Greg came to me frustrated. He felt like he was spinning his wheels. He owned a chain of four retail stores and was, by most people’s measure, successful. But he wasn’t fulfilled. His business was profitable, his customers happy, and his employees more engaged than most.
“Something just doesn’t feel right,” he told me, “I have so much of what I want, but it never seems to be enough. I’ve added locations, added product lines. I should be a lot happier about what I’ve created.”
The word “should” always raises an eyebrow.
“You ‘should’ be a lot happier? What makes you say that?” I asked.
“Because I’m successful!” he exclaimed, like he was trying to convince himself. I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am today, but something’s just not adding up. I even practice gratitude to cultivate the sense of fulfillment that I want, but mostly I just feel like there’s more to do—that somehow it’s not enough. That somehow I am not enough.”
“How do you practice gratitude?” I asked.
“Most mornings I count my blessings. I reflect on how great everything is. I write out lists. I express that gratitude to my people. But it just doesn’t seem to stick. I end up falling prey to frustration and restlessness.”
“Take a breath and just pause for a moment. Where do you feel the gratitude in your body?”
“In my body? I don’t know.”
“What if that’s because to some degree you’ve been cultivating gratitude mostly in your mind?”
“Where else should it be? I thought gratitude was a choice. ‘An attitude of gratitude,’ right?”
“That’s the conventional wisdom, yes, and it’s true in some ways, but not in others. What if there were a way you were relating to gratitude that limited your experience of it?”
“Well, I’m not sure. It might explain a lot. Tell me more.”
Greg fell into the gratitude trap I see many struggle with. We’re taught that gratitude is a choice, an attitude, a perspective we can simply choose. There is truth to this, and for some people this leads to the results they’re looking for. But it is also limited.
There’s a subtle but critical difference between using the mind to perceive gratitude and the path of experiencing reality in a direct way that automatically elicits gratitude.
Consider that gratitude is actually the natural state of a human being. If this is the case, then how would one cultivate it? It’s not something you create, it’s something you uncover. And if it’s something you uncover, then the question is what is obscuring it, not how to develop it as some kind of skill.
Developing gratitude as a skill often layers over the barrier to the real gratitude, creating an inauthentic, superficial veneer of gratitude that is usually unsustainable and/or false feeling. (Click to Tweet)
Have you ever met someone who was so happy or nice all of the time that you didn’t trust them? You have some sense that there’s something else going on underneath the facade. You can feel a dissonance between their outer presentation and their inner world.
This is what I’m talking about.
Real gratitude isn’t a set of clothes you put on. It’s who you essentially are, and it’s in every one of us. It’s a fundamental part of being. If you don’t feel it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there and you need to learn and practice it like learning to ice-skate. It means something’s in the way: anxiety, depression, limiting beliefs, stories about reality, etc.
If you practice creating gratitude from a largely mental place, rather than seeking to connect with the gratitude that’s already there, you leave those obstacles in place. You can put whipped cream on dog poo and make it far more palatable, but it’s never going to be food.
The deepest practice of gratitude inevitably confronts you with the barriers you’ve already created that cause you to not experience the intrinsic gratitude that is the most natural state of a human being. And so the work is not so much a doing, but rather an undoing of what’s in the way.
I worked with Greg for about six months and helped him deconstruct the stories he had about reality that blocked his experience of gratitude. His beliefs about not being enough stemmed from his relationship to his mother and stories she had about him that he’d believed.
In an unconscious attempt to prove his worth to her, he felt like he was constantly in a gerbil wheel where his self-worth each day depended on how much he got done. And since what you accomplish actually doesn’t have any bearing on your worth as a human being, he never felt like he could do enough. As you can imagine, there’s no room for gratitude in a no-win situation like this.
Greg began to notice where the “prove my value to mom” energy showed up in his life and tried to spur him to work harder. He learned the difference between this part of him and his truer nature. At a certain point, the tables turned, and the “prove my value to mom” dynamic let go of running Greg’s life, and that’s when a permanent sense of gratitude arose.
The desire to prove one’s worth is quite a common motive in our world. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s like a booster rocket that only takes you so far. Many people inevitably begin with it as their primary fuel source, but when it runs dry you will need to find another, more sustainable fuel source. Oil is an interesting metaphor here. For our civilization to evolve and thrive, burning it was necessary. And it is also necessary now, that we find another way. Both are true.
In the same way, we all have unhealthy motives that drive our behavior to a point where it is seen as unsustainable. These are the moments where compassion and courage are critical. Have the compassion to see there was no other way. Have the courage to try another.