The New Thankful: How to Feel Gratitude During Tough Times

If you’re struggling to feel gratitude right now, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re among good company. Below, find ways you can reshape gratitude to live authentically.

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There’s not a lot to write about 2020 that hasn’t already been said. As we close now on the 11th month, the novelty of coronavirus, social unrest, and environmental catastrophe has given way to something like a collective shrug. Though death surrounds us more than ever, our shared suffering seems to border on monotony.

With one month left to go, we’ve accepted the terms and conditions of the year and become quite adept at pantomiming normal–if normal even remains an option for us. For so many entering this holiday season, “normal” was sharing their table with a loved one who succumbed to the virus.

Yet all around, people fumble with grief, disappointment and hopelessness, then diligently try to turn these heavy stones into a wispy “made for social media” rhetoric of thanks and resiliency.

Don’t get me wrong–the power of positive thinking has been hailed as a life saver. From cancer to unthinkable loss, the masses have touted gratitude and thanksgiving as a way of thriving through times too dark to bear. However, these days, the thankful mindset seems nearly performative in the way we all jump to post heartwarming narratives of how we’ve been able to count our blessings despite the heaps of emotional rubble we’ve emerged from.

It’s almost as if we need to prove that we’re fine lest we be considered weak–or worse, too–negative.

It Starts With Vulnerability

For those who turn to positivity as a means to assimilate, the fear of not conforming to what is now seemingly the consistent rhetoric of social media can cause feelings of shame. Studies have linked shame to larger health issues like depression and anxiety.

According to Dr. Brenee Brown, esteemed author and patron saint of self care, the antidote to shame is empathy.

The quintessential ingredient for empathy? Vulnerability. 

While vulnerability can take a multitude of shapes, it is not always the resilient “phoenix rising from the ashes” narrative we often experience in sales copy, social media posts, and testimonials.

Vulnerability is an honest moment of taking stock. It’s an authentic statement of a shared experience (i.e. “I’ve been there. I know what you’re going through.”) or it’s an admission of not having enough (i.e. “I’m not okay right now.”). Vulnerability is not a plea for charity. It’s a truthful assessment of one’s surroundings and experiences.

Because being vulnerable requires real, authentic, artisan (hand crafted by you, with love) emotions, it’s the perfect place for creativity to fruit.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

Brenne Brown

Vulnerability is an invitation for problem-solving, crowd-sourcing, fundraising, synergy, and collaboration. It is where the ingredients to an authentic meaningful life are harvested. 

So, how can we harness the power of vulnerability in our own stories and during this extraordinarily difficult time to practice gratitude? How can we encourage vulnerability in our interactions with people in our lives and businesses that we interact with only on a computer? 

Below, find 5 ways you can rethink and reframe gratitude this year through vulnerability.  

1. Invite people to feel feelings together.

It goes without saying that 2020 has produced an abundance of feelings of all shapes, sizes, and intensities. One way to connect with gratitude is to set aside time to feel feelings with other people.

This can be especially healing during the holiday times. Talking about what you miss and inviting others to share what they miss as well can be cathartic and meaningful. Grief is often a catalyst for humor and reminiscing about, oh say, that one Thanksgiving when Uncle Ken had to call the fire department not once–but twice–is a good way to feel close to those that you love, even if they aren’t with you.

2. Let friends and coworkers know that you can be a non-judgmental listener.

Oftentimes our friends and coworkers don’t feel like they can share “non-positive” news. Or, if they do, they have to first put a positive spin on it before they can talk about it. One way to practice thanks is to let those who are in our lives know that we’re thankful for them, with no strings attached, and encourage them to share their authentic feelings.   

3. Embrace the power of dark humor.

Sometimes to lighten to the mood or to soften reality, people will use the “it could be worse” tactic. Some crowds get uncomfortable with this kind of humor, but now is a good time to lean in.

The absurdity of tough times can be too heavy to bear without the lightness of laughter so smile at someone’s irreverence or try it out for yourself. 

4. Feel gratitude for your less glamorous feelings.

Are you angry? Disappointed? Devastated by life events that you can’t control? It might feel counterintuitive, but say a quick thanks for these emotions and share them in their fullness. ALL feelings are a part of the wild ride of being a human. Yes, many of them are awful. And those awful ones are not usually the “main stage” emotions. They don’t get as many views or likes as the other “pretty” emotions.

Yet, they are yours and they are important.Rather than fold them into something they’re not, feel them fully and move through them knowing that all emotions have a place in the patchwork quilt of existence and right now you are living as a full authentic human ought to.

5. Take a personal day.

When it comes to feeling gratitude these days, it can be a complicated process. This is not an instance where you have to “fake it until you make it.” Instead, take some time to decide what gratitude looks like for you.

Your emotional health is just as important as your physical and mental health so if you’re feeling burned out from looking on the bright side, take a personal day to rest and recenter. 

In the end, gratitude is not a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter, “tailored to a news feed” emotion. It is a highly personal acknowledgement of what it means for us, as individuals, to give thanks and bear witness. Gratitude might not always be rosy and bright. It may be a magnificent weight on your back alone, the burden of life, a thing carried because there is no other choice; a thing shared because there is a choice–the choice of community, and the bravery of vulnerability.


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