When Gratitude Feels Overwhelming

Grateful. Gratitude. Thankful. These are words we hear often in the English language, especially in November. But also in recovery. And there are good reasons for both of these phenomena. Gratitude is empowering and wonderful and it can change your outlook on life. Many argue it should be a daily practice, whether you’re in recovery or not.

Growing up I was the opposite of grateful. I felt entitled. I felt like I deserved certain things and I think this was because of the hand I’d been dealt throughout the years. Bad luck, surgeries, trauma, hardships. The least the world could do was give me what I deserved right?

Looking back I know now that I led a privileged childhood. I always had lunch money, played sports, had new sneakers, and Christmas gifts under the tree every year. Was everything perfect? No. My household was not without turmoil. But the majority of the time I wasn’t grateful for what I did have. I never really knew what grateful meant. I thought being grateful meant you said, “please,” and, “thank you,” for things. I did that. I thought being grateful meant I had to like everything I was given. I thought it meant I wasn’t allowed to complain or voice my opinion. I thought being grateful meant I needed to sit down and shut up. I didn’t care about gratitude because I didn’t feel like it cared about me.

When I got sober everyone was talking about gratitude. I thought, “oh here we go again.” I was just waiting to be told I was ungrateful. Once I started learning more about recovery and my attitude and behaviors during my addiction, I realized I certainly was ungrateful. Mostly because I had no clue what being grateful was. It never occurred to me to be grateful, especially because the ideas and resentments I had about being grateful were wrong.

The real meaning of gratitude is being appreciative of what you have. In my case, the reason I couldn’t be grateful is that all I was focused on was getting what I wanted - whether it was alcohol, drugs, men, money, or other material goods. I was not capable of being grateful for what I had. Gratitude began to come much more easily to me when I got sober. Every day I woke up I was grateful to be alive, to be sober, and to no longer be in so much physical and emotional pain.

As time went on and I began to work on myself, read recovery literature and go through the 12 steps, I began to see the benefits of cultivating a daily gratitude practice. Writing gratitude lists is often recommended and I still do this every day and share my gratitude lists with a small group of women in recovery. Practicing gratitude has helped me learn that being grateful doesn’t mean I have to silence my voice or opinion. It doesn’t mean that I have to like everything in my life or everything I am given. It doesn’t mean that I can’t feel angry, mad, sad, or complain.

There are times when it feels impossible to feel grateful. There are times when the best I can do is thinking about having a roof over my head, food in my belly, and another sober day on this Earth because the rest is just too painful. There is a lot of talk about gratitude in the sober community and with good reason. But I think it’s valuable to say here that sometimes gratitude can overwhelm us and make us feel sad. Sometimes we are left asking are we grateful enough? Isn’t being alive and being sober enough? Isn’t being able to pay the mortgage enough? Isn’t having a supportive family enough? Isn’t having a bed to sleep in enough?

I find that I am left with guilt when I’m not feeling grateful enough, and it’s not a good feeling. Gratitude has been instrumental in my sobriety and my life over the last 4.5 years, but it’s not everything, especially if it’s making me feel bad. Some days you just don’t feel grateful and that’s ok. And when you do feel grateful, you should scream it out. You cry tears of joy if you need to, I know I do. If you don’t feel like making a gratitude list today, then fuck it. You take a rest day from your gratitude list. It won’t make you a bad person.

You can still feel grateful and be mad. You can feel grateful for one thing and nothing else. You can feel grateful and be in pain. You can be in hard situations and not yet be able to see the gratitude in them. If you’re feeling guilty or overwhelmed for not feeling grateful enough this Thanksgiving, just know that closing your eyes and taking a deep breath is enough. You are enough. If you woke up today and you are breathing and you are taking each day as it comes, it’s enough. You’re enough. I’ll be holding that fact in gratitude today.

 I feel grateful when I see the beauty of nature.

I feel grateful when I see the beauty of nature.