Gratitude is spoken about a lot in drug and alcohol rehab. Recovering addicts talk about their gratitude for surviving as long as they have. They talk about gratitude for having another chance. There are countless possible outlets for your gratitude.
However, some of us are a little more cynical about gratitude. After all, much of our therapeutic journey in rehab is about breaking down our distortions and seeing life as it is. We learn to see things not as we’ve been hardwired to see them, but also not how we wish we could see them. It is in therapy that people start questioning whether they should be blindly grateful to their parents, for example. This can be essential to transitioning from living a life to please your parents to the life that is actually best for you.
In this context, gratitude can begin to feel like a lie. You say the right words, but can you really force yourself to feel them?
What Is Gratitude?
Before going any further, we need a definition of gratitude that we can work with.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines gratitude as:
the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness
What stands out is that gratitude requires a second party. You are thankful for something, and willing to show appreciation and return kindness. When another person has done something for you, they are the second party. When you are grateful for something “life” has given you, the higher power you believe in or the universe itself might be the second party.
The Problem With Gratitude
The problem with gratitude, especially for those of us with a more cynical nature, is that other factors can make it difficult for us to feel this way. Are you able to force yourself to feel gratitude for surviving when you went through so much pain? Can you feel thankful for another chance at sobriety when you know how hard the journey will be?
Forcing yourself to ignore these factors might feel noble, but it isn’t good for your mental wellness. At best, you will be faking it. At worst, you will grow resentful and distrust the whole process.
Moreover, if you are still struggling with the concept of a higher power, you may feel like this is just another way of pretending you “get” it.
To understand how to use gratitude in an honest, meaningful way, let’s talk about a term that is often used as its synonym: appreciation.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines appreciation as:
recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something
a full understanding of a situation
The first definition is not really independent of the second. Appreciation essentially refers to seeing things for what they are. When you recognize and enjoy the good qualities of something, you’re not necessarily ignorant of everything else. You can appreciate how good a chocolate tastes while being fully aware that too much of it will harm you. You can appreciate it while being fully aware that Nestle made it not for your benefit, but for their profit.
So too, you can appreciate the fact that you survived, while being aware of the tremendous pain that got you here.
Gratitude Through Appreciation
It is often the case that, in trying to decide whether or not to be grateful, we weigh the good against the bad. But most of the time, they don’t need to be weighed against each other.
On the other hand, that does not mean that gratitude is unhealthy or dishonest. If gratitude is borne of appreciation, rather than the other way around, it can be a validating feeling and experience. You can be grateful for having another chance, without avoiding the fear you feel about yet another failure.
To really experience gratitude, without forcing yourself to feel something you don’t, you need to learn to appreciate both the “good” and the “bad”. This way, you won’t feel like you’re repressing what you’ve gone through. Gratitude will be a profound personal experience, and not just another exercise in denial.