Gratitude is one of the fundamental principles in addiction recovery.
If you are a recovering alcoholic and you are not grateful at all then you are headed for trouble. What happens to the recovering alcoholic who is not grateful? They tend to experience bad things. Or rather, when they don’t appreciate anything at all, life keeps dealing them more and more chaos and misery.
On the other hand, if they can figure out how to shift their perspective and be grateful for the little things, then everything will start to “go their way” all of a sudden. When you appreciate the little things then you tend to notice more and more positive change in your life.
It’s all about perspective and creating new positive opportunities. When you lack gratitude you don’t have the right attitude to be able to create new opportunities for yourself.
Why do we need to be grateful in recovery?
One of the things that recovering alcoholics need to learn is how to practice gratitude on a daily basis.
It is easy to be grateful when things are going well in our lives. But we all know that there will be inevitable ups and downs in anyone’s recovery. It is impossible for your life to be completely smooth with absolutely no high or low points in the future. There will be variation.
And this is fine. This is what makes life worth living. Without variety we would die of boredom. Recovery has to be exciting, too. So be grateful for the ride.
But on the other hand, we need to embrace these inevitable ups and downs in life with the right attitude. If you focus on the negative then at some point you will have the excuse that you need to relapse.
Every alcoholic who is maintaining sobriety over the long term will eventually get the perfect excuse to drink. Think about that for a moment. It is just a matter of time. Every alcoholic will get their excuse if that is what they are really looking for. Life will, eventually, deal you a bad hand and you will have the green light for getting drunk again. You will have a situation where you will feel perfectly justified in getting drunk. Of course this all depends on having the wrong kind of attitude in order to justify this behavior.
And what is that attitude? I am not sure what the exact term is for it. There is a line in the 12 step literature that certainly comes close, and that line is: “restless, irritable, and discontent.” If you feel that way and your life situation suddenly deals you a bad hand then you have everything that you need to justify a relapse.
Therefore we need to take a look at the opposite of this attitude. What is the polar opposite of being “restless, irritable, and discontent?”
In my experience, the opposite is being grateful.
If you are truly grateful then you are not restless, you are happy to be in the moment and you appreciate whatever life is giving you right now. You are not irritable because you are grateful for the present moment. And you are not discontent, instead you are content.
When we are grateful we can take whatever situation is in front of us and see it in a positive light. At the very least we can take a “bad” situation and find some sort of benefit to it, some sort of lesson to get out of it, some sort of silver lining.
This is not to say that we have to turn into some sort of annoying Pollyanna. Instead, we really need to shift our attitude for the sake of sobriety. We need to find gratitude in our daily life so that we can protect ourselves from relapse.
And this is a daily thing. You have to practice it every day. Start right now. Find the gratitude in learning this new information and be excited that you can apply it to your life. This one thing could have a huge impact on your happiness. Then start practicing gratitude every single day and making a habit of it. We do this even on the “good” days because eventually everyone in recovery will have a “bad” day. It is inevitable. And what is going to happen on the bad days if you are not prepared for them in some way? What is going to happen when you have a bad day if you are not prepared to turn the situation into something positive?
How can we develop gratitude if nothing seems to be working for us?
How can an alcoholic develop gratitude in their life if nothing seems to be going right?
If this is the case then you may have to take a step back an regain some perspective.
You may be all wrapped up in the details and it is possible that you have lost sight of what is really important.
When this happens in my own life I like to pause for a moment and realize that existence itself is a miracle.
Why do things even exist? Why is the universe here at all? And how lucky am I that this bunch of molecules and atoms has assembled to form me, here, right now? It’s pretty amazing. And it is easy to forget that when I am having all sorts of first world problems.
Now a person might realize this concept on an intellectual level, but if they don’t really feel an appreciation for their existence on an emotional level then it is not very useful. We don’t just want to understand gratitude, instead, we want to actually feel grateful.
One method is to reprogram our feelings by changing our self talk. If we concentrate our thoughts and our self talk on gratitude then we can shape how we feel emotionally. To be honest this method has never worked great for me and I have tended to use other ideas. But this is the idea of using affirmations and positive self talk and it definitely helps some people to be more grateful. An example of such an affirmation might be to write on your bathroom mirror so that you see it each morning: “My higher power is giving me everything that I need for this day to be successful” or something to that effect. The idea is to make a statement to yourself as if you already have gratitude, you already have everything you could ever want, you already have the gratitude that you seek. Then you say these statements to yourself over and over again on a regular basis.
This may work for you and if it does then that is great. Go with it. Practice these affirmations every single day and feel more and more grateful.
For me, I had to dig a little deeper than this in order to reprogram my brain. I did this in a few ways:
1) First of all is the gratitude list. I had to brainstorm reasons that I was grateful. This is a bit different than affirmations, though they are similar. With a gratitude list, I was making my brain sweat a little to come up with 50 reasons that I am grateful today, in this very moment. If you want to challenge yourself then make a new list every single day for a month straight. Tear up each list and throw it away at the end. Each day, make another list of 50 things. This is training your brain to be able to quickly come up with lots of reasons to be grateful. If you do it for one day then that is helpful, but if you do it for 30 days in a row then you are actually making your “gratitude muscle” stronger.
I did not see the point in making a gratitude list at first. Actually doing it, over and over again, is the point. It builds the gratitude muscle.
2) Exercise. I had to move my body in order to feel better about myself. I am sure that this probably varies from person to person. Maybe you don’t need exercise, maybe you need yoga. Or seated meditation. Or maybe it is something else. But this was part of my gratitude practice. I learned how to feel truly grateful when I was exercising my body on a regular basis.
3) Stoicism. There is a part of the stoic philosophy where they suggest that you, in each situation, imagine how it could have been worse. Many people believe that if they did this that it would just depress them even further. But it doesn’t. If you are constantly imagining a worse outcome then you will be grateful for what actually showed up in reality. I tried this and it really works.
4) Look for the lessons. Pretend that you are sent here to earth on a special mission, and that your job is to learn as much as you can from each situation that you encounter. When something “bad” happens in your life, don’t just label it as “bad” and then feel sorry for yourself. Instead, look at the “bad” situation and say “that’s interesting….what am I supposed to learn from this?” Then when you figure out the lesson that this situation is teaching you, tell yourself that you appreciate the lesson and you are glad that you at least learned something.
These are some of the techniques that I have used to become grateful, I am sure there many more.
How can we turn gratitude into part of our daily practice?
One of my tips for sobriety is to take the positive things in your recovery and turn them into habits.
This is exactly what we need to do with the concept of gratitude. We need to turn it into a daily habit.
This is most easily done with the idea of the gratitude list. We all know how to sit down and write out a gratitude list. Just answer the question 50 times on a piece of paper: “What else am I grateful for?”
If you want to feel grateful every day then you should do this every day. If you want gratitude to become a natural part of our daily experience then we need to keep practicing this until it becomes natural for us.
So the easy way to do this is to make a commitment to yourself to write out a gratitude list each and every day. If you can’t do 50 things then I would suggest that you write out 100. That is not meant to be funny, instead, forcing yourself to come up with 100 things instead of 50 will allow you to broaden your criteria. Let your mind open up and be grateful for existence itself. Then work your way back towards your first world problems (if that makes any sense). In other words, allow yourself to take a step back from your life, from reality, from the entire world and all of creation and just allow yourself to marvel at it all.
What should we do if we mess up and stop being grateful?
If you find yourself becoming restless, irritable, and discontent even in spite of your efforts to be more grateful then you know you have your work cut out for you. Perhaps you have been going about it all wrong and you should try a new approach.
One thing that you might do in this case is to ask for help. Ask for advice. Go to an AA meeting and ask the people there how they develop gratitude and how they practice gratitude every day. Ask them what works for them. Talk to people after the meeting too and ask them these sorts of questions. Ask them how they find gratitude when they are feeling bad.
If you do this then you will probably get some suggestions. You will get some advice. Now it is up to you to take that advice and apply it in your own life.
The thing is, no one is going to say anything that is going to magically make you feel grateful without any additional work or action on your part. In order to really change you are going to have to put something new into practice. This requires effort. So for example, say that you are feeling bad about yourself and you cannot seem to summon any amount of gratitude no matter what you do. Someone suggests that you write out a gratitude list each day. Someone else suggests that you use some positive affirmations each morning. And someone else suggests that you take a walk every day or get some intentional exercise.
So if you really want to see some results then you might take all three of these suggestions and commit to taking action on all of them for the next 30 days straight. Every single day you make out a new gratitude list. Every single day you practice your affirmations. And every single day you deliberately go exercise, take a long walk, or whatever it is that you could do.
What will happen? I can assure you that if you take suggestions such as these and stick to them consistently for 30 days straight that you will definitely learn something about yourself. Furthermore I can all but assure you that you will notice at least some shift in your attitude, in other words, you will most definitely feel some gratitude from doing these things. The question is: “how much more grateful will you feel?” If it is not very much then you might have to repeat the process: Go find new advice, take different suggestions, and then put the ideas into action for at least 30 days straight while practicing them consistently. Then you might get even better results.
So this is really how gratitude works and how it develops. Being grateful does not just fall into your lap. You do not hear just the right thing at an AA meeting and suddenly become grateful forever. That is not how spiritual growth works.
On the other hand, you may hear just the right thing at an AA meeting that would inspire you to take action as I have outlined above, and those consistent actions would then lead you to a spiritual transformation. But it is not the magic phrase that led to this transformation, instead, it was the consistent action that you took.
If you have lost all sense of gratitude in your life then it is up to you to recognize this and take corrective action. If you are irritable and discontent then it means that you are no longer grateful. So you need to take action and get back to a place of gratitude so that you are not at risk of relapse.
Finding the lesson in everything
Relapse threatens us when we stop learning new things. When we stop learning about ourselves and who we really are.
In order to remain clean and sober we have to be in this learning process. We have to keep rediscovering who we really are. We have to keep reinventing ourselves in recovery so that we do not go back to relapse.
One way to do this is with an attitude of gratitude. If we are grateful for every situation then it means that we can find value in the situation, even if it appears to be “bad” on the surface. Maybe something happens and all we can get out of it is to say “well, at least I know that I don’t want to do that again!” But at least we learned something. At least we took one positive thing away from it. And so we can shift our perspective of that event and instead of being negative we can say “at least we got this positive thing out of it.”
Maybe you are early in recovery and you are experiencing ups and downs and you don’t know what to make of it all yet. If this is the case then ask for help and advice. Talk to people in recovery who have been sober for longer than you have. Listen to their perspective and realize that they have been through many of the trials that you are going through right now. And realize that they have found a way to be grateful for all it, which is what you must do as well. For if we cannot find out way to this gratitude then it is like we are turning up our noses at sobriety itself, as if we are saying “we don’t really want sobriety because it is not worth it.”
Well, of course it is worth it. We just have to remember that and rediscover that, every single day. And this is what the practice of gratitude is all about. This is what spiritual growth is all about.
There are many different ways to practice gratitude and develop it further. I have used affirmations, gratitude lists, and daily exercise in order to build up my “gratitude muscle.” What strategies and techniques have each of you used? What has been the most helpful for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!