Many self-help gurus talk about the value of a gratitude practice. They suggest that if we express gratitude for the events and circumstances in our lives, we will attract more positive experiences. Often, they advocate for keeping a gratitude journal that serves to shift your focus to the positive going on in your life.
As proponents of gratitude say, ‘the attitude of gratitude attracts more positive things into your life.’
The proponents of gratitude propose that we can even be grateful for events in our lives that are difficult. I acknowledge that this is a far better attitude than feeling resentful or angry about events in your life. It can also enable you to focus on the good that is going on in your life each day rather than the negative.
If you find this practice useful for you, I encourage you to continue. However, if you have not, you may like to consider a different practice, that is, practising acceptance rather than gratitude. Let me explain the difference between these two practices using an example of a devastating event.
Where gratitude is unimaginable
Imagine you are a parent who loses a young child to a terminal illness. I can only imagine how utterly heart-breaking an experience this would be and that every day for the rest of your life you would feel pangs of sadness.
Gratitude of such a tragic event is unimaginable.
Imagine, as this parent, you go on to support groups where you meet an incredible group of people you would never have met if your child had not died. Imagine you start a fund-raising group to provide money for research into the disease your child had and to support other children who have this disease. Imagine this fundraising provides you with the opportunity for speaking engagements around the world. Now you are travelling and seeing new destinations you had never even imagined. You are connecting with others and bringing hope. You have shared your journey in magazines, books and on television.
If the above occurred because you had become bankrupt, lost a house or divorced and you had a message to share, the self-help gurus may have you adding this event that changed the course of your life into your gratitude journal. If it had not been for that devastating and life-changing event, your life would not have taken this trajectory.
However, if we apply this same thinking to the death of a child, it seems frivolous. I can’t imagine anyone, no matter how their life changes in a million magical ways, could ever be grateful for having lost their precious child.
In this event, the self-help gurus may have you write what you are grateful for: ‘I am grateful for my network; I am grateful for my support group; I am grateful for the opportunity to write a book; I am grateful for being funded to travel; I am grateful for my resilience’; and so on. However, all this gratitude is founded on the one event in your life you can never show gratitude for.
Gratitude is like a Band-Aid that you constantly apply to a wound that will never heal.
This is contrary to the entire purpose of gratitude practice, which is to rewire your brain and energetically attract more positivity into your life. However, gratitude is a cerebral practice, requiring our continuous conscious effort to remain positive and readjust our perception. For this reason, gratitude remains superficial and is unlikely to seep deep into your subconscious or into your body on a cellular level, as proposed by proponents of the practice.
Gratitude provides no guarantees
Diligently performing gratitude practices can establish an expectation of positive outcomes in our lives as a consequence of our commitment to this practice. How often when something goes wrong in our life do we or others try to put a positive spin on it: ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, ‘good things come to those who wait’, ‘nothing worth having comes easy’, ‘there are no shortcuts to any place worth going’, ‘all the hard work will be worth it’, ‘no pain, no gain’.
This positive spin implies that our pain is for something—that we will be rewarded or realise the positive in the future.
In the example of losing a child, the positive spin is simply frivolous, and yet the same may also be true for all the other life events and circumstances where we attempt to assert gratitude.
Practising acceptance rather than gratitude
Acceptance, on the other hand, is a practice where we accept what has occurred in our lives that has led to this exact point in time without spinning it into a positive. What is, is neither positive nor negative, good or bad. It simply is. It is as it is.
Accepting what is
Acceptance is acknowledging what is in this moment. No fighting against the reality of what is can change what has occurred. We cannot change the fact that we have lost a child.
We can’t change anything that has occurred in our past.
Accepting what is, is not about amplifying or diminishing our grief through labelling what is as positive or negative or putting an optimistic spin on it. It is not about seeing the glass as half full or half empty but seeing it as it is. The amount of water in the glass is what it is, neither positive nor negative.
In the example I have presented of losing a child, when we accept what is we can continue to feel sadness yet accept that what has occurred has occurred without anger, guilt, shame, or blame. When we accept what is we acknowledge that no fighting (resisting reality) or wishing otherwise can turn back the clock and give us our child back.
Acceptance requires our awareness of reality rather than being consumed by thoughts in which we try to explain events or think that this is so unfair, or why me? Accepting what is, is the acceptance of the reality of the situation without labelling, analysing, explaining or judging it.
It is as it is.
I am reminded of a novel I read by Jodie Picoult called House Rules. In the story, an autistic teenage boy doesn’t know how to read or express emotion and was trying to understand loss. He couldn’t understand the tears and sadness over losing a loved one, but he tried to understand what it must be like. He thought, “when you [lose someone], it feels like the hole in your gum when a tooth falls out. You can chew, you can eat, you have plenty of other teeth, but your tongue keeps going back to that empty place, where all nerves are still a little raw”.
When we accept what is, we are not ignoring the emotions and feelings but rather figuring out how to continue our lives given what has occurred. We may not be grateful for having lost a tooth, but by accepting it we can learn how to continue functioning and how we want to live from here on.
Acceptance is not about stagnation but about action that is uninhibited by the thought of what should or should not have happened. Acceptance is about releasing resistance, being fully aware of what is and taking action in a state of peace.
Acceptance then enables us to say, ‘this has occurred, now what? Now how am I going to live my life moving forward?’
If you have struggled with your weight and dieting for much of your life, I believe awareness and acceptance of what is are paramount to enable you to let go of the beliefs and behaviours that keep you trapped in feeling dissatisfied with your body and eating. Accepting that you are the weight you are right now isn’t saying that you like it or are particularly happy about it, which is often where I come up with resistance. Rather accepting what is, is about accepting that you are where you are now, and no amount of reprimanding, blaming or shaming yourself for past actions can change that. Your weight is as it is—now ask yourself, how would you like to live in your body?
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Beautiful explanation in a moment I was needing it.
I’m so pleased, Ivan.
This article did not ring true for me. For me it’s not one or the other, it’s both. I lost my daughter and I am grateful for what I had; I will always be. I accept that she is gone. The gratitude and acceptance brings me peace. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Thank you for sharing your perspective, Patrick.
When I wrote the blog I was only thinking of the gratitude that people apply as a bandaid or to change the situation as it is.
You have definitely shared a way that gratitude and acceptance coexist. Having your daughter in your life, although for a short time, was a most beautiful gift.
As someone who has been unable to have children, I am not necessarily grateful for that. But I accept it and am learning to fully embrace and enjoy the life that I have.