One thing I hear from some folks, is that all these New Age junkies and gurus are forcing people to be grateful about shit, and it is phony as hell.
These are usually people who have seen hell first hand. Who feel it everyday–through racism, through ablism, economic oppression, and chauvinism. The folks I hear saying such things have a right to their anger and hurt and wounds. They come by them quite honestly. They experience hatred and ostracism every day, then they face the betrayal echoed inside themselves of “not being good enough.”
They also have a point.
People who haven’t walked in this particular hell, have no business telling someone who lives at that address how to ‘clean up their lives,’ or what they need to do to be happy. The last thing anyone needs to be told is how what they are doing is somehow making themselves worse. And a lot of the New Age philosophy or strategies sound like that to folks who are in the midst of their suffering.
So let me not stutter. Let me speak clearly.
You are never responsible for the choices of others. You are always responsible for your own choices. And no matter how ugly your situation has been, no matter how badly you have been treated, there are places inside you where only your choices matter. And it turns out, that in these places, you can become prisoner to your own abuse and attitudes or you can liberate the captive you have become. Your choice.
I don’t say this as a privileged person who has never been there. I say this as a person who has lost everything in an attempt to heal and get better. I am autistic, female, and of mixed-race Indigenous descent. I have always been a minority of one. I was raised in a family where men were given tremendous amounts of power, where alcoholism and incest were constantly in the shadows. Abuse and bullying and control were woven into my entire experience.
These things were just normal, the way things are. So normal, I found another abused child and we set up house together with all of these same themes, unhealed, running through them. I had friends and colleagues who bullied and controlled–and this was also normal. It was how you showed you cared. Gaslighting was my daily experience from loved ones, so much so I couldn’t see it, but always felt worse and worse…and worse.
My biggest fear? Being alone.
My escape path? Being alone.
That’s funny now, because I embrace and love that part, where before it was my worst nightmare. Walking through the flames is a chance to grow. It really can be all right.
So, I’m not telling you all this to make you feel sorry for me. Sometimes to get better you have to get sick enough to realize there might be a better way of doing things. Some of you reading this right now are skeptical as hell. You don’t want to listen to me, and you are looking for reasons to call me an a-hole or discredit me so you can walk away scoffing. I see you, Sister. I see you, Brother. Don’t go just yet. I am you, so hear me out just a moment longer.
When I hit my worst moment, I nearly took my life. Years of abuse had taught me to abuse myself. And I was good at it. Years of gaslighting and denial had taught me to not trust myself or my insights or my experience. But something happened, on the edge of the tub that day. Something inside me said none of them was worth my life, that things could be different. That I could be different. That I could be happy.
Happy seemed a stretch, but I would settle for different.
I had one wise friend around this time tell me, “you’ve been rolling in your own shit so long, I think you kind of like the smell.” Ooooo, this made me angry. But he was right. I had become my own prisoner. I had been abused so much by loved ones that I learned to take the job on myself. I was unkind (to myself). I was mean (to myself). I was the root of all evil…at least that is what I told myself. Regularly.
One thing I know for certain, and have always known, if you say you can’t–you’re right. Because your brain will make sure you are right. Start with what you can do. Frame it as a positive. Move forward with something to DO, leave the DON’Ts behind. They are confusing for your subconscious mind.
At my worst point, I was nearly mute from my autism. I was completely dysfunctional at home and at work. I had little energy to invest anywhere, and what little I had was not very effective. Eventually, I started taking baby steps to improve quality in my life.
I got my autism diagnosed and started working positive coping mechanisms that met my neurology where it lives, and stopped trying to pretend to be normal. I separated from the ongoing emotional abuse of my spouse. I disconnected from my birth family. I got a therapist. And I did something new everyday that stretched me somehow. I faced fears. I rode my bike. I journaled and cried and wrote poems. I found my heart. I discovered that my choice of careers was always going to eat at my body, heart, and brain because it didn’t match my neurological differences, and I became a massage therapist and Reiki Master Teacher.
But you know what really leveraged my change in the midst of this? What changed me from taking baby steps that felt like a drunken, directionless stagger to focused leaps toward my own redemption? Gratitude.
And I don’t mean that false gratitude you come up with at Thanksgiving as a teenager when everyone at the table is looking at you and the last thing you actually feel is gratitude. The secret to Gratitude (capital G) is this: it has to be heartfelt, and it has to be real. It cannot be forced. And you should never TRY to be grateful about shitty, awful things. Be where you are, emotionally.
If someone hands you a shit sandwich, don’t say thank you! It’s a shit sandwich! (Unless, well, unless you like that sort of thing…then feel free.)
However, once you start practicing this gratitude thing, you may find that there is a way to find gratitude even in that shit sandwich. But that’s advanced gratitude shit. You might not be ready for it. Don’t force it. Gratitude has to come from your heart. Have some patience–level up over time.
Because another thing I know, is that gratitude when you’ve been abused is not something that comes out of you without some intentional effort. It is foreign. It feels awkward. And it might take some practice for it to feel comfortable. You might be averse to it. It is more comfortable to roll in your own shit constantly thinking about how awful your life is. I get it. I feel you. When you’re ready to try something different, the first step is to stand up.
As my life became unbearable my deepest fears began to materialize, and I found myself alone. I think one of the things that saved me, that helped me turn my situation (inside and out) around so very quickly, is my gratitude practice.
Here it is, you are welcome to take it and make it your own:
- Find 5 things right now that you are deeply and intensely grateful for, with all honesty. (If you can’t find 5, then try for 3, if you can’t get three start with 1!)
- Make sure they do not rely on anything that can change or that are beyond your control. (Remember that other people are in your life temporarily; illness, injury and financial circumstances are beyond your control).
- Now, breathe, and keep repeating these things. (If you are sad or feeling overwhelmed, you may need to really sit with your list or repeat it a few times before gratitude can overcome whatever grief or anxiety or upset has hold of you. Be patient and keep at it.)
- Don’t stop until you feel it.
- Repeat as often as you need. (Remember to pull out the list, especially when a wave of upset or anxiety, fear or grief overwhelms you. Use your list and this practice to “change the channel” on negative feelings whenever they become oppressive.)
I want you to notice a couple things up there. Choose your gratitude list carefully. If you invest your practice in something temporary, then where will you be when things change? Up that proverbial creek without a paddle, my friend, and if you’re here with me in hell, we don’t need anything to get worse for you.
Hedge your bets and place your gratitude in your breath–if you lose it you probably won’t care. Place it in the stars. Try not to place it in your living situation, your career, or the many wonderful people in your life, or the fact that they spend time with you.
This is the emergency list, the list for when all the fan blades are dripping with poo. I was tempted to put clean air and water on my emergency list, but sadly, I realized that was also beyond my control. This is a list that would serve you even in the trenches of apocalypse or WWI. The emergency list–you can (and likely will, I hope) expand on it later, but start here. This is a list to serve you through disaster. Homelessness. Unemployment. Hunger. Thirst. Illness. Loneliness. Discomfort of any kind.
That may sound ridiculous to some of you, but the point is that you have a gratitude list in your back pocket that can pull you from your despair should all of the worst things happen at once. Because there is ALWAYS something to be grateful for. And gratitude changes us on the inside–in those places where only our own choices matter.
I also want you to notice, that this list is not to be used to prevent you from feeling your own feelings. You can pull the list out anytime, but I especially want you to pull it out if you are being crushed in negative emotions that are bigger than you. Grieve if you need to grieve. Be sad. Be angry. I’m not saying you should prevent any of these feelings. Just also be aware that what you choose to invest in, with your thoughts, words, feelings, and actions, is what will be multiplied and brought back to you. When the necessary elements of grief overwhelm you, and toss you in a perfect storm, reach for the list as a practice. Choose to invest yourself, your being, and your energy, in something beautiful, and positive in those moments of overwhelm.
Feel the grief, but when it threatens to take over, intentionally change the channel with gratitude.
Gratitude opens the doors to thinking differently. Feeling differently. And it is a CHOICE. We can expend energy toward our own destruction and defeat OR choose to invest that energy, those thoughts, those feelings, words, and actions, toward a bigger existence. Ultimately, how we choose to feel and think on the inside, even about the most dreadful circumstances, is a choice. Gratitude, honestly expressed and invested in as a practice or discipline, can change us from the inside out.
And it is a practice. The first few times you do this exercise, it might be hard. Don’t give up. Don’t judge yourself. You’ve seen hell. Keep trying. Choose to invest in an expanding practice, then sit back and watch. Expand the list. Expand the times you reach for the list. Say thank you out loud whenever you can. And watch the miracles unfold.
For those of you holding yourselves captive, long after your abusers have moved on, gratitude is a great way to slice at those bonds and free yourself. Those bastards don’t deserve to win. If I can’t convince you to practice gratitude for your own sake, then let’s start there. Make a gratitude list, invest in it, repeat it, feel it, and let it naturally expand–as a way to flip both middle fingers at every a-hole who ever tried to keep you down.
Namaste, Warriors. You’ve got this.