“Hi, my name is Alli and I am a compulsive overeater.”
Seem like a strange way to introduce yourself? I thought so too. In my first 12-step meeting, the words ‘codependent’ and ‘compulsive’ were thrown around a lot. To me, they seemed like the comically vague phrases Dr. Marvin Monroe, the well-meaning cartoon therapist from The Simpsons, would say while Homer looks on blankly and daydreams about donuts.
You certainly wouldn’t hear me use these terms to refer to myself! After all, my obsessive controlling behavior and the huge, freshly purchased (and empty) gallon of ice cream in the trash weren’t problems.
They were, uh, quirks.
For anyone unfamiliar with 12-step programs, they are self-sustaining support groups for people with substance addictions and other compulsive behaviors. You may have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but there are also groups available for people struggling with food, narcotics, relationship and sex addiction, and others. These fellowships have attracted millions of people seeking recovery since 1935.
I am not a doctor nor a therapist. I am not here to advertise any particular program. I can’t claim to know the one and only key to a flawlessly happy, compulsion-free life. If you do, please shoot me an email.
But my experience is this: my addiction has helped me survive. Recovery is teaching me how to live.
At the center of this new life? Gratitude and rigorous honesty.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. There is no “should” in gratitude (but there is “attitude”).
The poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
I’m not sure about you, but I find this advice daunting. Grateful for every good thing? How can I give thanks continuously when I can’t to do anything continuously? I can barely remember to do the laundry weekly! And if I should include all things in my gratitude, what happens if I miss one? Am I a failure if I get depressed or angry and forget to be thankful? Will I miss out on the benefits of gratitude? When we are told we should do something, it implies obligation. In this case, one must only focus on the positive. Continuously. Every day. Yes that’s right, even while we’re changing our kid’s diaper for the millionth time, getting fired from our job, or even watching people die on the battlefield or in the emergency room.
In my experience, gratitude can’t possibly be an obligation. No one can tell us what to be thankful for or what to feel. If they do, then it is guilt, not gratitude.
However, I agree that gratitude is an extremely beneficial habit cultivated by small decisions. We can opt to see that millionth diaper as another moment we get to spend with a child, for whom we feel a love so strong it’s exquisitely painful. A child that will grow up to have his own child before we can blink. The loss of a job can be seen as an opportunity to slow down and reassess priorities. The loss of life is a reminder to live.
So yes ... we can shift our perspectives. We can focus on the positive. But what do we do with the negative feelings in between?
2. The deepest, purest, most long-lasting gratitude is found when you let yourself have the whole experience.
Negative emotions — anger, fear, jealousy, sadness, confusion — are all part of the human experience. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve spent the great majority of my life cramming these feelings into boxes, running from them, exercising them away, talking them out, and basically doing everything in my power to get them the heck out of my head.
My addictions, up until recently, were helping me with this denial. They allowed me to have positive emotions or none at all.
I didn’t have to feel scared of the unknown, question my purpose, or understand why there are so many atrocities in the world. I didn’t have to face my own pain and anger. I could keep pretending that I gave to others out of love instead of debilitating fear, that I was humble and happy instead of controlling and troubled. Above all, I could choose ice cream — for the low price of $3.95 — over feeling guilty for having any negative emotion whatsoever, when many others were suffering so much more.
What I didn’t realize was that the time and energy spent on guilt and denial was wasted. I was spiraling inward, going nowhere. It took me way too long to realize that turning a blind eye to anger doesn’t make it leave. It simply made me better at being blind.
When we treat our negative emotions like a crime, we are left with guilt for feeling them. Guilt itself is a negative feeling, so we suppress that as well. The cycle continues until we have spent all our energy on avoidance rather than awareness. Then we wonder what is wrong with us when we aren’t happy.
We have another choice: we can allow ourselves to have the full human experience.
Many mindfulness techniques, such as that of Thich Nhat Hanh, teach how to do less and feel more, even if it doesn’t seem safe at first. We can witness all thoughts and emotions, positive and negative, external and internal. Instead of avoiding the negatives, we let ourselves have them because they are real. We can turn our attention to marvel at our equally real sense of touch, feel overcome by the violinist’s song at the subway station, or simply look up from our screens to see the faces of people passing by us. We can take it all in, and then decide for ourselves what we are grateful for.
3. It’s not easy. So take it easy.
Gratitude is more than simply feeling thankful, it’s a lifelong practice. This practice could be making a gratitude list every day, writing in a journal, calling a friend, thanking or complimenting a loved one. It could be adding one positive to a jar every day and reading them when you are having a rough day. It could be practicing an actual honest answer to the question “how are you?” and allowing yourself to be exactly how you are.
My mother sets a reminder on her phone so that halfway through her morning she remembers to think of the positive things in her life. She starts her day with this perspective (and an impressive 6-mile run), and she is able to propagate this positivity through her work as a counselor.
Personally, I email my sponsor every evening, bolstered by her encouragement and gentle reminders. Sometimes all my list says is “I’m grateful for water and the color green.” In my recovery, I let that be enough. The next day is a new day.
There are so many ideas online on how to cultivate gratitude and mindfulness. Try one that speaks to you.
Like any habit it takes time. It’s not about being perfect. And it’s not about only focusing on the positive. It is about facing your reality with all its colorful facets and jagged edges. After time passes, you may find yourself with more energy to pay it all forward to someone else. I think you’ll be grateful you did!
Alli Day is a teacher of English, lover of nature and dance, and a student of everything else. She is currently on a social media hiatus to better practice her own gratitude.
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