How can I feel grateful for things I don't feel I deserve?
November 19, 2015 4:21 PM   Subscribe

Keeping a gratitude journal is supposed to make you feel happier, but instead it frequently fills me with guilt and shame because it reminds me that my life is full of good things I've done nothing to deserve. How can I allow myself to be happy about the good things in my life?

I keep hearing about how great gratitude journals are, so periodically I'll try to keep one. But somehow my brain is wired backwards and trying to be grateful for things makes me unhappy. Thinking about how I have things like good health and a loving family makes me feel bad because lots of people don't have those things, and I haven't done anything to deserve my good fortune. It also reminds me that I am shirking. With great privilege comes great responsibility, but I'm nowhere close to making the most of these opportunities that have been handed to me on a silver platter by an unfair Universe. I'm weak and self-indulgent and light-years away from doing as much good for the world as the world has done for me. I try, but I can't even imagine what it would look like to do enough.

Thinking about the kindness shown me by my friends and mentors is even worse: it sends me into a spiral of anxiety that I am not reciprocating enough, or not doing a good enough job of showing them how much I appreciate them. Of course, since I can't think about how much I appreciate them without getting anxious, I probably am indeed not doing a good job of demonstrating it.

Sometimes I can get away with being grateful for things like sunsets, or oxygen, or the existence of the time-space continuum, which are available to everyone and don't require reciprocation or represent an opportunity that I'm not taking full advantage of. Those things can make me happy. But I would like to be able to feel gratitude for all the rest of the good things in my life, too. Any suggestions for ways to combat my distorted thinking patterns?

(Don't worry, I AM seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for my depression/anxiety/anhedonia issues. I am just looking for more ideas about this particular thought pattern.)
posted by cortisol to Human Relations (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Start doing things for others. Start small, and don't worry about getting bigger unless you feel genuinely inspired to. Keep a journal of these things. Smile at a person who looks like they're having a bad day, pick up a piece of garbage, compliment someone on an outfit that they clearly put a lot of effort into putting together. You might be doing this things already, but journal them, and take the time out to notice that you do them.
posted by cacao at 4:26 PM on November 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

A rubric I have found useful:

By definition, absolutely no one deserves unconditional love. If you could "deserve" it, that means you could earn it. That means it is not unconditional.

None of us deserves it. Yet, none of us really thrives without it.

Perhaps humbleness is one of the things you need to work on. Perhaps accepting that no amount of paying back makes you "deserving" would help.
posted by Michele in California at 4:49 PM on November 19, 2015 [19 favorites]

Can you keep a journal of what you did that was kind? Like the things you did? And force yourself to make one if those things be a kind thing you did for yourself, not someone else. You hung up your clothes neatly so you'd be ready for work the next day even though you were exhausted. You made tea for a friend at work with their favorite biscuit. You checked in with a relative you know is having a tough time.

Maybe you are selfish and need a push to do more but it is way more likely that you don't recognize because of emotional blinders your own contributions to the web of human kindness you're in, and writing that side up while you record the things you're grateful for could help.

I was feeling friendless and started counting how many times I called or meet a friend daily, and realised I did have friends, and could reach out to them without them pulling back. The counting made that network visible when I felt lonely.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:00 PM on November 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh god, I could have written this (except for the being sensibly in therapy part) and cannot claim to have really figured this out.

That said--I never kept up a gratitude journal for long, though I liked it well enough when I did it. Digging through now, I see a lot of things that are more like things I was *proud* of, or nice moments I was only peripheral to, rather than things that were going to set me off on some "you didn't do enough what what you were handed in life" mental spiral.

There's a lot of "I responded to X situation in a way that aligns with Y and Z changes I've been trying to make," whether that meant things I did for other people, how I responded to a situation that's usually tough for me, something I did to improve myself, etc. Keeping track also made me *do* more of those things. For me, feeling like I'm part of a community and that I contribute to it kept (and keeps) my mind farther from the bad stuff. Not claiming it always works, but.
posted by jameaterblues at 5:08 PM on November 19, 2015

Share your good fortune. And set aside, at least for now, concerns about doing enough. Start by just doing something.

Maybe this will sound corny, but perhaps it would help you to think of compassion and generosity as muscles that you have to develop. If you can think of them that way -- make plans to do the compassion and generosity equivalent of a "Couch to 5K." Set aside some time and energy. Work those muscles. At first it may seem like it takes a lot more effort than it's worth, but over time it'll become second nature and you'll feel good when you're flexing those muscles you're building. But just don't sit on the couch beating yourself up about it -- that's not helping you or anybody else.
posted by Nerd of the North at 5:09 PM on November 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think that gratitude journals can be useful, but maybe they're not the right tool for you right now. It sounds like you do have a deep appreciation/gratitude for the good things in your life, and it may be that focusing on those good things isn't very helpful to you at this particular time.

It sounds like you often don't feel good about the contributions you make to the world. What about if, instead of a gratitude journal, you kept a record of positive things that you did during the day? The entries could be small things - "was polite & friendly to cashier even when I was frustrated with the wait" or "had a 10 minute conversation with my friend that we both enjoyed" or "was paying attention while driving to work and was able to compensate for that terrible driver and avoid an accident."

Also, I've found CBT to be very helpful for combating distorted thoughts - it can be done alone, but I personally needed to work on it with a therapist. It took a long time and a lot of work to start to internalize the "wise mind" voice, but it really, really helped.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:16 PM on November 19, 2015 [11 favorites]

Start doing things for others. Start small, and don't worry about getting bigger unless you feel genuinely inspired to. Keep a journal of these things. Smile at a person who looks like they're having a bad day, pick up a piece of garbage, compliment someone on an outfit that they clearly put a lot of effort into putting together.

Sorry to threadsit, but I am kind of socially awkward and I have trouble with "random acts of kindness" type stuff because I'm never sure whether I'm helping or just intruding. Certainly if someone actually asks me for help, or if I see a non-ambiguous way to make someone's day better, I'm all over it. But I worry that if I kept a journal of this sort of thing it would be full of entries like "Today I smiled at Sharon because she looked like she was having a bad day, but maybe that just made her day worse because she felt obligated to put on a happy face and smile back," or "Today I wished Bob a happy birthday, but then I realized that I forgot to wish Joe a happy birthday last week and now he'll feel like I don't like him as much as I like Bob," or "I brought Francine a cookie, but I think she was just weirded out because I don't really know her that well."

Which is not to say I won't try it, but maybe people have suggestions for how to make sure my efforts to make the world "better" are actually making it better? I am painfully aware of how much harm can be done with the best of intentions.

(I also can't imagine how I could perform enough small acts of kindness to compensate for all the good things in my life. I should be curing cancer or something.)
posted by cortisol at 5:35 PM on November 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

You don't need to compensate for the good things in your life. Good things are not things people "deserve." I don't deserve the roof over my head any or the shoes on my feet any more than a homeless person deserves to be homeless or the impoverished deserve to be shoeless.

I am genuinely suggesting that the best way to get over this guilt is to dispense with the metric by which you are engendering it.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 PM on November 19, 2015 [15 favorites]

One thing that helps me is remembering how few people get what they deserve. It's just not how things work. It also doesn't serve anyone to feel bad about having something like loving friends or a good education - it's not like I can hand that off to someone more deserving.

Feeling unworthy is a symptom of depression, and recognizing it as such can also help you reject it for the unhelpful thought it is.
posted by momus_window at 5:53 PM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have dealt with similar tendencies. Although this may sound simplistic, you don't have to overthink or necessarily assign some deep value to every little thing in life. Yes, it's great to have a broad perspective. However, trying to analyze EVERY little thing makes me miserable.
posted by Seeking Direction at 5:54 PM on November 19, 2015

Cortisol, we have a saying in my church circles, it goes like this: "shame OFF you!"

For whatever reason your default was set at guilt and shame. I am sure your therapist is working on that. But there is a core reason your mind is running in these circles, and usually there is a root reason.

I don't think any of us should add any more "shoulds" to your life. I give you permission to ditch the gratitude journal.

As to the rest, I think you probably need to figure out just who it was that taught you you "werent't good enough" or who it was that shamed you. Then realize they were mistaken and wrong. If you can, forgive them. And realize that just being you is worthy of good things.

(What I do, since I am a Christian, is just say "thank you" to God for the good stuff like flush toilets and running water and food on the table and funny squirrels to watch. If I had to write it down and make it a chore it would be a drag. )

(As to the other stuff, I was you years ago. There is hope!)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:55 PM on November 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

A gratitude journal is a tool and just like any tool. It's not inherently good, it's only as good as you find it to be. If you're finding it's making you feel bad then you don't have to use it. The important thing is that you, personally, are feeling good. You can't do anything for anyone else until that happens.
posted by bleep at 6:22 PM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a therapist. For a while I was enthusiastically recommending Gratitude Journals to all my clients, and I have pulled waaaaaaaaay back and now suggest that it might be something to try, but if it's making the client feel worse, they should stop. As others have said, it may not be the right tool for you right now, or ever, and that's ok.

Your post makes me wonder why you feel you don't deserve happiness, though, and that may be something to work on with your therapist. I suspect that it's silly to be doing an exercise that increases that feeling while you're working on it, however, unless you get explicit instructions from your treatment providers to do so after they are aware of how this exercise is affecting you.
posted by jaguar at 6:42 PM on November 19, 2015

My post got weirdly abstract. If I were you, I would tell my therapist, "I've been trying to keep a Gratitude Journal. It makes me feel worse, because it makes me feel even more inadequate. What should I be doing or thinking or working on instead, in order to feel better?"
posted by jaguar at 6:45 PM on November 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

I agree, let go of the gratitude journal; lack of appreciation for the good things in your life is not your problem.

Think about someone you really care about. Would you say that they don't deserve good health and a loving family? Or would you be happy that they had good health and a loving family, because you want that for them? If they deserve these things, why don't you?

I've recommended this umpteen times on AskMefi, but: explore self-compassion. This is the idea that you are deserving, you are lovable, you are enough, and you should care about yourself just as much as you care about others because you, too, are a worthy human being.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:02 PM on November 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

Realism and self-acceptance, that's what you need, imo. Because ok, you were given a lot of privileges others weren't. Except you were also given a whack of anxiety and other stuff. You're not "shirking" or indulgent - you've been suffering from a more or less disabling mental health issue. You've had limitations, as well. Accept that you've experienced some roadblocks so far - those are things you're dealing with now, in therapy and in your life.

And only by addressing them, little by little, step by step, may you find yourself in a position to give in the big dramatic ways you're hoping to give. You have to be strong yourself so you can give like that.

And, maybe those big-deal avenues aren't the ones that will wind up opening themselves to you, maybe the things you'll be able to give are less obvious, or smaller. That doesn't mean they don't have big effects. Even now - yes, just a smile can be a big thing for somebody. It can be the highlight of their day, it can help them feel less alone. (Try not to beanplate smiling - usually, it's taken at face value and appreciated :) )

Why do you think your friends bother? No one's 100% an altruistic angel, ok, they're getting something out of you. You have qualities they think are worthwhile, that's why they like you and believe in you. Maybe it's your attention, thoughtfulness, patience, warmth, or the fact that you really listen to them. Those are real gifts that help others, when so many feel unheard and unseen.

There's a secret egoism behind the desire for one's actions to have big and direct outcomes. It's human, totally normal, we all want to be agents in the world. But the idea that any single action will yield a huge effect, in the direction you hope it will, with no negative effects - that isn't how it seems to work, imo. There's always some unanticipated result, not always what you intend. And sometimes little ripples, with other ripples, make a big wave.

In the end, all you can do is give your best effort. Right now, you're your own project. Keep working on that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:07 PM on November 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

"I have trouble with "random acts of kindness" type stuff because I'm never sure whether I'm helping or just intruding. Certainly if someone actually asks me for help, or if I see a non-ambiguous way to make someone's day better, I'm all over it"

Maybe you might benefit from studying some Taoism or Buddhist thought. It may be that you are experiencing this grand life as a means of recuperating from a horrific one in the past. What goes around comes around, in this life or the next. Also, if you feel awkward with social niceties or assisting those who could use the help, you may be more inclined towards the belief of non-action being the kindest action. Mindfulness in everything that you do... plus, it isn't necessarily the human socially prescribed niceties that matter... it could simply be feeding the birds in the harshness of winter. Who says that it has to be towards other people?
posted by itsflyable at 7:18 PM on November 19, 2015

Ooooh this hits deep, so I will try to share what I understand so I can support you and be helpful. You are doing a lot of good work, thanks for asking it and sharing yourself on MeFi. (Bit of a long comment ahead, with some Buddhist concepts.)

I don’t like gratitude journals, though you will hear on me on MeFi regularly expressing my gratitude to others. I think gratitude's purpose is to understand how amazing you do have, and how much you probably don't deserve it, but somehow you do. And that's just because you do. But you can be mindful and understand that you are lucky, and then share it. And that's amazing, and that's a privilege to have these resources, and basically I'm just going to echo everything in your post, except you are looking at it from a "I can never pay it back" perspective, while I look at it as a "That's the amazing part, that we have this chance in the world to share back" perspective. In Buddhism, we have the chance to use compassion and loving kindness to help relieve some of the damage in this world, and transform it in our own sphere to make it a safe space. And...I used to be just like you, but I still remind myself to not relapse.

What changed for me? When I finally had to learn that I had to /receive/ the gratitude that was given to me, because people also enjoyed being around me. I repeatedly expressed my anxiety that I could not reciprocate enough, I don’t get why they’re so nice to me, or etc etc. The people who aren't scumbags in my life, told me how much they loved being around me, and expressed their vulnerability, and it allowed me to be grateful that, wow, I probably don't know or understand how I got this or I was grateful, but /I do have it/ and that's all. I had to learn to accept myself as someone who just is.

From this realization, I continue to try my best to express my gratitude to the people I meet daily, to people who mistreat me and teach me new ways of seeing and navigating the world and having empathy for their difficult situation, and to people who treat me well, and marvel at how great people they are. I express gratitude to my family and friends all the time, and send text messages, and I even like to say thank you to objects or food I just ate, because they are symbols of the work of many others to create. Through this, I learn from receiving love in return, and feeling fed, that I too am worthy of gratitude, and I work hard to cultivate a love in myself that allows me to feel okay, even when there are moments where I feel like I am not trying enough. And that's fine. Because it means there's always another go tomorrow, and there is no "100% meter." We just try our best, and forgive ourselves, and learn from the chance to learn.

[And yeah, I was a total depressive scumbag in the past and didn't express gratitude enough before too, or didn't feel it, and I dealt with that too, and ended up being grateful for the knowledge and chances to fuck it up like that. I'm grateful for my family always standing by me even when my depression made me incomprehensible to them, and to the friends who were understanding, as another example.]

I also don’t like practice of keeping a forced gratitude journal, because they get me into my head too much, without questioning notions of the ego and individuality and self that has caused me to suffer greatly. To create metric systems to force a valuation of how worth it I am, and then to have a journal that can supposedly quantify all of that. It goes against my gut feelings that in order to find self-love and gratitude and compassion, it is important to understand that is dealt with the human connection and connections you have already. I had so much trouble finding connection with others, because I used to (and still do) have awful fears of hurting people, of not being worth loving or being interesting, and just not knowing how to engage with others. But genuine gratitude is an amazing communication tool, that has taught me to really pay attention to others, and then learn about qualities that I like in myself.

So this is my advice - if you are so discomforted, quit the gratitude journals, and just be mindful and pay attention to any positive feelings, or things that you are grateful for. No wonder how small or big, just observe. See what things are getting you down, and see if you could be grateful for what attention it is allowing you to pay attention to. Just pay attention, and be very humbled by the immensity of not being able to fully appreciate everything around you, yet. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool. Then you realize that you can spend your entire life learning how to be accept the love that you deserve, and using that strength to move forward and be grateful in return, and that's a great thing to work towards.

A list in a journal? Mehhh. That's just a list in a journal. It's a tool that isn't working for you, that's all good.

These reading may be also helpful.
Insight Meditation - Working with Feelings and Emotions

You can also ask for a hug or affirmation here, at the MetaTalk hug/affirmation thread. Just because you want one, don't need to 'deserve it'.
posted by yueliang at 7:29 PM on November 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

I should be curing cancer or something

Like, this is an unrealistic standard you're holding yourself to - part of the depressive thinking, I imagine. Maybe it'd be helpful to write out the things you feel you "should" be doing, and talk that through with your therapist.

And anyway, most of the scientists who are working on curing cancer will not themselves cure cancer, by the work they do in their own lifetimes. They might figure out that some little piece they thought was part of the puzzle isn't, and help that way. And what if you're actually not cut out to be a cancer researcher? What if what you're really good at is dancing? You'd be depriving the world of the pleasure of seeing a body in beautiful motion, and we need more joy as much as we do less illness. Maybe you're not a dancer, but you have your own gifts to give, and it's ok to be figuring out what they are, and how to unblock and develop them. You can't rush it, though, you can only work at it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:33 PM on November 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Basically to summarize the above, because I didn't get to think of it quickly enough until after: You are most likely doing a good job of reciprocation, as long as you are mindful and honest of yourself and your limitations, and are okay with it. No one is comparing you to a 100% status bar, saying that you aren't doing enough. And if that conversation does happen, then that's a good conversation about emotional labor to have as long as it's respectful of emotional and physical boundaries, but don't tear yourself out of the running, saying you aren't worthy of it before anything even happens.
posted by yueliang at 7:36 PM on November 19, 2015

1) Gratitude journals aren't "supposed" to make everyone happy; they're tools that may help some people. Like any treatment, they aren't necessarily blanket-helpful or interchangeable.

My therapists tended to push gratitude journals on me when I was suffering from a particular pattern of thought--one in which depression warped my perception of my life and made me unable to see and understand the world as anything but constant attacks and hostility. Frankly, it doesn't sound like you have that thought pattern at all; you're acutely aware of your blessings, but your depression brain is trying to keep you from enjoying them. So maybe like yueliang says, ditch the journal thing, maybe it's just not your bag.

2) If you're determined to keep up with it (or have been specifically asked to do so), well consider:

Sometimes I can get away with being grateful for things like sunsets, or oxygen, or the existence of the time-space continuum, which are available to everyone and don't require reciprocation or represent an opportunity that I'm not taking full advantage of.

There's actually A LOT of this stuff out there in the world, and it can be really neat to start taking stock of it. Every day start taking note of something beautiful in the weather, a smell in the air, a kid doing something stupid, grass growing, squirrels doing their squirrel thing. True story: I have been having a hard week. One thing that helps is I have been consciously observing the little red leaves on the tree outside my apartment; they are so beautiful and so bright, it barely seems possible. They're for everyone and they're also for me and it is wonderful.

So many thousands of things we encounter every day aren't things a person "deserves," or has at the expense of someone else. So maybe for a month, use your gratitude journal to start articulating these things. See what happens to your brain! If nothing, well, you aren't any worse off.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:08 PM on November 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I suggest you read Becoming Human by Jean Vanier. In it you may find some ideas that blow your mind.

Imagine if we're kind of all in the world to give. And imagine if your failings actually give others the opportunity to be the giving ones for a while. And imagine if people you think have nothing or no need to give actually have all the same neuroses and failings and need to give as the rest of us.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:35 PM on November 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

There's an interesting thought experiment that goes something like the following:
1) Who won gold for swimming in the last olympics?
2) Who were the last three prime ministers of Canada?
3) Who was your favorite teacher?
4) Who was your role model growing up?

In other words, over time we tend to forget the names of "famous" people, but it's much harder to forget the people who showed us kindness.

My goal in life is to be the best human being I can be. To do this, I strive to help others when I am in the position to do so, and to accept help when I need it. There are some acts that I cannot repay, but I try to pay it forward as much as I can. I hope that my impact on the world is a "net positive", but I don't go out of my way to calculate my net impact.
posted by oceano at 9:24 PM on November 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My personal philosophy is similar to oceano's: to make my corner of the universe a nicer place to be. Sometimes that means I make bigger commitments and do things that feel hard for me. Sometimes it means not saying the unkind thing I want to say, which can also be hard. Sometimes it's noticing a pretty flower and just enjoying that for myself. But when I accept that my ability to take on challenge will wax and wane, I am more peaceful and can celebrate that I'm still working for my end goal.

There's a Maya Angelou quote on the wall of my kid's school that I love: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The big grand gestures aren't often the important things. It's whether you are present with people (including yourself) that matters most.
posted by heidiola at 9:53 PM on November 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

For me, gratitude is a loaded concept, bringing up issues of deserving/not and indebtedness.

I do much better with gladness. I can happily make a list of things I'm glad about.
posted by Puddle Jumper at 9:53 PM on November 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think that the concept of 'deserving', as it's often used, is broken and useless. It doesn't work and it's not relevant. Why not? Because it doesn't mean anything.

Being deserving of good things is like being a good kid who deserves a lollipop, right? But that lollipop is only going to show up if there is someone keeping track of who has been a good kid, and that someone actually cares, and has an actual stack of lollipops. In life, there is no such someone and there is no place where the lollipops are kept. (Your beliefs may differ here.)

So in life, as I see it, since there is no one handing out lollipops, but they rather pop up at random, the concept of deserving one simply doesn't apply. Getting something nice does not mean that you deserved it and so it was granted to you. It also doesn't mean that you don't deserve it. It just means that it's there, and it's nice, and you get to enjoy it. Perhaps you can even share it, which would be even better!

Rain doesn't fall because you or I deserved it, it falls because of clouds and air pressure and things like that. But if it falls in an arid area, the plants, animals and people who live there will surely enjoy it. Does that mean that they deserved this rain, more so than people in areas where it stayed dry? Hell no. But it would be a terrible waste if they kept themselves from enjoying it because they thought the rain was an undeserved blessing that they should not have gotten.

About the feeling that you need to reciprocate nice things:
Think about it like this. If you give someone a flower, the perfect and equal act of reciprocation would be to give you that flower right back. But would that make you, as a giver, happy? Wouldn't you be much happier if the giftee loved the flower so much that they jumped up in joy, even forgot to thank you, and merrily skipped off with their lovely flower?
If I give someone advice, I'm not hoping for getting good advice on their part. I'm hoping that they can use the advice and that it will help them. That is the outcome that will make me happiest.
Reciprocation only gets you so far. In many case, appreciation means a lot more.

I think the basis of your problem, as you expressed it, is your general sense of being unworthy and lacking. I think that is the thing you should be working on. Because of course you are not unworthy, and it's prefectly fine if nice things happen to you.
If the idea of gratitude makes you feel guilty, and makes it harder to enjoy nice things, ditch that concept! Maybe 'gladness' works better for you, maybe not.

I'm glad to hear that there are so many good things in your life. The task at hand is not to deserve them or buy them back with good deeds or give thanks for them. The task at hand is to, first of all, allow yourself to really, deeply enjoy them. That's how you honour them.

Sorry if this seems disjointed. I hope it helps a little, anyway.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:02 AM on November 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

I also could have written this post, as well as your follow up, although I think that I have made significant progress in the past year or two. One (of many) things I've done which I've found surprisingly powerful is to recite the prayer of universal loving-kindness. Basically first you wish yourself peace, happiness, patience, courage, understanding, etc. and then continue reciting the same words but next for your parents, teachers, friends, unknown people, enemies, all beings. The idea is to truly mean the words as you say them (I don't say them out loud, just in my head), to truly wish good things first for yourself and then others. It may be more difficult than it sounds to really mean it, to really deeply want good things for some people (for me esp. parents, relatives, and enemies...;]) and the process of actively doing so can be really powerful. It changes my mood and helps me to be more naturally kind and calm and forgiving in my demeanor. After doing it many times, I don't always do the full recitation, but sometimes just spend a few moments bringing myself to that space where I deeply want good things for others.

Something else that has helped me (YMMV) is to remember that we are all one (at least this is what I believe) and when we do good for ourselves, we do good for everyone. When we take care our health, when we laugh and feel joy, when we manage our mental health, when we get enough sleep and feed our bodies well, it has reverberations for those around us. We're more present, available to others. It's not a cop out, taking care of ourselves is truly a gift to others. It can be our way of showing gratitude.

The book Sacred Economics (and other writings by the author) have really shaped the way I think about gratitude and gifts. Here are a couple quotes from a chapter on Relearning Gift Culture that resonate with your question.

"Because it creates gratitude or obligation, to willingly receive a gift is itself a form of generosity. It says, “I am willing to owe you one.” Or, in a more sophisticated gift culture, it says, “I am willing to be in the debt of the community.” Extending the principle further, to fully receive the gifts bestowed upon us says, “I am willing to be in the debt of God and the universe.” By the same token, in refusing gifts we seem to excuse ourselves from the obligations that arise naturally with gratitude."

"To fully receive is to willingly put yourself in a position of obligation, either to the giver or to society at large. Gratitude and obligation go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin. Obligation is obligation to do what? It is to give without 'compensation.' Gratitude is what? It is the desire to give, again without compensation, borne of the realization of having received. In the age of the separate self, we have split the two, but originally they are one: obligation is a desire that comes from within and is only secondarily enforced from without. (7) Clearly then, reluctance to receive is actually reluctance to give. We think that we are being noble, self-sacrificing, or unselfish if we prefer to give rather than to receive. We are being nothing of the sort. The generous person gives and receives with an equally open hand. Do not be afraid to be under obligation, to be in gratitude."

I think maybe the trick is not to write down all the good things that happen to you, but to begin practicing in real the feeling of gratitude. It's to catch yourself whenever possible from going down the rabbit hole of "I don't deserve this. I can't possibly repay her. I'm wasting my gifts," and to stop, at least for a moment, and to make a conscious effort to fully absorb and receive the kindness. It's a skill and attitude that can be cultivated with time and practice. You will find a way!

Another thing that helps me is to go alone to someplace new and just try to take it all in, notice every detail as if you needed to describe the place in a story. Breathe deeply. The world is incredible, connected, beautiful. No one of us did anything to deserve it. None of what exists is a result of a given person's effort: everything we have comes from the planet we sprouted from...which was here long before us. It's a joy. However, if I go someplace new--and notice every detail--and I feel sad or pained...I let myself feel every bit of that pain or sadness. I do it because I really believe we are all one, and by absorbing and processing some of the pain, I'm doing it for everyone.
posted by hannahelastic at 2:59 AM on November 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

>> Any suggestions for ways to combat my distorted thinking patterns?

Sadly, combat is pretty assuredly going to make them worse. Developing your own way to live with the thoughts that happen to pass through your head is going to take a while. Still, they'll probably change a lot, over time. Maybe that sounds overly philosophical? I'm trying to say: if there's one thing thoughts are good at it's making us focus on them, making themselves sound important and urgent, even making us believe we need to change them now, right away. And we rarely succeed at that, and it's intensely discouraging, and then we feel there's something wrong with us.

So I'm going to echo Blast Hardcheese and say: if you want to do some exercise, make it tiny tiny tiny, the tinier the better because once the exercise is tiny enough it becomes impossible to fail at it. Maybe take a minute a day to let some experience of the day come to mind where something happened that felt good, or nice, or even just okay, or any moment with a little less thought than usual. And as an exercise it is not meant for you to have the right reaction to it, or the right emotion, it's just acknowledging a thing that happened and that it felt good, or good enough for that moment, or even just interesting, unexpected, anything that is not in the "duty-guilt-depression" schema.

Good luck, what you describe is very recognizable.
posted by disso at 3:46 AM on November 20, 2015

For me, this is one of the things charities and volunteer work are for. This time of year, in the US, there are all kinds of invitations to take part in feel-good things in a small way. I say yes to a lot of requests for small donations because it's an easy thing to do and someone gets to hear "yes." As a bonus, you don't have to feel a certain way to do it. I think I get what you are saying about gratitude being double-edged. As kids in our family, we got a lot of nagging about how we should feel grateful, and being told how to feel is troublesome, no matter what a good idea it is. If you feel that way at all, don't police your thoughts and feelings; it's not worth it. Just do some things you can feel happy about doing.
posted by BibiRose at 8:41 AM on November 20, 2015

Like the "gladness" above, I've heard some people respond better to the idea of "appreciation" instead of "gratitude". Gratitude can imply a debt to some, and I get that impression from your post. So instead of being grateful for friends, which might set you to thinking of how much Better they are at being friends (wrong!), you'd write about appreciating your friends - their humor, their smiles, their vulnerability in telling you about their hard stuff...
posted by ldthomps at 12:04 PM on November 20, 2015

I am grateful in a happy and non-guilty way for all your wonderful answers. Thank you particularly to those of you who mentioned that you'd felt the same way (I was starting to think I was the only one who had this problem), to those who reminded me to question the whole concept of "deserving" or "not deserving", and to those who recommended other things I could try journaling about. This has given me a lot to think about (and some things to talk to my therapist about) and given me some very useful new perspectives.
posted by cortisol at 7:59 PM on November 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

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