The Pain Of Gratitude

GratitudeThere is something fundamentally challenging about gratitude that goes beyond remembering to practice it. If I truly admit how damn fortunate I am, I usually experience a myriad of feelings: pure love, then guilt, and then sheer terror.

Guilt and terror? That might surprise you. After all, we practice gratitude to help us become more positive and serene, and more appreciative of the good things in our lives. But sometimes, when I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the people, places and things in my life, I can become paralyzed by the thought of all of it just…vanishing. And that’s a terrifying thought indeed.

I don’t believe this stems from a fear of abandonment, or an attachment disorder issue. Rather, it comes from a deep understanding that everything is temporary. My four-year old daughter, jumping up and down naked on the bed, laughing with pure glee, will soon be a memory. My almost-seventeen-year-old cat, who likes to snuggle in the mornings, will also be gone. As will my partner someday.

So, the question becomes: how do I allow myself to fully open and experience the absolute love and gratitude that abounds in these moments, while also fully comprehending that it will never be the same again?

This is not a rhetorical, philosophical question. Really, how do we receive and embrace the good, when we know it can’t last?

I’m reminded of a Carl Jung quote regarding dichotomy (the division between two mutually exclusive or contradictory situations):

“But there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites…”

When I practice tools that help me become more comfortable with dichotomy, I’m better able to sit with this tension without reacting. These reactions typically take the form of any number of distractions and unproductive behavior, including negativity.

While our brains are wired for negativity and, as I mentioned in a previous post, it kept our ancestors alive, we now know we can actually rewire our brains. Ironically, gratitude is one of the best ways to accomplish this. (See Rick Hanson’s work for more on the brain’s negativity bias).

However, if the experience of gratitude can be painful, then where does that leave us?

There are a few mind/brain hacks you can use to hold dichotomy or, as I call it, brain integration. To give an oversimplified description, our brains have two hemispheres, the left and the right, and they quite literally understand the world differently. The left hemisphere sees things in black and white, yes or no, one way or the other. But the right hemisphere allows for a multitude of shades and colors. It can tolerate the tension of division, and can begin to detect webs, or patterns, that are impossible to see when viewed only in a linear fashion (e.g., yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad, etc.).

So how do we facilitate the integration of these two parts of our brains? Well, we have to start by flexing the hemisphere that is most atrophied, which is – unsurprisingly – the right hemisphere. When we have an awareness that these right-brain experiences are 1. available, and 2. valuable, we can bring back the subtle, yet powerful, knowledge of the right hemisphere into our everyday experiences.

How do we begin to “listen” to the vast amount of information offered to us from the right-hemisphere?

First, we have to listen in a different way, as the messages we receive will “sound” different from what we’re used to. For instance, our bodies speak volumes and are directly connected to the right hemisphere. We can start to become aware of the ways our bodies “talk” to us. You might feel queasy when you’re about to give a presentation at work. Or you get goosebumps when watching a scary movie.

Our intuition is also talking to us all the time. Intuition has gotten a bad rap over the years, with many people feeling it’s “airy fairy” or “woo-woo”. However, our intuition is actually “the ability to understand something immediately”. It’s a sense of knowing. And it’s the way the right hemisphere works: by instantly taking in and comprehending the whole picture. Think about the feeling you get when you know someone is lying to you. You might not have proof, but you just know. Or when you get a really good “feeling” about an interview candidate. Eureka moments are possible in this state!

I’m not suggesting that analysis and mental dissection, which are classic left-hemisphere attributes, are not valuable. They absolutely are. However, we tend to get “stuck” in this way of knowing without allowing or acknowledging input from the right hemisphere. As a result, we miss out on the opportunity to understand the situation from a different perspective; one in which the whole (or gestalt) can be understood.

The right hemisphere doesn’t use everyday language (which is housed in the left hemisphere) to communicate. It usually “speaks” without words – you get a gut feeling, or an image or diagram pops into your head seemingly out of nowhere. So, we have to listen in different ways:

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  • Making art

  • Creativity (crafting, cooking, gardening, etc.)

  • Spending time in nature

  • Stepping back to see the whole picture – what I call “zooming out”

  • Being embodied (practicing yoga, dancing, etc.)

  • Listening to music[/message] [su_spacer]

These are just a few ways you can practice tuning into your brain’s right hemisphere.

Bringing this information into our daily lives does take a certain amount of trust. However, when we begin to consciously listen and make the effort to become familiar with what might at first feel very foreign, uncomfortable, and maybe even undefined or wishy-washy, and then implement this knowledge, more will follow.

The right brain can become a storehouse of valuable wisdom. And, it can be really fun (humor and wit are also right-brain attributes!). With a bit of practice, we can become more familiar and comfortable with the opaque and the dichotomous. And getting comfortable operating from this place can feel like coming home.

Ultimately, we’ll be able to more easily manage the sometimes terrifying feelings that can come up when practicing gratitude. And that’s something we can be truly thankful for.


Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT
Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT
AS an employee engagement consultant and professional psychotherapist and coach, Dayna combines out-of- the-box thinking with solid scientific research, so her clients get the best of both worlds. Dayna is the co-founder of ic3 consulting. ic3 consulting helps business leaders re-engage, re-align and re-ignite their workforce to create highly empowered teams that communicate effectively, collaborate freely and work to realize their company’s vision. How engaged are your employees? Take our 3-minute ACE Employee Engagement Assessment !

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  1. Sometimes walking in nature and listening to music do help me. The idea that I’m integrating my brain with that is more than interesting. Getting that kind of insight into life in a way that is clearly growth oriented never occurred to me. Hm. During this pandemic, that may be exactly what’s needed. Will try some of the others!!! Thanks Dayna.


    • Hi Cynthia,

      Walks in nature and music are two of my top go tos as well! And, you are right, this pandemic has forced many of us to reexamine and elevate the importance of growth-orientated self-care in our lives. Let me know how trying out some of the others goes for you!

      Very warmly,


  2. Being able to experience a feeling of gratitude is good for health, protects us from negative emotions like bitterness and envy, helps in building social ties that have a fundamental role in our wellbeing. Gratitude is contagious, generates a positive attitude, pushing ourselves to help others and others to be supportive. People want to feel in communion with their own kind, connected and evaluated positively by others. Therefore, the expression of gratitude can foster a sense of social appreciation and encouragement to make other pro-social actions. Gratitude is also being studied by psychologists and scholars of organization to understand the power that can have for the quality of work collaborations. The studies suggest that cultivate and show others a sense of gratitude strengthens organizational ties, the sense of belonging and the spirit of cooperation, in short, it positively influence the working climate.

  3. I enjoyed this Dayna. I first ran across this concept in the book The go Giver. I did a class on the book and gave away prizes to everyone up front. I did say you may not want to keep them. After the class I challenged them to give these prizes to random people for no reason other than to give. I also asked the to to email me what happened out of 12 people 9 emailed to say that something came back to them for the giving. Most of them like Chris said were unsure how to receive the things that came back to them. Some said they felt unworthily or embarrassed that someone did something for them. Even though they were comfortable giving the receiving was new to them. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

      • The Go-Giver: A Little Story about a Powerful Business Idea is a business book written by Bob Burg and John D. Mann. It is a story about the power of giving. The first edition was published on December 27, 2007 by Portfolio Hardcover. Wikipedia . It states it’s a business book but when I first read it I used it as much in my every day life as I did in business. For me it works

  4. Hi Jane, Thank you for your valuable comment. Yes – neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout life! And, specifically, the difficult – yet incredibly important – task of training the brain how to hold dichotomy instead of our more immediate tendency to classify something as one way or another. I have a free PDF that has 8 additional “essential ingredients to court your creativity” that you can find here:

  5. I believe in gratitude and even though, sometimes I momentarily wonder how long it will be that I get to ride the upward trend before the other shoe drops, I still believe in gratitude. I don’t know that you were necessarily describing neuroplasticity, but you definitely described our ability to look at things differently and train our brains beyond what’s there now.

    I admit I had not thought about gratitude with the impacts you’ve described before. Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. There is a lot of dynamics around gratitude; some innocent and some sinister
    (1) Recall receiving similar gratitude in the past then immediately failing by no fault of your own
    (2) Being targeted by those covertly uses gratitude to gain your favor or use it to tear you down
    (3) One’s own uncertainty on how to receive such compliments

    The best thing to do is say “Thank you so much. I like it when my hard work is recognized with pure sheer enthusiasm… then study the reaction of the person giving you the compliment. Next steps are very certain.