Whether you are listening to Oprah’s popular podcast these days or booking your next wellness retreat, you have probably come across the concept of practicing gratitude. But what exactly does this practice look like? We asked Rethink’s own Shawna Rich-Ginsberg, all about gratitude and her perspective in working closely with breast cancer patients.
In your opinion, what is gratitude and what does it look like?
Gratitude is more than a state of mind. It is the action of sharing the things and people you are grateful for by telling them. It involves having compassion for yourself and a willingness to be vulnerable to feelings that make you uncomfortable sometimes. Being authentically grateful starts with acknowledging where we are truly at in our heart and mind.
Why is it important to practice gratitude? Are there any negative effects to not practicing it?
Claiming gratitude as a practice can be problematic because it assumes there is a right or wrong way to do it. This could be a burden for someone who is experiencing any sort of trauma or challenge in their life. Instead, think of gratitude as a tool for self-actualization and love. It’s a means to appreciate the people or things in your life (positive or negative) for what they are. Often people think of gratitude as only being a positive experience like “I am so grateful for my cat, or I am so grateful for this sandy beach vacation I was able to take,” instead of having the self-compassion to be comfortable with negative experiences and challenges – asking what does this thing or experience have to teach me? How can I adapt or change in order to cope? Or how has it built my resiliency and courage to handle life when things don’t go according to plan?
What are some of the main challenges/barriers to experiencing gratitude for people in general and also for women with breast cancer?
One of the greatest barriers to experiencing authentic gratitude today is the mirror that’s held up to us every time we scroll through social media. In this beautifully curated world of #blessed #bestlife #grateful #beautifullife, gratefullness is spoon-fed to us in an inauthentic way, which prevents us from embracing who we really are. An authentic notion of gratitude starts with the acceptance of things that aren’t perfect, in a truly vulnerable way. It’s like saying to someone, “I couldn’t get through this thing without you” or “I’m not feeling very grateful for the situation I am in.”
For women with breast cancer or anyone in a health crisis, there are a number of challenges:
The tyranny of positive thinking
We have this notion with health that the mind/body connection is just so powerful that if we just think positively ALL THE TIME (even when we are feeling our worst) everything will be better. In the cancer world, this is called the “tyranny of positive thinking” because it can be a burden to carry with you, especially when you are having a bad day and feeling sorry for yourself. There is also the idea that somehow positive thinking can actually cure cancer or stop it from spreading, which is absolutely unfounded.
Regular practice is linked to success
Like social media, there is a movement now that dictates the regular practice of gratitude as means to experience joy and success. People like Oprah are challenging us to write out our daily lists and Brené Brown advocates for gratitude as the pathway to experiencing joy. While I am a fan of Super Soul Sunday and think Brown’s research is important, I also believe that we need to recognize the factors that can challenge gratefulness (like 6 FECd chemo treatments) and a certain amount of privilege (good health for example.)
Cancer is NOT a gift
The adage that cancer is a gift is insulting to those going through cancer. A gift or present implies something that is wanted or something for which there is no payment expected in return. I can safely say after working with cancer patients for seven years that there is a price to pay for getting cancer, and it’s high. I know plenty of people who would say they have stronger relationships because of their illness, a new career, a greater appreciation for certain things or they don’t sweat the small stuff. All of which may warrant some gratitude, but let’s be clear – no one is grateful for a life-threatening disease they didn’t ask for – they are perhaps grateful for the lessons it taught them or that that they got through treatment.
For someone who isn’t familiar with using gratitude as a tool, what are some baby steps they can take to get started?
Recognize that you are human. This means you don’t have to be grateful for everything and everyone. It’s ok to be honest about how you feel and patient with the parts of your life that you think negatively about. Gratitude is a process that often requires working though a problem before clearly seeing the benefit or silver lining. The most important thing is to practice humility, which the dictionary defines as being “modest and respectful.” Explore where it fits in your life.
Being present and putting your devices away can help to foster a sense of authentic gratitude. This way you are not comparing yourself to others or their definition of gratitude. I often challenge myself on why I need to post what I am grateful for. Is it because I need positive reinforcement or support? Am I offering inspiration and support to others? Is my need to share my story taking away from my experience of gratitude?
Telling people for whom you are grateful. This is a big one because we don’t always take the time to let people know they have had an impact on our life. Sharing this type of gratitude brings us closer to people and fosters intimacy and connection, which in turn builds trust and compassion.
Find passion and meaning through volunteering or a new project. Sometimes shaking up your life through learning a new skill or being of services to others can open your eyes. This is especially important if you are feeling stuck and finding it especially hard to be grateful by focusing on what’s challenging you. Joining a cause, taking a course or finding a mentor can promote a different perspective and get you out of your comfort zone. Taking the pressure off fixing the negative and shining a light on something positive can definitely promote a sense of gratitude.
In your opinion, what are some important reminders/encouragement for people during this new transition to using gratitude more?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to practice self-compassion in order to find gratitude. We have to forgive ourselves for our transgressions and learn from them in order to move forward in life. Otherwise we get caught in a cycle of blame and doubt. The connection is simple – if you can’t learn to love yourself, you won’t be grateful for any of the experiences, positive or negative, that life throws at you. Your focus will be on the what ifs, the doubts, the if I onlys, the I should haves/have nots and the I’m not good enough. At the end of the day, gratitude requires our attention at all times and self-doubt, guilt and blame will always compete for it.
Shawna Rich-Ginsberg is a trained counsellor and Rethink’s Senior Manager of Support & Education Programs. She has presented at international conferences on a variety of psychosocial oncology related topics including: models of peer support, talking to children about cancer and building a legacy when faced with end of life care decisions. Currently she is in the process of obtaining her Master’s in Social Work from Laurier University.