I reflected on this and decided to explore what happens when we don’t authentically feel gratitude and instead force a feeling that isn’t there or worse, put ourselves on gratitude autopilot.
Human beings tend to put emotions on autopilot. Out of habit, we tell a loved one we love them at the end of a phone conversation, when someone asks how we are usually we say “great,” even if we had a crappy day. My client’s experience with gratitude was the same. Although thankful for many things in her life, she didn’t truly feel it.
Are we cheating ourselves out of experiencing the pure essence of emotions, such as gratitude, if we place ourselves on autopilot?
As a teenager, I had the same question. In church, I would hear the priest say, “We thank you, Heavenly Father, for this bread and wine,” and wonder if I was thankful? Why should I be thankful? Am I going to Hell if I am not? As I recited more prayers thanking God, I became very sad and disappointed with myself. The words I was saying meant nothing to me. Why wasn’t I feeling grateful? I expected to feel something after repeating the words but didn’t. It was then I placed myself on gratitude autopilot. I told everyone I was grateful, but secretly I never felt it.
Gratitude is taught to children in the form of manners and society’s expectations. Parents, teachers and role models have demanded children say thank you for decades. Sometimes these demands were motivated not only by the desire to teach good manners but also to impress friends.
As a result, children became indoctrinated into gratitude autopilot because they know it will please their parents. Some even adapted it as a manipulative tool.
How can we teach children the value of gratitude if we continue to try to control and force it upon them? Is there a better way to develop gratitude?
Intrigued by these questions, I interviewed many people about their perception of gratitude. Many answered, “You always can find something to be thankful for!” These clients reported finding things to be thankful for even if they were depressed or frustrated. They appreciated the roof over their head, their pets, the clothes on their back, and being alive. They had a very positive outlook on life and understood the power of gratitude and what it did for their well being.
Others related they couldn’t find things to be grateful for. They felt they had been victimized and were too busy to reflect on gratitude. Individuals from this group spent a large portion of their life chasing the “dream” and felt they worked so hard with little reward.
One man, a controlling, type A, had the most fascinating response. He believed he would lose power if he gave it away to the gratitude world. He said it made him feel out of control and vulnerable if something else changed the dynamic of his world. Being grateful insinuated an element other than himself was responsible for creating good in his life.
I discovered, in many cases, someone must experience physical illness, loss of a loved one, loss of job, loss of their house or other tragedy to develop gratitude. All great spiritual teachers have transformed their deep pain into gratitude and life lessons. Many sages have noted that the deeper the pain, the deeper the life lesson.
This has been true for me as well. I became sick and spent eight years battling a chronic illness. Depressed and frustrated, having gratitude was the last thing on my mind. My gratitude autopilot kept me from seeing good things in my life. But a passage from a spiritual master helped me find new awareness. The message was:
“If you can find it in your heart to be thankful for your illness, your situation or your pain, you will stop focusing on the negative, and you will find healing.”
Something clicked as I repeated the words and was able to reflect on my journey. Perhaps there were lessons to be learned. My pain and resentment didn’t cause me to be grateful. What caused me to be grateful was the birth of emotional intelligence, accessed through my heart’s intelligence. Was I grateful I was sick for so long? No. But something good had come from my illness.
The following are some tips on how to access heart intelligence and open the space for gratitude.
- Honor yourself by taking time to sit quietly or go for a walk within nature. Allow your mind to sink into your heart.
- Place your hand over your heart and check in with yourself. “What am I feeling?” Be honest. If you are feeling joy, feel it. If you are feeling stressed or angry, accept it. Just be.
- Observe your surroundings without judgment. Once you find this place of stillness, you will feel a shift.
- Breathe. Slow life-renewing breaths. There are many ways of doing this. It is the exhalation that shifts the sympathetic to parasympathetic.
- Be aware of the thoughts and emotions that enter your heart. Can you find the space to allow gratitude to enter?
Remember to honor yourself and be real. You don’t have to be on gratitude autopilot. Forcing any feeling doesn’t serve you. Gratitude will happen in that space of love. It is important to make a conscious space for it. As with anything, this takes practice and awareness. As I found it is a journey. This is where the healing takes place, and the space for gratitude flows with it. It is a journey.
Once we understand the process of finding gratitude we can access the many joys and benefits of gratitude with sincerity and authenticity.
I welcome you to check in with yourself. When you find yourself in the space of gratitude autopilot, do you feel the difference when you shift, let go, and surrender to the space of pure love and gratitude?
Turn off all emotional autopilot programming and feel every emotion at it’s purest level.