It’s November. And in the United States, that means the focus has shifted from spooky and scary stuff to family and gratitude. For survivors of trauma, there’s nothing scarier than family and gratitude.
I have discussed the triggers coming from the endless Hallmark commercials focusing on family, but today, I will discuss gratitude. But I want to start with a caveat. I get the importance of gratitude. I get the power of manifestation that it brings. I am not discounting that. My goal is to highlight the complexities. For survivors of trauma, it is not as simple as an affirmation or list in a journal. It is much more complicated than that. Why? Gratitude doesn’t come from the mind. It comes from the body. And our unresolved trauma resides in our body.
This morning, I was standing in my bathroom and something dawned on me. My children have not been sick in a while. They have had the sniffles and maybe a cough that didn’t last long, but there have been no major illnesses to stop us in our tracks this fall. As I began to state and feel gratitude for this, I heard a voice loud and clear. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!! Don’t say that. Are you crazy? You have just invited the wrath of hell to rain down upon you.” While I have known for some time that my inner parts are not huge fans of the universe in general, this was a blatant interruption that left me dumbfounded in the moment.
So I used this as an opportunity to examine the ways my inner parts are not lining up with the whole gratitude thing. I have to admit, there were quite a few examples. Here are some statements my inner parts shared with me:
- “I am tired of people expecting me to be grateful for things I should have naturally.” I get how bad this statement sounds at first. In adulthood, nothing should be taken for granted. But this statement isn’t coming from my adult self. When I was a child, I was regularly treated as a bother by my parents. They indicated that I was lucky to have a roof over my head while being sexually abused. They let me know I should be grateful to go to school while being sold to pedophiles at night. They made it clear I should be grateful to have a meal after being beaten bad enough to incur a concussion. When people tell me to be grateful for the food on my table and the roof over my head, my adult self knows they are right, but my inner parts are triggered.
- “I didn’t ask to be here. Why should I be grateful for anything?” Like the statement above, I know how bad that sounds. But when I was a child, the smallest obligatory task from my parents would be painted as a huge burden. It was made clear that my parents were slaves to my needs and bothered by the constant imposition my existence created for them. My gratitude was not only expected, but a lack of it was seen as punishable. So I was taught to practice forced gratitude towards people who showed me no love, towards things that children should expect for their healthy development. When people tell me to be grateful for the kindness of others, my adult self knows they are right, but my inner parts are triggered.
- “Everything I am grateful for is taken away from me.” I learned early in my childhood that happiness and gratitude for anything would make it inevitably temporary. I have written about this topic before, but this traumatic understanding of the world cannot be highlighted enough. My inner parts are absolutely convinced that happiness will be thwarted and retaliated against. To make matters worse, if people aren’t around to ruin my life, the universe will take care of it. In other words, there is no way to avoid it. In reality, my adult self knows that everything is temporary, good or bad. But that doesn’t change the old pattern of thinking. So when people tell me to be grateful for my amazing life and recent good fortune, my adult self knows they are right, but my inner parts are triggered.
So while I appreciate this season of gratitude, and believe wholeheartedly in the power of gratitude, I have to acknowledge it isn’t something that comes without complexities. My inner parts are not so quick to embrace this life based on their past experiences. So when I feel the need to state gratitude in my head, it comes with the understanding that such a statement will bring up resistance, resistance that can be explored. And over time, this exploration has led to moments of uninhibited and joy-filled gratitude in which all of my inner parts were aligned. These moments have never been provoked by thoughts. They happen spontaneously. And when they happen, I am proud of my inner parts for allowing them. I know how difficult it is to try things a new way. I know gratefulness doesn’t come easy to them.
But I am grateful for their efforts.
I am grateful for recovery.
And I am grateful for the choices we are making as a system to heal the past.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW