A special time is approaching when Americans sit down together to give heartfelt thanks for the many good things in our lives. It’s a day we call. . . Turkey Day.
I mean Thanksgiving, of course. But its popular nickname suggests a curious discomfort with the idea of gratitude. Shouldn’t we be glad to have a holiday dedicated to celebrating blessings instead of memorializing old sources of pain? In a world so fraught with conflict and trauma, fear and negativity, time spent savoring the positive aspects of our lives can be truly life affirming and possibly life saving.
So why is it hard for us to let in the good stuff? One reason, I believe, is that many of us prefer the familiarity of old pain and anxiety to the uncertainty of new feelings. New pleasure, in particular, can seem scary and destabilizing, threatening to sweep us away to places we’ve never been before. We’d rather keep seeing the glass as half-empty, because doing otherwise would mean altering the way we view everything else.
Another reason, strange as it sounds, is superstition. Knowingly or unknowingly, we often believe that if we openly acknowledge our blessings, spiteful fate may decide to take them away. By focusing instead on the bad things in our lives–in essence, trying to protect ourselves with our fears and stresses– we hope to avert fate’s jealousy. This “superstition of pessimism” is as old as the hills, and to some degree it’s self-fulfilling. After all, negative thinkers are more likely to feel thwarted and frustrated in pursuing their goals–a clear case of divine disfavor!
Pressure to do more, earn more, and display our success with a bigger house or more expensive car also keeps many of us dissatisfied with what we are and have achieved. So we spend our lives continually yearning, and feel bitter disappointment when we don’t get that promotion or our children don’t turn out the way we wanted.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many of us have difficulty admitting when things are going well. Or why the beautiful word “thanksgiving” is often replaced by the name of a bird that’s a synonym for a big letdown.
Why Be Grateful?
By encouraging your clients to more deeply savor the blessings they experience, you can help them revitalize their lives. The same is true for you.
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Tarcher, 2002) and Sarah Ban Breathnach in Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy (Warner Books, 1998), both praise the power of gratitude. Citing a French proverb, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory,” Ban Breathnach suggests that being thankful “sets in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.”
Don Montagna, former head of the Washington Ethical Society, also espoused this view in a course on relationship-building that I took a few years ago. “When you focus on the negative, it will grow,” he told us. “When you focus on the positive, it will expand accordingly.”
I’m also reminded that John Gray, author of the epochal Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex (Harper Paperbacks, 2004) advises women to concentrate on what men do right instead of what they do wrong. Anxious not to replicate my mother’s habitual fault-finding, I tried this early in my relationship with a boyfriend I really liked. My focus on the glass being more than half full, instead of slightly empty, contributed to a honeymoon period that has led to a marriage of nearly 20 years.
From Guilt to Gratitude
We all know discontented clients and colleagues who gripe about what they want instead of being grateful for what they have. Some time ago, I worked with a client who was in the process of receiving a great deal of money from her wealthy father, but felt angry that she was not being given even more. To help her let go of the resentment, I led her in exploring emotional areas where she had felt deprived in childhood–the first step in separating that old pain from the financial demands she was making to compensate for it.
Slowly, she began to accept what she didn’t get and appreciate what she did receive. This led her to an understanding of how to communicate healthier attitudes about money to her children. Eventually, she may decide to use some of her wealth to affect the world in a personally meaningful way.
The perception of having too much money can be as debilitating as thinking you have too little. Rich Colman, a financial advisor and tax expert who is a principal in the Colman Knight Advisory Group in Carlisle, Massachusetts, told me about a client who was earning $18,000 a year when he unexpectedly inherited millions of dollars. First shocked, then angry about this huge, sudden windfall, he was unable to let himself buy the nice house that he could now well afford.
In my years of counseling, I worked with many heirs and heiresses who felt crippling guilt and shame that, through no effort of their own, they now had much more money than so many others in the world. Once they learned to admit their repressed gratitude for the choices and freedom their wealth provided, they were able to harness this positive energy and use their money in ways that benefited them, their loved ones, and others. The transformation from neurotic guilt to healthy gratitude was inspiring to witness.
A good exercise for clients who are struggling with these issues begins with two sheets of paper. On the first sheet, urge them to write down their regrets. What do they wish they had achieved by now? How much more, or less, money do they wish they had? What roads do they regret not taking? How differently would they have handled relationships with their loved ones? When this list is done, put it through a paper shredder. (Yes, you read that right.)
On the second sheet, they should write down personal accomplishments, qualities, and life experiences that they appreciate and feel proud of. This is the list they need to keep. They might even make copies to leave in different places, so they can read and re-read it to feel more soothed, satisfied, and grateful.
Not Enough, or Too Much?
One of the most frustrating situations for a planner is when you show clients they can actually afford to do something they yearn for–and they don’t do it. Instead of the satisfaction of helping them achieve the comfort and pleasure they say they want and need, you’re left feeling puzzled and disappointed when they resist taking actions that would make a hugely positive difference in their life.
Rick Kahler, president of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, South Dakota, told me the story of a 50-ish client whose dream was to retire and pursue his love of the outdoors. Convinced that he couldn’t afford to leave the rat race, he would lie awake at night worrying about his businesses.
Ironically, Rick said, if this client liquidated just three percent annually of his $15 million net worth, he would be able to retire on $450,000 a year and do whatever he pleased for the rest of his life. Instead he continues running his businesses, complaining about the stress and unable to believe that he has “enough.” Some of the money messages blinding him to the potential for happiness are “Don’t spend your principal;” “You’ve got to work hard to make money;” “You don’t deserve to be wealthy;” and “Your success is a fluke.” With money scripts like these, Rick points out, it’s easy to see why people remain stuck in old limiting patterns instead of taking advantage of opportunities to enjoy life.
Rick’s understanding of this “Scrooge” mentality led him, Ted Klontz, and Brad Klontz to write about it in The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge: 5 Principles to Transform Your Relationship with Money (HCI, 2005). Scroogey clients won’t spend to benefit themselves or others because of their unhealthy beliefs about money. Though these beliefs vary, the result is the same: hurtful behaviors persist because they’re familiar and support people’s underlying money scripts.