Are you really grateful?

I’ve spoken to a lot of people recently who use gratitude journals and I use a gratitude app on my phone.

I am all for gratitude – but are there times when gratitude is not really gratitude?

A short while ago, I spoke to a client who was using a gratitude diary but rather than feeling happy, connected, or content afterwards, she was left feeling worse.

When we looked closer at how she was using her gratitude journal, she was actually drawing a comparison against people who were ‘worse off’ than her.

For example (mine, not the client’s):

‘I am grateful to have food on my plate because there are people starving in the world’.

This may be true but when we compare what we have against others, we rarely feel good. (Whether we judge ourselves to be better or worse off than the people we are comparing ourselves against)

This seems to me like guilt masquerading as gratitude.

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Of course I am not saying we shouldn’t think about these kinds of issues, but in my opinion, a felt sense of gratitude is more likely to be experienced without drawing comparisons.

However, if we were to act in a way to help those in need, for example by donating an item of food to our local food bank, the ability to do this may be something we feel genuinely grateful for.

Contrast this against doing nothing but thinking about people who are going hungry whilst trying to feel grateful for your tea!

 

Comparisons may not be the only gratitude pitfall

There is also the potential to frame gratitude in a negative way, which may take the edge off the feeling of gratitude.

Contrast:

‘I am grateful the kids didn’t misbehave in the car’

with:

‘I am grateful for a peaceful and enjoyable car journey with the kids’

When we frame our experiences as an absence of something negative it is probably not going to feel as nice as framing our experiences in terms of gaining something positive.

 

Last of all…

If (like me) you tend to fall into a pattern of starting your gratitude journal entries with the same old ‘I feel grateful for…’, we could be missing out!

Gratitude comes in different flavours and comes along with other positive emotions too. It might be nice to recognise them all!

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So maybe the next time you and I write in our journals, we could ask ourselves ‘do I feel ‘grateful’ or do I feel’:

Appreciative

Blessed

Content

Enjoyment

Fortunate

Glad

Happy

Honoured

Love

Lucky

Pleased

Priviledged

Proud

Recognised

Thankful

Understood

Validated

Or something different?

 

Thank you for reading!

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Just because it feels true, doesn’t make it true

Emotional reasoning is one of the thinking styles we talk about in CBT that can be unhelpful for us.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to start suggesting that we shouldn’t listen to our emotions or that we should make decisions based on only cold, hard facts.

It is a good idea, however, to catch those times when our emotions are leading us to biased (or just plain old incorrect) conclusions.

Emotional reasoning is a biased way of thinking that causes us to believe something just because it feels true. For example:

Because I feel scared, there must be a threat.

Because I feel worthless, I must be worthless.

Because I feel jealous, there must be something going on.

Because I feel embarrassed, other people must be laughing at me.

Because I feel overwhelmed, I must not be coping.

 

Of course it isn’t so bad if our emotional reasoning is biased in a more positive way, such as:

Because I feel happy, things are going well!

Because I feel in love, they are the most awesome person ever!

Because I feel excited, it is going to be amazing!

 

Balancing up our emotional reasoning

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If you notice that you fall into a more negative form of emotional reasoning, here are some steps you can take to balance it up a bit.

  1. Recognise the emotion and name it.
  2. Recognise the thought or conclusion you are making.
  3. Identify if the thought is a fact or an opinion.
  4.  If it is an opinion (spoiler alert, it almost certainly is) call it out by adding on ‘I am having the thought that…’ or ‘I am having the opinion right now that… because it fits the way I feel.’
  5. Identify the evidence.
  6. Identify if there is an alternative way of thinking about it.

 

For example:

  1. I am feeling overwhelmed.
  2.  The thought I am having is ‘I am not coping’.
  3.  The thought ‘I am not coping’ is an opinion.
  4.  I am having the thought that I am not coping because it fits the way I feel.
  5.  The evidence is that I am meeting my deadlines, I had good feedback from my manager and the project is going well.
  6. Even though it feels difficult, I am coping better than I think.

 

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The Impact of an Emotionally Demanding Job Role

Every now and then in my role as a psychotherapist, a client will comment with something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you can listen to people’s problems all day’, or ‘do you ever take your work home with you?’

Perhaps you have had similar comments if you work in an emotionally demanding job role? I could imagine people expressing a similar sentiment towards nurses, teachers, carers, social workers, police officers or any job role involving heavy emotional demands on top of practical demands and more routine day to day tasks of the job.

The truth for me is that sometimes it can be difficult to listen to people in distress all day. When you step back and think about it, it isn’t really a ‘normal’ thing to do with your time!

Nor is it really a ‘normal’ thing to see physical injury and pain all day if you are a nurse working in A&E, or to deal with challenging behaviour all day if you are a police officer or deal with high risk situations all the time if you are a social worker.

The kind of situations you are exposed to on a regular basis when you are in an emotionally demanding role are not common experiences for the majority of people outside your particular profession.

But when emotional demands are a part of your ordinary day to day experience, it can be easy to forget that it isn’t really the norm.

 

A biased view

I remember early on in my career when I was a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with a heavy caseload of people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I went out one evening to a comedy gig and I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these people who don’t mind crowds!’

It would be easy for me to conclude from my experience at work that everyone has a mental health difficulty and is struggling with anxiety or low mood. Indeed, many people are, but not everyone is!

I can imagine it would be easy to think of most people as being dishonest if you work in the police force, or over-estimating the likelihood of accidents, illness and injuries if you work in healthcare, or any number of other biases we could form, simply through being exposed to similar issues most of the time.

Of course, we can challenge our biases if we recognise them, by taking notice of people, situations or experiences that offer a different perspective. The key thing is recognising your biases in the first place.

 

Losing compassion?

A friend recently told me of an experience with a healthcare professional who made a rather blunt and uncompassionate comment about the prognosis of her health problem. This was a number of years ago and the professional has no doubt forgotten ever having made the comment but it was something that caused a great deal of fear for my friend for many years.

Of course, we are all human and we will all make offhand comments from time to time. Perhaps this professional was simply having a bad day. However, when you encounter the same problem hundreds of times at work, it can be easy to forget that it is perhaps the first time for the person with the problem.

For the clients who come to see me in my role as a psychotherapist, I actively remind myself that their appointments are a really big deal! Particularly at their first appointment; they may have been nervous about it for days.

Of course, you don’t need to have experienced something in order to empathise with it, but I believe that experiencing therapy as the client has been a helpful reminder for me to be more aware of what it is like in the other chair.

The importance of compassion and empathy is not lost on the vast majority of people working in an emotionally demanding role. I would like to hope that for most of us, we do show compassion, most of the time.

But what if we feel like we can’t? What about when the emotional demands become overwhelming or exhausting? If you are finding it increasingly difficult to empathise in your job role, it may be a sign of compassion fatigue.

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the negative emotional cost of caring for others – something synonymous with emotionally demanding job roles. Compassion fatigue may look like stress, emotional exhaustion or burnout but it can also include symptoms of secondary trauma.

You can find more information about compassion fatigue from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html

And a great blog about preventing compassion fatigue from Good Therapy here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

 

How to reduce the impact of an emotionally demanding role

In my view, one of the key things for us if we are in an emotionally demanding role is to be in touch with our own emotions. If we are avoiding our emotions, numbing out or unable to recognise how we feel it will be more difficult to manage our own emotions in a helpful way.

Self-care is also key. Spending time building our emotional resources, engaging in enjoyable activity, taking breaks, using relaxation and connecting with others is important to maintain your wellbeing when the emotional demands on you are high.

Use grounding techniques throughout the day while you are at work. Grounding is a simple and effective way of re-connecting with the present moment and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to do, so it can be easy to fit in even on a busy working day.

Allow others to care for you. When you are in a helping role, you can often get used to putting other people’s needs before your own. Maybe you see yourself as the helper and find it difficult to accept help from others? I know this was true for me and it took me a long time to accept that I sometimes need a bit of help too. It may sound silly, but by asking for help I learned that help… actually helps! We are all human and it is OK to seek out help and support. Even if you are usually the helper.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t simply about letting yourself off the hook. It is about developing an attitude of kindness, wisdom and forgiveness towards yourself. It is about acknowledging that you are human, recognising your needs and developing an attitude of acceptance towards yourself. If you are not used to showing yourself compassion, this can take time and regular practice. You can find some helpful resources to get you started here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

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If your workplace involves a high level of emotional demands, you can find out about wellbeing workshops in the Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees areas here:

Workplace Sessions

 

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How To Not Enjoy Your Achievements

So, you just achieved something you wanted to achieve and you feel happy about it, right?

No?

Then you are probably following these 4 simple steps that will prevent you from enjoying your achievements…

 

Step 1: Focus on the negative

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If you got 99% in that exam, focus your attention entirely on the 1% you didn’t get.

 

Step 2: Ignore the positives

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Be sure to attribute your success to anyone or anything other than yourself. You could blame your success on the fact that it was too easy, that anyone could have done it, or frame it in a way that it wasn’t really your effort but someone else’s that made it a success.

 

Step 3: Move your goalposts

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This is a way of acknowledging you succeeded in your goal but still maintaining the idea that it wasn’t good enough.
If you ran 5K, move your goalposts immediately to 10K and focus on how you haven’t achieved that.

 

Step 4: Compare yourself

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The crucial element of this is to compare yourself against people who you think have achieved more and to forget all of the context surrounding their success.

Never mind that they have been doing it for longer than you or had more help than you or any advantages they may have had. It is also important here to focus on only the positives of their success and ignore any negatives.

Alternatively, you could compare yourself against a time you think you did better than you have now, but again, remembering to ignore the context.

 

If you are currently enjoying your achievements and want to join the many perfectionists who aren’t, just follow these 4 straightforward steps and you will be miserable in your achievements in no time!

 

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