Being thankful is a key part of my daily routine, irrespective of the type of day I have. Ensuring that I always find aspects of my day to be thankful for has been a key ingredient in maintaining my mental wellbeing.
Yet when you’re having a really tough time, when you’ve failed at something, lost your job or facing other traumatic life events, being told you should feel thankful for everything else in your life isn’t particularly helpful. Okay, that’s an understatement! You probably want to slap the person who told you that.
Being Thankful When Life is Tough
The truth is, though, being thankful in those times can genuinely help. In February 2002, my Dad died very suddenly and unexpectedly. He and Mum had just boarded a plane to head off for a couple of weeks of sunshine, when Dad suffered a fatal cardiac arrest.
Seeing my mum at the hospital, carrying out the formal identification of my Dad, getting in touch with family were some of the most challenging elements of my life. Yet my abiding memories are of immediately being thankful that the last words I said to my Dad were “I love you, have a wonderful holiday” and that he died before the plane took off.
Over the next few days there were many occasions of truly side-splitting, belly-aching, can’t catch your breath laughter, as we set about funeral planning; not least of all when the undertaker didn’t have availability on the date Mum wanted for the funeral and she asked if there was any chance of a cancellation. I still laugh. Mum and I laughed about it many times over the years.
I will always be thankful that, as a family, we were able to share all this laughter and feel Dad joining in. Despite the awful pain of loss, I was able to be thankful for so much.
Feeling Thankful v Being Thankful
Of course, no-one feels thankful for losing a loved one, being made redundant or ill-health. It would be absurd to suggest that we could force ourselves to feel happy or feel thankful for those events, particularly as we rarely have total control over our emotions in such situations.
There is a subtle difference though between feeling thankful and being thankful. I certainly didn’t feel thankful that Dad had died, but I was able to choose to be thankful for so much.
I’ve found over the years that choosing this perspective allows me to view my life holistically rather than being consumed or overwhelmed by a particular event.
It hasn’t been easy to develop that perspective and it has taken many years of practice. I’m not an expert at it but I am much better at it than I used to be.
Tips for Being Thankful
Here are some of the ways I’ve been able to develop a perspective of being thankful:
Look for the learning.
If you look back over your life, I’m sure you will also see a correlation between your most important lessons and the most difficult periods of your life. For example, I’ve learned that the experience of losing a loved one doesn’t get better with time, but I do get better at dealing with that loss. I’ve also learned that I’m a damn sight stronger than I thought. Whilst you may be struggling now, being thankful for what you have learned is still possible; being thankful for how that learning will help you in the future.
Have a positivity hunt.
When I reflect on the day, I write down three things for which I’m thankful. They needn’t be big, in fact they can be tiny. For example, another driver waited and let me out of junction, someone held the door open for me, the sound of the sea, a couple of minutes watching the clouds, that wonderful cup of coffee that I was able to truly savour when I really needed it, giggling over something silly or even climbing into a freshly made bed. Why not try it for a week? Three different things each day increases my ability of ‘being thankful’. Feel free to make up your own rules for it.
I find a quiet and comfortable spot and close my eyes. Then I think about a favourite memory of an event, a person or place. I focus on one and set about recreating every detail in my mind. It will vary between being in the memory or watching it like a movie; whichever way I choose, I completely immerse myself in it, allowing all the wonderful feelings to flow through me as I’m being thankful. After about 5 minutes ( I set a timer), I feel re-energised and ready to carry those feelings with me as I go about the rest of my day.
A final caveat:
None of this is done to avoid how I am feeling at any given time. I always allow myself to feel what I need to feel. I have a right to those feelings and it’s important to acknowledge and validate those feelings.
This is simply about bringing an alternative perspective to allow yourself to recognise what you can be thankful for amidst loss.
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