One of the most important ideas in addiction recovery is the idea that gratitude can prevent relapse.
When I first became clean and sober I realized that gratitude was important, but I really had no idea just how vital this idea really was at first. For one thing, some of the AA meetings that I attended were “gratitude meetings” so I sort of got the idea that maybe gratitude really was special in some way.
But since then I have grown to have a deeper understanding of the full power of gratitude. Today I realize that gratitude alone can be the one spiritual principle that can protect a person from relapse. Essentially, nothing else is really needed if you have mastered gratitude.
Of course, no one fully masters gratitude I don’t think. It is more of a daily practice, something that you work on every single day.
Let’s take a closer look at how practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help to protect you.
The strongest form of relapse prevention
There are many forms of relapse prevention.
One method is to look at your triggers and become more aware of them, then try to develop tactics to react to those triggers. For example, you might realize that you often crave alcohol on the weekends, so you might schedule meetings then or come up with activities to do with other people in recovery at those times.
Or you might realize that you have some self defeating behaviors, so you might be in therapy or counseling to try to work on those specific behaviors.
These are not necessarily bad ideas or poor tactics to use, but if this is all you do in recovery then my belief is that you will always come up a bit short. There is a thread that is constant through every person’s recovery, and that thread has to do with their overall attitude. And this is where the gratitude comes in at.
Every alcoholic and drug addict struggles to some degree with selfishness. They struggle with the idea of entitlement. In other words, in order to take drugs or alcohol and abuse yourself with them, you have to convince yourself that “you deserve it!” You have to somehow justify your ridiculous drug or alcohol abuse to yourself.
And in the course of justifying your drug or alcohol use to yourself you are going to become somewhat selfish. It is all about “me, me, me” in addiction. You are medicating yourself. A common saying of the struggling alcoholic is “if you had my problems, you would drink too!” Of course that is just what we tell ourselves, not realizing that every human has problems. Some of us deal with it differently, but we all have struggles and problems in this life. And so that does not necessarily excuse (never excuses?) alcohol or drug abuse….especially if that abuse is really just a self defeating behavior (which it is) disguised as a “reward” (which it isn’t!).
So if you happen to have this poor attitude, this selfish attitude, this attitude of entitlement–then there is no way that you can possibly get clean and sober. Why not? Because you will always be telling yourself that you deserve to reward yourself in any way that you desire. If the whole world is against you and life is unfair then it is easy to justify drinking or drug use.
So what does all of this have to do with gratitude?
Gratitude is an attitude. It is a kind of perception.
Gratitude is a lens through which you can view the world.
So normally when you are drinking or using drugs every day, you are viewing the world through a “selfish lens.” It is all about medicating yourself and your problems. “Poor me! I need to drink or get high just to cope with my enormous problems!” The irony is that your problems are entirely self made after a while. And most alcoholics and addicts suspect that or have it tucked away in the back of their minds, but they are trapped in denial and cannot necessarily escape the problem just by knowing that it exists.
I repeat: Just because the alcoholic realizes that their behavior is self defeating does not magically make the behavior go away. That is what being trapped in denial is all about. Consider the fact that I am not a terribly stupid person, but I was trapped in this exact form of denial myself for several years! I knew that I was slowly self destructing but I just didn’t care. I could not bring myself to care. I could not break out of my selfish attitude. I could not break free from the need to self medicate. Alcohol and drugs were my only solution. I was stuck.
Gratitude changes all of this. One of the problems, however, is that you cannot take a struggling alcoholic and just magically tell them to be grateful and watch them instantly transform. It doesn’t work that way.
It takes time.
Why does it take time? It takes time because the gratitude does not come overnight. I had one week sober and I was sitting in an AA meeting and they were talking about gratitude. And everyone (even most of the newcomers) were saying how grateful they were to be sober.
And I though: “Not me!”
Not yet anyway. I was just miserable. I was depressed. My best friend, alcohol, had just been torn away from me. Quite brutally I might add. I was lost and sad without the ability to self medicate.
This was going to take some time.
Luckily I was in treatment. Luckily I went on to live in long term rehab, where I got a ton of support. Luckily I was beat up enough in my disease that I was willing to ride it out for a while and see what might happen. I knew that drinking had led me to misery. But quite honestly I did not have much hope for happiness in sobriety at that time. I was in limbo. Willing to ride it out in sobriety for a while and see what happened. I could always go back to drinking if it did not work out.
So I started to take positive action. I started to do the things that people were telling me to do. I started to go to meetings, to write in a journal, to work the 12 steps, to get a sponsor and talk with him, to talk with a therapist every week, and so on. I started taking direction.
And I killed my ego entirely. I got out of my own way. I stopped using my own crazy ideas and I started listening to the boring suggestions from other people. And I started following those suggestions.
And here is the thing: The suggestions sounded boring (compared to getting wasted!) but my life started to get better. Very slowly, things started to change.
I had believed that I might be miserable forever in early recovery. This turned out to be false. I was actually experiencing some happiness within the first few months or even weeks of my journey. And within the first year I would say that I was happier than I was in my addiction. That was some serious progress.
And just look at how much your attitude would matter in terms of this journey. Just imagine how much a bad and selfish attitude would hurt you in your recovery if you were, for example, living in long term rehab. You can always find things to complain about if you are willing to look for them. It doesn’t matter what your situation is at the time.
And the same is true with gratitude. You can be in a very difficult situation with lots of different setbacks, but if you are practicing gratitude every day then you are going to have a much stronger recovery. And you will be much happier.
Notice that I did not say “if you are grateful every day.” Instead, I said “If you are practicing gratitude every day.”
I do not want you to get the idea that someone has to just magically be grateful in recovery.
It doesn’t work that way.
It is a struggle. It is always going to be a struggle. You will never, ever, be 100% grateful all of the time, every day.
It won’t happen.
So the key is that you realize right now, this very moment, that gratitude is an ideal state, one that you strive for on a moment to moment basis.
It is a daily practice.
What things can you do every day in your recovery in order to develop gratitude? What things can you practice on a daily basis that will build up your “gratitude muscle?”
Think about it:
If you are truly grateful in this moment right now, then relapse is impossible.
You cannot possibly relapse if you are grateful.
And so let’s say for a moment that things are going good for you, and your situation is just peachy today. Everything is great. And you feel grateful.
No problem, right? Gratitude seems easy! And in that moment, it is easy.
But we all have ups and downs in recovery. It is inevitable.
So eventually, every person will have moments in their lives where it becomes much more difficult to feel grateful.
These are the moments when relapse becomes a real threat.
And so these are the moments that you need to practice for and prepare for.
Now picture this:
Every single day of your life, from this point on, you practice being more grateful. Every single day.
And over time, you get better and better at it.
It’s not always easy, but you make a habit of practicing gratitude every single day. Every day!
So then in the future, when the road gets a bit more rocky, you will be in the habit of summoning gratitude. You will be that much more prepared to weather the storm and be able to summon some gratitude, even when the chips are down.
It is easy to be grateful when everything is going good. It is much more difficult to be grateful when things are going against you.
This is why gratitude is a daily practice.
Viewing your entire world through the lens of gratitude
Every situation in your life is an opportunity to practice gratitude.
Even the bad things.
The ancient stoic philosophers had a secret technique. They call it “negative visualization.”
Some people believe that this technique is a real downer, but I would encourage you to reserve judgement until you actually try it for yourself.
The idea is simple:
No matter what you are experiencing today, take a moment to imagine, in specific detail, how your situation could be WORSE.
Most people hear this idea and they cringe in horror. “How can this lead to more gratitude? I want to focus on the positive instead!” they will argue.
But I urge you to give this a fair chance. It really does lead to more gratitude if you practice it.
Once each day, take a moment–just 60 seconds–to imagine how much worse your current situation could be right now.
And imagine how it would feel inside. Not just what the negative situation might be, but exactly how it would make you feel inside. What would the fear and the anger and the frustation feel like? Really embrace those emotions for a moment and imagine them.
This sounds terrible, right? How could this make anyone happier? The ancient stoics used this idea and they practiced it and they realized that it led them to greater happiness. It led to gratitude. It is one technique for developing more gratitude in your life.
That is the entire technique: Negative visualization. It is the equivalent of saying “well, it could be worse….” and then actually imagining what it would feel like if things really were worse. And that’s it. Practice this for 60 seconds per day, really imagine the negative feelings, and your brain will be forced to find gratitude after the exercise is over.
Don’t take my word for it though, actually try it. Practice it. And see how it feels.
Finding opportunities in life by having the right attitude
When you are grateful you have more opportunities in life.
If you have the wrong attitude then everything looks like a closed door. Nothing works, everything is a struggle, nothing comes easy when you have a selfish attitude.
But if you are grateful in the moment then everything is a gift. Even a problem that shows up is an opportunity to learn something new.
This is the connection between learning and gratitude. If you are grateful then it opens your world up for most life lessons. You can’t learn anything new if you are negative and selfish in the moment.
So even if something “bad” happens to you at a given moment, you can still turn that situation around and try to find the silver lining. You can try to find the lesson. You can try to see what might be helpful or what you can learn from the situation. With a selfish attitude then any time something “bad” happens you take nothing positive away from it.
How to practice gratitude every single day
One way to practice gratitude every day is to use negative visualization. Even one minute of this can be helpful in shifting your attitude.
Another way is to make lists.
The gratitude list is a popular method in traditional recovery, and it actually works.
My suggestion to you, however, is not to just make a gratitude list and be done with it. My suggestion is to make it into an olympic sport. You are in training now! Practice every day.
This is actually tiny time investment that can pay you huge dividends. You could literally take 5 minutes per day and build yourself into a gratitude guru over the next few months.
Here is what you do:
In the first minute, practice negative visualization. This can be entirely mental, no need to write anything down. Just imagine yourself in a much less fortunate situation, imagine the feelings, and feel the full weight of it for one minute.
Then for the next four minutes, take out a scrap piece of paper and jot down a list. Write down 20 things you are grateful for, right now. If you can’t come up with 20 things then write down 30 things. That is meant to be serious–if you force yourself to find 30 things rather than 20 things then it will open up your possibilities a bit more. Go broad, in other words. “I am grateful for the earth under my feet today.”
Then after your five minutes is up and you have jot dowwn 16 things or whatever, tear up the paper and throw it away.
Do this every single day for a month. Or a year. Or forever. Five minutes of writing down what you are grateful for, just as fast as you can do it.
What is the point of this, you ask?
Remember when I said that it is easy to be grateful when things are going good, but much harder to be grateful when the chips are down?
If you do this five minute exercise every single day, then you will build up your “gratitude muscle” a great deal.
And you will get fast at it.
You will then be able to summon gratitude at a moment’s notice.
Because you have been practicing it. You have been doing the work.
And that is how you practice gratitude every day and get stronger at it.
You have to work at it. You have to make your brain sweat a little bit. If you sit down and try to write out 20 things you are grateful for, and you get to four things and you just want to stop, you have to learn how to push through that. Keep going. Of course it will be difficult at first! If it is too easy, then write down 50 things you are grateful for instead. The idea is to build the gratitude muscle so that you are better protected against relapse. If it’s not a challenge then you are not pushing yourself hard enough. Gratitude takes practice. It is something that you work at. The struggle never ends.
What to do when you realize you are ungrateful
If you realize that you have “fallen out of gratitude” then it is time to get back to the basics.
Find a way to slow down, to pause, to stop.
Get out a scrap sheet of paper and write out a list. Do it immediately.
Or simply close your eyes and do the negative visualization exercise. Picture just how much worse it could be, and really feel those negative feelings for a moment. Imagine them and go into detail with it and your brain will then realize just how well off you really are at the moment.
One other suggestion is to work with others in recovery. Find newcomers who are struggling and work with them directly to try to help them to recover. Doing this almost always leads to instant gratitude because you cannot help but notice and realize just how far you have come in your own recovery. So by comparing yourself to others who are just starting their journey you can appreciate how far you have come.