked your arse off to get somewhere against great odds, being grateful for the crumbs others have dropped is not a healthy response. If we make something positive out of disaster or tragedy, we should not be pressured to feel grateful for the awfulness that set things in motion.

If one party is telling another party what to do, it tends to indicate a massive power imbalance. Telling someone how they are supposed to feel is a way of invalidating their emotional responses. It can be a way of writing off a person’s experience, background, struggles and personal effort. Focusing on the need for gratitude can draw attention away from both the work a person has done, and the barriers they faced to getting to where they are. If people are achieving things in spite of prejudice, disadvantage, illness, poverty, lack of privilege… telling them to focus on what they should be grateful for is a way of taking power away from them. It says ‘don’t look at what you did, think of everything that helped’. And that isn’t always appropriate, or fair. Using the idea of gratitude to stop people celebrating their own achievements really isn’t cool.

Telling people they should express gratitude runs the risk of turning gratitude into an act of public performance. It can stop people from being authentic. It can stop people talking about the difficulties they’ve faced. For gratitude to be meaningful, it has to be felt. If instead, it is something we feel obliged to perform to avoid criticism, it becomes a very hollow, potentially toxic activity.

It’s always worth asking why it is we want a person to express more gratitude. What do we want them to shut up about? What do we not want to think about or deal with? What of theirs are we trying to own for ourselves?

Anything can be a teacher

Anything can be a teacher. Sometimes the lessons are all about moving away and holding boundaries, and those lessons can be urgent and unsettling. At the time of experiencing them, there’s not a lot of motivation for gratitude – which I think is reasonable and healthy. There’s a time and place for gratitude, and it isn’t during the period of being kicked in the shins!

Last year brought lessons. At the time, those lessons hurt, but I’ve noticed this year that I have, to a significant degree, made peace with it all. I’ve had self esteem issues all my life, I’m motivated to please others (unrepentantly so) and thin skinned. It means if someone decides to pick on me, I can get hurt. In my past there are people who knocked me down repeatedly and I struggled to get up, and it took a lot of time to recover from each round…

Last summer I faced character assassination, and attacks on self and life that could have broken me. I have no doubt that the intention was to do me as much damage as possible. But, the process was so full-on that I didn’t go along with it. Unusually for me, something kicked off inside me, refusing to accept the assessments of who I am, refusing to accept that it was ok for the people involved to be doing and saying what they did. Rather than internalise it as my failing, I took a long hard look at a whole bunch of people and decided that the problems were theirs and not mine, that I didn’t need them in my life, and that I didn’t have to be broken by them.

In the months since then, I’ve not regretted anything that I’ve done, and I’ve not regretted the loss of people who clearly considered me a nasty misuse of space. I feel lighter, freer, and happier. I’ve learned to hold my edges when attacked. I’ve come to feel a certain amount of gratitude for the experience that pushed me into being more willing to stick up for myself and no longer willing to internalise other people’s shit. It’s been a good learning experience, for me.

I know if I’d tried to respond with gratitude for the lessons at the time, it could easily have locked me into a place of hurt and reinforced the wrong things. Gratitude has its time and place, and sometimes distance is important. I can look back and see how far I’ve come, and while I don’t forgive the attempt to clip my wings, I am glad that I saw it fast enough to fly from the would-be clippers and not go back. With the right timing, gratitude can be a helpful part of letting go and moving on, leaving a person feeling empowered and enabled by the experience. Even if the experience itself was entirely shit.

Crisis and gratitude

Huge thanks to everyone who posted here, and on facebook, and emailed me with words of warmth and encouragement, stories of journeys taken, suggestions about things that help… It is all appreciated, and it makes a considerable difference. One of the things I have been learning, and struggling with is that if I keep silent when I am in difficulty, no help is forthcoming, because people who would help do not magically know. Exposing the wounds is alarming and vulnerable, and healing, I recognise, is not always a clean and tidy process for any of us.

It’s been a tough month in a number of ways. Big projects on the move can be exciting, but also exhausting, and like a lot of people I get thrown into gloom if I get too tired. I’ve also had some really painfully and challenging things involving people to deal with. A number of people, in a number of contexts, and experiences that have shredded my confidence around my ability to deal with others. It’s been educational, to say the least and has raised a lot of questions for me about what can be reasonably expected of me, my right to say no, and what I need from the people around me.

Some of the contact I’ve had with people this week has made a huge positive difference around how I’m seeing things. Conversations have left me questioning what depression is, and what the right approach to it (for me) would be. At the moment I have very little clarity on any of these issues, it’s going to take time to face it all down, and make enough sense to be able to talk about it. I have become clear about this one thing, though. I will push through and come back and talk because I want to live in a world where it is possible for people to talk about difficult things. I want it to be socially acceptable to express pain and need. I will keep talking, simply because my random spouting of bollocks might, just now and then, make it a teensy bit more feasible for someone else who needs to talk to feel able to talk. And you can always share stories here, or email me, or tell me on facebook. Those who feel the breath of sadness, sit down next to me… those who find they’re touched by madness, sit down next to me…

I will probably focus on reviews, reblogging, guest blogs (yell if you want to do one!) and other easy things for a little while, because I have a lot to process. I think it’s worth processing, and I think, if the glimmers that I’m getting now are anything to go by, there will be things worth saying by the end of it. It’s not quite hanging on the world tree for 9 days (I hope) but some insights come at a price, and on the whole I think I’m willing to take that.

In the meantime, if you can accept me as a person who is often raw, sometimes fragile, overthinking, intensely feeling and decidedly messy, please be here and be part of my life. If you need me to be nice, if you want me to hide my bad days, please find a space more suitable to your requirements, because I’m not able to keep being that for people. In the aftermath of Tuesday, I am encouraged to think there are plenty of you who will stay.

Gratitude Anxieties

I tend not to blog when I’m feeling sorry for myself. Partly this is because I only post when I think I’ve figured out something that could be useful to someone. The bigger part is about a fear of being judged, and as a consequence of that judgement, being blamed, shamed, ridiculed and told off. If I’m having a bad day, I’ve usually enough self-preservation instinct not to give people an opportunity to tell me I’m making a fuss and being unreasonable and should pull myself together and get over it. I’ve had enough of those conversations in my life to make me really resistant to admitting when it hurts.

“You have so much to be grateful for.” This is one of the most effective ways of silencing a person who was seeking sympathy and kindness or trying to express what the problem is. Now, I like gratitude as a practice, I think it’s a really good thing to make time for on a daily basis and it is really important to hold awareness of what the better bits of our life are and where we have reason to be thankful. There can also be a terrible tyranny to it, if gratitude is the only thing you are allowed to feel or talk about.

Some days, I really don’t feel very grateful at all. Prolonged bouts of bodily pain and/or exhaustion will do that, and it’s hard to be grateful for the nice weather or not living in a war zone while your body is making you cry. I know there are people who have it a lot worse than me and I could make some effort and appreciate that a bit more, right? Except, if you have an imagination or any empathy, you will know, or picture that worse stuff, and feel ashamed of making a fuss about whatever ‘little thing’ is bothering you. And yes, having my whole body hurt is something I have come to think about as a little thing I should not make too much fuss about even though I would be horrified by anyone else doing that. Everyone else’s pain is more real, more important and more worthy of care. It’s not like it’s going to kill me, and there are starving children out there.

As a child I could never work out why my silence in the face of distress was going to be of any use to a starving child many miles away who would be no better off thanks to my stoicism. I knew the comparison made me feel a lot worse about myself, left me ashamed of tears, guilt ridden over expressions of frustration. I still feel a pang of unease if I venture to acknowledge hunger, or other such trivial things.

It’s worth asking who benefits if we are obliged to be grateful in all things. If all we can express is gratitude and there is no room to express distress, or discomfort, then we certainly go a long way to making sure that the comfortable people never have to feel unhappy about other people’s problems. Without space for something other than gratitude, it is exceedingly difficult to ask for help, or to explain where your limits might be. An excess of gratitude can make it really hard to say no.

All too often, an approach that should be about helping those who have abundance and comfort to be kinder to those who do not, turns into a way of silencing those who most need to be heard. The poorest and most vulnerable are to be grateful for whatever crumbs they get from the table. Those who are suffering are to be grateful it isn’t any worse. Those who are struggling are to be grateful that they are at least not ill, not starving… and what of the gratitude of those who have far more than they need? No, we are instead told to be grateful to them because they are so very good for us.

I can’t help but feel that if gratitude is something you tell someone else they ought to feel, the whole thing has gone horribly wrong, one way or another.

Try harder want less

You only get out what you put in, and life is what you make of it, right? So when things go wrong, when I’m unhappy, the answer has always been do more, try harder, give more, be more flexible and accepting, be more grateful, ask for less, want less. It takes a lot to bring me to giving up on something, or someone and generally if I do, I’ll just swing round and start applying the try harder and want less approach some other place. Give more and be more grateful for all that there is to be grateful for, all the small beauties and modest good things. And if that fails, be glad it’s not worse.

I notice it’s a way of approaching things that makes no room for a number of options. At no point does ‘try harder, give more, want less’ make it possible, much less ok to say ‘I am drowning’. Someone please help me, someone please do some of the doing so that I can draw breath. At no point does try more want less allow me to comfortably say I really am too tired and in too much pain today to do the things. It does not have room in it to ask people to go easier on me for a while, and there is not much scope for asking for help, either. Flagging up when something is hurting me, or more than I can bear, is something I find really hard to do.

Give more want less does not make me open to things flowing towards me. It leaves little space for asking what would make me happy. As a person who cycles round depression on a pretty regular basis, I have trouble holding the thought that my being happy is in any way a relevant issue. If it’s a side effect of something else, all well and good, and the appearance of happiness helps people around me to be more comfortable, so that at least is important.

Give more, want less. As though there are no limits on this, no practical, physical bodily needs that can’t be ignored if they turn out to be inconvenient. No demand on my energy that is unreasonable. This autumn I hit a place of not having any more to give. It was not an amusing experience. I kept pushing and trying, and couldn’t stop crying as a consequence. I hit a limit. I’m still limping along, trying to find other places where I can give, organise my time and energy better. Give more efficiently, give more wisely seemed like the way to go.

Want less, because my body wanting things has always made me uncomfortable. Food especially, but affection too, and I’ve been shamed for both along the way. I carry the belief that ideally I wouldn’t want anything, able to exist on air and not requiring any care or maintenance from anyone else. I am aware that being alive and human is not compatible with this, and that to want to want nothing is the most outrageous and unreasonable want of all.

At the moment I can’t do anything useful with this. I know why it exists, I know what it is there to protect me from, I haven’t got to a place of being able to own that, as yet. But I can name this part of it, on the offchance it isn’t just me. One of the things I have learned is that things we think are fine when we inflict them on ourselves do not look so reasonable when we see someone else doing them, and that way lies a chance at escape and freedom. One thing I can say is that it is not a way of living I would recommend to anyone else, it does not fix things or make things better, in any reliable way. There comes a point where all those positive living and thinking ideas about gratitude, getting out what you put in, and the like just turn into a big stick to beat yourself with, and that’s not very positive at all, it’s just self-loathing with a nice mask on it.

Gratitude, 5 years on

It’s nearly the fifth anniversary of my going to America to meet Tom in person, and this winter will be our fourth wedding anniversary. Not a day goes by but I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the richness and joy he has brought into my life. Curled up in the warm, safe, friendly place that is our bed, I end every single day conscious of how fortunate I have been in all of this, and still possessed of a sense of wonder about how it’s all worked out.

Fairy tale romance it may have been, but in the sense of there being a good helping of ogres, dragons, dramatic escapes, and hard battles. We’ve come through all of that to this place of stability, a home of our own, some financial security and as much certainty about the future as anyone gets. Not a day goes past but I stop for a moment to recognise that so much could have gone so differently. In part we were lucky, but we also never gave up, on each other and on what we wanted. Although there were some terrifying times when everything seemed set against us, we got through. There have, especially in the last year, been some blessed times of relative peace and ease and not fearing for the future.

Gratitude tends to derive from a sense of perspective. For many people the old adage ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is all too true. We also tend not to know what we’re missing until we find it. Gratitude can open our eyes to the blessings in our life, but if all we’ve ever known is famine, we can mistake scraps for a feast, and not realise that we could be reaching for more than those scraps. I’ve experienced that journey in my emotional life and it is only in the experience of bounty that I am able to look back and see how much gratitude I felt for what was proportionally very little. Being grateful for very little helped keep me in a place that was harmful to me, and discouraged me from imagining there was anything better to seek.

It’s one thing to be grateful for what food you can find when there really is a famine, quite another to be fed on crumbs while others live in plenty. Gratitude has to be tempered with a sense of justice, or it can become a very good way of helping people who have nothing to stay on their knees. We tell our poor they should be grateful for the foodbanks, not that they should be furious with a system that only gives them the choice of foodbank or hunger. And we should not be so grateful that someone, anyone loves us, that we accept their ‘love’ on any terms, no matter how toxic.

We are told to be grateful to the rich, with their job creation providing our wealth, and trickledown economics spreading the bounty. These are myths, for it is work that creates wealth, and nothing worth having trickles down – just crumbs from the table that others have worked hard to load up although they are not invited to the feast. If we practice gratitude to those who hold power over us, we can end up counting our blessing that they aren’t a worse sort of tyrant, rather than kicking them out and making things better.

There’s an idea (I think it comes originally from Aristotle) that virtue is the midpoint between two vices. Gratitude is a spiritual virtue, and it’s obvious opposite is ingratitude. Place it in a three point way of conceptualising, and rather than gratitude/ingratitude, you can see gratitude as a line between ingratitude, and complicity. Be grateful for the good things you have, but don’t be so grateful in all things that you end up supporting unjust systems, accepting abuse and corruption, and going along with things not being as good as they could be.

Tetchy Tuesday

I’m a big fan of Thankful Thursday as an idea, and of practicing gratitude, but I’ve come to the conclusion this isn’t working. We need to stop with the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality, and we need to put militant ingratitude on the political, and spiritual agenda.
Talk of scroungers and the underserving, alongside talk of hard working families keeps us running on the treadmill. If we dare to say we are unhappy with our lives, we run the risk of being called ungrateful, or unreasonable. We may be accused of feeling entitlement, of not working ahrd enough, we may be told we are scroungers and frauds. This is keeping us quiet. We keep our heads down and our mouths shut, and we soldier on, stoically, trying to maintain some dignity. It isn’t working.
We practice gratitude. We tell ourselves that like attracts like and if we think positive thoughts, good things will come to us. Then, when that doesn’t work, (sooner or later, it mostly doesn’t unless you are independently wealthy) we feel guilt and shame. We weren’t positive enough, or grateful enough, we did not have good enough karma. This keeps us quiet and stops us from protesting about the shit.
I’ve learned a thing during my small meltdown this week. I’ve learned that a lot of people are struggling, hurting, frightened, exhausted, miserable, ill and do not feel able to speak up. My owning these things made it easier to admit, for a lot of other people, that they too were close to having had enough and wondering where to send the resignation form. It’s not easy to resign from being a grownup. Now, if you think you are the only person who is failing to be stoical and hard working enough, you’ll keep calm and carry on and try to fake it. If you know that the vast majority of people around you are feeling the same way, it becomes obvious this is not personal failing, this is a sick and broken system that is grinding people into the dust.
We can change that. All of the problems that exist could be tackled, with enough political will. All of the things that are hurting us could be changed, but to get to that point, we have to stop co-operating and start protesting. We have to stop being grateful that we have jobs, and start being bloody ungrateful for having to work fifty hour weeks and still not being able to afford new clothes. We have to stop being grateful that we’re fit enough to work and start being ungrateful if we spend our Sundays in a morass of misery about the looming Monday hell. We have to start saying no, and enough. If enough of us do this, we can create change.
So what I’m asking for is this – own the problem. Name it. Talk about it. Tell people if you are exhausted, depressed and struggling. Tell people if your financial situation terrifies you, or your work culture is making you sick. Tell people if you see others in the same mess. Talk about it.
There will be bumps. There are a lot of people in denial out there and admitting to the problem may make others angry, resentful and fearful. Try to be patient with them, they are terrified. Some of them of course are making a lot of money out of the suffering of the majority, and those few do not want things to change. They will have to get over that. We need to end exploitation. We need to end the parasitic culture that puts most of the world’s wealth in the hands of less than a hundred people. We have to practice ingratitude, with total spiritual dedication, and we have to be ungrateful about the right things. Don’t blame the disabled person next door, or your partner, or the immigrant family across the road – because when you do that, you support the system and you oil its cogs. Blame the system, and the people who put it there, and start asking how we can change everything.

Gratitude and Druidry

It’s Thursday, and on facebook a lot of people I know will be posting Thankful Thursday pieces, acknowledging the things in their lives they are glad about. Practicing gratitude is something that happens across a range of traditions, but like everything else, some ways of doing it are more helpful than others.

Taking time regularly to recognise the things we should be grateful for helps keep life in perspective. I have so many things that others do not: A roof over my head, enough to eat, I can afford to heat my home, I am not subject to violence or bullying, I am not in a war zone, a flood zone or anything else threatening. In these things I am fortunate, and acknowledging that I must also acknowledge that others are far less fortunate than me. Much of the difference is just plain luck, and in gratitude for what I have, I can reach out a hand to try and make things a bit better for those who are worse off.

Too much gratitude is not a good thing though. When you become grateful for the pathetic scraps from someone else’s table, gratitude becomes part of a process that strips away your humanity, if you aren’t careful. I used to be so grateful that the guy I used to live with put up with me. He seemed such a saint for tolerating all my shortcomings and inadequacies. I was so grateful, for any small gesture of kindness, any moment of warmth, any time he could be bothered to spare me some attention. When what you are given dwindles steadily, and you are required, or require yourself, to maintain the same level of gratitude, all of reality starts to distort around this, and the consequences are damaging.

Practicing gratitude needs to go alongside a process of really thinking about entitlement. What should we be able to take for granted? Physical safety, perhaps. A safety net in the form of the welfare state. Rights to life, liberty and freedom of conscience. If you start feeling grateful for these things, their place in your life is not as secure as it ought to be. There’s a world of difference between being glad of good friends and being grateful for the people you feel are generously putting up with you, even though it’s clearly very hard for them.  With enough mental effort, a story of gratitude can be built around anything: He only hits me because he loves me, is a classic example. Therefore, the degree to which there is violence is the degree to which there is love, and therefore a person learns to become grateful for violence inflicted on them. These are not good lessons to learn.

A person with a sense of self-worth, is better placed to judge where gratitude is called for, and where it is not. A person with an inflated ego can readily fail to notice the things they should appreciate. So much of Druidry is about finding a balance, and this is no exception. The balances around gratitude involve the balance of self-esteem and developing a sense of entitlement that is fair. This is quite a process, but I think the best place to start is by asking not what we, personally should be entitled to, but what we think everyone should be entitled to.

Working time for gratitude into your Druidry is a really productive activity. It changes how we view our own lives and is all about our relationships with the world around us. Gratitude is a response, to people, to luck and opportunity, to beauty. It calls into question what, if anything, we should be able to take for granted. It requires us to ask what entitlements life might have, and in this way invites us to respect the sacred in all things. Ideas of gratitude are tied up with ideas of worth and appreciation, and with a sense of joy and delight as well as the needful stuff. Exploring it helps us become more alert to the good stuff, too. There is much to be grateful for, but it is essential to be grateful for the right things.

Gratitude and perspective

It’s been a week. The lows were alarming – stressful things bad enough to give me panic attacks, and the distinct possibility that, due to a technical malfunction, I’d lost all of my photos and older work. Alongside that, a whole array of smaller trials and troubles that, by Friday, had me almost at screaming point.

Today, journeys in perspective. This time a year ago, and for years before then, panic attacks were not a noteworthy event. They were a daily occurrence and I was really ill. That I’ve come to a place where a panic attack is something to notice, marks a huge change in quality of life for me. Yes, the panic attacks are still horrible, debilitating and demoralising, but I am so glad that they are now rarer. I am better at managing them than I was, better at keeping going. I did what needed to be done.

I’ve lost a lot of things, and people along the way. I’ve lost homes and sanctuaries. Death has taken people I love. Life changes have put physical distances between me and too many people I care about. There were times when I had reason to believe that I could be deprived of the people who mattered most to me, and when I thought I’d probably lost everything I owned. I’ve been deep in debt, to degrees that terrified me, but I came through and got it sorted. I’ve been threatened with homelessness by the ‘charity’ The Canal & River Trust. I survived their bullying and they did not get to take my boat from me on the flimsy pretexts they use to intimidate liveaboard boaters into quitting the canal.

There’s an odd thing here though, because that experience has not toughened me. Other, smaller loses are just as alarming. Perhaps more so. The thought of losing all my photos cut me up. The thought of losing my work, the same. It’s not like losing a home or a person, and I would not have been so grieved; I have some sense of proportion, but life experience to date has not brought me to a point of being able to shrug off the smaller losses. Perspective does not always mean being able to shrug things off. That which I still have from former periods of my life, is really important to me. Books and clothes that date back to my teens. Kitchenware that was once my grandmothers. I smart over a large, earthenware pot of my grandfather’s which I left behind. Small friends lost along the way. The experiences of coming close to losing everything have made me value even more the things that have travelled with me.

The choice to let go of most of the cuddly toys this year, was a stinger. I’d given mine to my child, and we have run out of room. We picked the ones to keep, we let the others go. It was surprisingly difficult. Some of it may be to do with animism. I do not see inanimate stuff as irrelevant. Objects become imbued with stories and history. They become a part of life lived, and many seem to me to have a presence of their own, that is not easily dismissed. I do not give away, or throw things away easily or lightly. I do not discard people lightly or easily, either.

I have my files and photos, thanks to the awesome people at Webworks in Stroud. I shall express my gratitude to them by going back there to source all future technical things rather than searching online for bargains. They are an independent local retailer, and as I want to make sure they are around to rescue me next time, they get my custom. I find myself awash with gratitude to people who have just been lovely to me through the stresses and hassles. Small acts of kindness, fellowship, encouragement and hope. It makes worlds of difference.

As was pointed out in the comments yesterday, every setback is an opportunity too. A chance to learn something and be wiser for next time, if nothing else. A chance for other people to be noble, generous or heroic. A chance to get a different perspective. Most of this week has been shitty and hard, but I come to the end of it with a heart full of relief, deeply grateful for all the small gestures along the way, and for the good bits. Sun on a winter’s morning. Sleeping well. Mostly having the things that matter most to me. Glad that I know how to love fiercely the tiny things that are lovely. Glad that I know how to appreciate a quiet day, an easy day, a small win.