I immediately spotted the curly-headed, Scottish man upon entering the coffee shop—he was, no surprise, surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, leaning in to catch his every word.
I’d heard he was some kind of prophet. While others sought out his sage advice, I avoided him at all costs. There was something deeply disconcerting, in my opinion, about a stranger looking straight into my soul and speaking truthful things—most likely things I’d made considerable efforts to avoid acknowledging.
He found me anyway. I made the rookie mistake of sitting alone at the table while my college roommate was still waiting at the counter for her beverage.
“Thankfulness is the way forward,” he said, with a knowing smile. (Among many other sage things that are now a bit of a blur.)
And now, years later, I still go back to those words: thankfulness is the way forward.
What I didn’t realize then—thank heavens—was that I was about to fall face-first into the debilitating, soul-sucking quicksand self-criticism. A series of difficult events unfolded one right after the other, and suddenly, it was as if I was living outside of myself, criticizing my own every move.
It shouldn’t be too difficult for one to imagine how problematic this sort of thing can be. I began to suffer such extreme self-doubt that I feared it was going to swallow me up completely. My life was The Never-Ending Story and I was the sinking horse. May he RIP.
After an inconvenient several years of fighting these self-critical thoughts, it finally made sense to me what the Scottish prophet was saying—the way out was thankfulness… of all things.
But how, you ask? Thankfulness takes us beyond ourselves. It takes us out from the tunnel vision of self-pity and opens our eyes to see what was invisible before; namely, the beauty that’s in absolutely everything.
Going just beyond ourselves is actually the foundation of emotional well-being. Conversely, tunnel vision to our own needs is the root of most mental illness. If you can imagine a broken record re-playing the same notes over and over—that is essentially what happens in your mind when anxiety, depression, and self-criticism sink their dirty little claws in.
Something has to free us from the loop of unhelpful thinking.
And guess what else? Science.
According to the research of Nicola Petrocchi & Alessandro Couyoumdjian (2016), “Gratitude is a protective factor against psychopathology not only due to its association with improved relationships with others, but also because it is connected to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self.”
Furthermore, their study found that “Gratitude shows an exceptional degree of incremental validity in predicting well-being above the traits most studied in psychology.”
The unflattering truth is that we can actually become addicted to our own debilitating hell of self-focus.
For many of us, this is because somewhere along the way we were hurt, and we thought it was our fault—that maybe if we had done something different, or more perfectly, the hurt wouldn’t have happened to us. And now we try to be perfect. And we keep trying and trying and trying.
I got winded just typing that.
If you identify with this tendency, you know as well as I do that this mindset hasn’t protected you from anything. Quite oppositely, it’s kept you from a lot of really wonderful things—things that fear of failure and the shame of imperfection keep perpetually out of your grasp.
But the very good news is there is a way forward—a way out of the quicksand—and it’s gratitude.
Now, you might be in a place where the very idea of gratitude alone is almost laughable, and that’s ok. You can begin by simply training your mind to notice.
Notice the colors, the feels, the charming, little quirks in the people around you, notice the smell of the bread baking (do people still bake bread?) notice the sound of the rain falling. Even this simple act of noticing is taking you beyond yourself.
It’s opening up the prison door and leading you out.
On days when sadness or anxiety has been particularly gripping, I resort to being thankful for anything my mind can come up with: Legs, feet, eyes, hands, etc. Straight to the basics. And immediately, my mind opens from just my current issue to the perspective of someone living without the things I take for granted.
One little shift beyond myself and fear loses power.
Just beyond yourself is the place you’ll find peace, not only because your focus changes, but also because you are learning to truly see. And this, I think, is the most beautiful part of it all. The more you practice gratitude, the more you’ll see:
Fear and despair are liars—thanksgiving is the truth.
Half a step
and the rest
There is a road
When you see
the two sides
at that far horizon
and deep in
of your own
it’s the road
how you know.
need to be.
—Just Beyond Yourself, David Whyte
Nicola Petrocchi & Alessandro Couyoumdjian (2016) The impact of gratitude on depression and anxiety: the mediating role of criticizing, attacking, and reassuring the self, Self and Identity, 15:2, 191-205, DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2015.1095794