It seems that when it comes to mental health and gratitude, I am of two minds. And at times my thoughts appear to be somewhat contradictory and at times my two minds argue about it.
Some time ago a friend sent me an email in which were listed seven things that upset him. The language used was of concern to me and so I reached out. When he answered he was just out and about so could not really talk. I quickly suggested to him that I had read his list and thought it would be helpful to now list seven things that he was grateful for. I also said he should call me back when he had a chance to talk.
A day went by and as I had not heard from him, I called him again. When he answered I said I had expected a call back and was concerned about his well being. I found out rather quickly that he was quite upset with me. He felt that suggesting he list positives or things to be grateful for was minimizing what he was feeling about the negatives in his life. I did not say it to him, his emotions were obviously quite raw, but thought that was the point.
I look at gratitude as being the great equalizer. I find it a little too easy to slip into a mindset where my focus is on the things that have gone wrong in my life, the areas where I screwed up, and events that happened where I felt I had been treated unfairly. As that happens, I sink into the abyss of anxiety and anger with depression lurking and waiting to rear its ugly head. However, if I am proactive, self-aware of where my emotions are headed, I can stave off that slide into darkness. At least sometimes.
We must also be aware that gratitude may not be the answer and may at times exacerbate our feelings of despair. Earlier this summer, when I found myself in a dark place, I consciously tried to list all the things I was grateful for. Trust me, the list was long, much longer than the list of negatives. But then I found myself slipping further into depression. When I realized how many things I had to be thankful for it made so much less sense that I was feeling down. I found myself getting more depressed because I was depressed and didn’t think I should be. It filled me with shame and self-loathing.
We have to be mindful that depression and anxiety are a sickness. Suggesting that gratitude will fix that is like suggesting gratitude will fix your broken leg. When we tell people with depression to count their blessings, we run the risk of perpetuating the stigma of mental illness.
Listing the things that are upsetting you at any given time is a good exercise. First and foremost, it puts it out there. In essence you have verbalized them and that takes away their power. And when you revisit that list later that day or the next, they may not be as upsetting as you felt. Simply put when our emotions are raw it is easy to stew about things. When our minds are clearer these issues do not bear the same amount of pain.
I don’t expect that a gratitude intervention will help me feel less depressed or anxious. However, when I spend time in being grateful for the good things in life, I find just a little more incentive to be more intentional with my mental health. My gratitude list tells me there is hope and there is relief and that I have something to work towards, one day at a time. It can be the great equalizer.
Contradictory? Maybe. Confusing? Probably. I found a new word this week. Doublethink. Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them. I am going with that. Make it a good one.