The past few months have been rough. Nothing heart-shattering, but one difficulty after another has pounded my little world this summer from exorbitantly expensive home and car repairs to being sick for over a month to expensive and time consuming technical issues with my websites to family drama to smaller issues like crazy-making infestations of ants in the house.
It's been one thing after another for weeks on end, and my frustration levels have been through the roof.
At the same time, I've been increasing my practice of gratitude in a variety of ways both personally and as a part of my business practices.
It's been an interesting juxtaposition and has given me the chance to observe how the practice of gratitude interacts with my darker emotional states. In the process, I've learned quite a bit about how my usual assumptions about practicing gratitude haven't served me well. I've also found a new way that is serving me much better.
Choosing gratitude over darker emotions
I've learned (the hard way) over the years that focusing too much on my darker emotions doesn't serve me well. That doesn't mean that I don't allow myself to feel them and learn from them when they arise, but encouraging them to stick around by getting deeply enmeshed in their stories has created a good deal of unnecessary misery.
It seems logical then that choosing gratitude and positive emotions in place of those darker emotions would be a much healthier approach. It's certainly one that is well promoted by Tony Robbins and many others in the field of self-improvement.
But it's never worked for me, and this summer has been a chance to prove to myself once again just how badly that approach works.
The more I try to "not choose" my darker emotions, the stronger they made themselves known. It was like trying not to think about pink elephants. My very resistance to those emotions made them that much more powerful.
At the same time, the more I tried to choose gratitude or positivity instead of those dark emotions, the harder it was to genuinely feel any gratitude. My attempts at gratitude would wind up feeling like a lie because I was putting too much effort into denying the other (darker) emotions I was also feeling.
I would up with a thin, faded veneer of mental exercises about the gratitude I "should" be feeling instead of genuine experiences of gratitude.
Neither allowing the darker emotions to flourish nor choosing gratitude in place of those emotions was working well for me at all. There had to be a better way!
I found that better way in choosing AND instead of OR.
Choosing AND instead of OR
Since choosing one OR the other wasn't working well for me at all, I decided to try choosing AND instead.
I allowed myself to feel the darker emotions I was feeling without making any attempt to ignore, suppress, or otherwise diminish them, AND I chose to also focus on exploring every big of gratitude I could genuinely feel in the same moment.
For example, I hit a really nasty pot hole driving home from a class one night last week that led to a flat tire by the side of the road. I was already tired from being sick for so long, it was late and was getting dark, and it felt like one more financial (and frustration) challenge that just might put me over the edge.
It was really tempting to dive right into an enormous pity party filled with frustration and self-pity and exhausted despair, but I opted to stay open to opportunities to genuinely find things to be grateful for in the midst of feeling that frustration.
- I was fearful about being stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, AND I was genuinely grateful that it didn't reach that point until I was in an area where I could safely pull into a well-lit parking lot. (Which would not have been as much the case had it gone flat immediately after hitting the pot hole.)
- I was frustrated that I am not strong enough to loosen the lug nuts to change the tire, AND I was genuinely grateful that my insurance company provide a roadside assistance service that came to my rescue with a friendly, helpful service person.
- I was aggravated at the delay in getting home when I was already exhausted, AND I was genuinely grateful that help arrived super-fast (within just a few minutes of the call!).
- I was annoyed that I would up taking the next day off work in order to get the flat tire dealt with, AND I was genuinely grateful that I have the ability to take paid time off at my job.
- I was angry over the cost of having the replace the tire when it's still relatively new, AND I was genuinely grateful that I only had to replace the one tire since the tread was not worn enough to make it necessary to replace all four (which is usually case on all wheel drive cars).
I allowed myself to feel every one of those darker emotions over the challenge without suppressing it, AND at the very same time I made space to feel the genuine gratitude that was equally appropriate (without manufacturing any that wasn't genuine).
The result was that the darker emotions eased in the face of that genuine gratitude because they weren't rebelling against being resisted. At the same time, my experience of gratitude was much more heartfelt because it didn't feel like a lie anymore.
I found that I could hold both the frustration/annoyance/anger/fear and the genuine gratitude together at the very same time. Making space for both (AND) left me feeling genuinely happier and more at peace with the situation than any attempt to choose gratitude only (OR) has ever done.
The magic of AND
The magic of AND is that it creates space for the fullness of reality to co-exist in my experience.
Instead of attempting to deny some portion of my emotions or experience, I instead bring balance to the reality of those emotions by also inviting in contrasting emotions from other parts of the same experience.
This embrace of the totality of what is eases the suffering simply through enlarging my perspective without needing to deny any part of my reality.
Obviously this balance is much easier to find in the case of a flat tire than it would be in bigger traumas or heartbreaks like the death of a beloved, but I am hoping that practicing AND in the smaller things will make it easier to apply to the larger things as well.
Questions to ponder
How has attempting to only choose positive emotions or gratitude in difficult situations worked for you? Does it help you feel better? Does the attempt to suppress the darker emotions work for you?
How well do you do at embracing both the darker emotions and the opportunities for gratitude in difficult situations? Does making space for both to co-exist make a difference in how you feel?
What could you do to more actively embrace all of your reality (darker emotions AND gratitude/positive emotions) the next time you are in a difficult situation?
If you try the experiment of using AND the next time you face a challenge, I'd love to hear how it turns out for you!
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