What I learnt from a month of gratitude

Experiment 7: Learning from gratitude 

When I started my sabbatical and my experiments, at the start of 2019, my first experiment was a 14 days yoga and meditation retreat in Thailand. One of the first exercises we completed was to write down what we were grateful for. I have to admit I struggled, I really struggled. That’s when I knew my sabbatical and the journey I was about to embark on was going to be important.

I committed to practicing gratitude from that day forward no matter how hard it was to find something I was grateful for. I stated to convey thanks and gratitude to those people around me and it became easier for me to notice what I was grateful for. One small but significant change was modifying my email signature to read ‘with gratitude’ rather than cheers. This had an enormous impact on how I approached emails. I wanted to be congruent and the tone of my emails changed.

However, I felt as though I wasn’t stepping outside my comfort zone enough. I wanted to learn more about my own vulnerability and to learn about the impacts of a deeper form of gratitude has on both myself and others.

So, for the month of March I wrote a card to 31 people that are in my life currently or have been in my life but are no longer. Where I didn’t have a postal address, I wrote either an email or a Facebook message. The choice of these 31 people was difficult at times. I know I left people off the list not intentionally, but I felt I had to prioritise given the nature of the experiment. There were the obvious ones such as my parents, siblings, good friends and work colleagues. There were a couple of clients who I have been incredibly grateful for, an auntie, a cousin, an ex-wife who I had not spoken to for 15 years (that was the Facebook message), a recent partner, people who I am less close with these days and mentors.

Now you have to realise that during this time the implications of Covid 19 hit. One the weekend of March 14 and 15 Australia changed, and we went into lockdown. This increased my own level of vulnerability given the impact it had on my client work. It was also at a time that my Mum was in Melbourne Private receiving attention in ICU for complications for major surgery.

In each card I expressed my gratitude and thanks for what that person has given me or has given more broadly to others whether it be currently or at certain times in my life. There were cards I didn’t want to write but it was important I was grateful to that person for what they have given me and I was sincerely grateful for what they had done even if we weren’t as close as we once were.

Purpose of Experiment

The purpose of this experiment was simply to notice how I felt when I was writing the cards/messages, how I felt when I posted them and to notice what happened next. One of my limiting beliefs identified before I went on my sabbatical and when I started doing the deeper work was that ‘I didn’t matter’. I have moved through this although it will always be present. I have a healthier relationship with this belief knowing that to matter to others I needed to matter to myself. If I did a month of gratitude 2 years ago (which I wouldn’t have!) I would have been worried about what people thought and what would come back at me. This time I just wanted to observe what feelings came up for me writing the cards and the reaction of both mine and of others post sending the cards.

There were times, when I wrote the cards, that were incredibly difficult. There was deep emotional rawness particularly to my parents because I don’t think I have ever expressed my thanks and gratitude to them in a heartfelt way. There were some that were light and easy, and I found them enjoyable to just send my thanks to people who are good people doing good things and who have been good to me.
The joy was watching the response and just noticing it without judgement. Out of the 31 I sent I received a response from 25 people. In the first week I received no response and thought it interesting but didn’t feel triggered. Then one by one people started to reach out. This is what I found fascinating. Some sent me a text, some responded to my email/message (My ex-wife was very appreciative), some rang me and as I stated some didn’t respond at all which included my parents. This did make me feel a little sad but at the same time vulnerability is not something I grew up with and whilst I know they would have been touched, expressing it would have taken them into a different space. I did wonder whether some people who didn’t respond thought it was contrived rather than heartfelt. I can see that, but it wasn’t my intention.

The tone of the those who did respond ranged from appreciation, love, surprise and genuine delight.
As an experiment is had been the most wonderful experience but also pushed my buttons in terms of interpersonal risk. I needed a couple of weeks to step back and to reflect on my learning from this experiment.

What did I learn?

The joy of expressing gratitude

I must admit, a few years ago I would have thought this would be something that new age, yoga type people would do, and I didn’t fit into that stereotype. However, I in the most part I loved doing it. Yes, it was hard at times, but I received so much more joy from writing my messages rather than what came back at me. I am now making it a practice to send thank you cards and cards of appreciation. I have continued since March albeit not as regularly but will look for those moments where sending a card, message or a simple text is appropriate. There has been research that expressing gratitude builds happiness and optimism. I know that by doing this experiment it has contributed to me managing the impacts of Covid19 more effectively. Also, I am noticing that I am becoming more in service in others, and whilst I was on that journey beforehand, this experiment has strengthened it.

We can find something in everyone that we are thankful for.

In our life we bump into people who disagree with us, trigger us and may even hurt us emotionally. Finding something that we are grateful for in that person can help and sustain the relationship or even just give us a sense of peace. There were a couple of cards that I wrote where I had to think deeply about what I was grateful for and I found that more useful than those that were easy to write. It helped me to see the good in that person and that they had given me something that I really appreciated.

Embedding a regular practice of gratitude.

What my experience of expressing gratitude taught me was how content and joyful it made me. I am committed to writing in my journal each day one thing I am grateful for. During these challenging times it has been a great support to me. I am also continuing the process of just letting people know informally what I appreciate about them. Simply thanking people for what they bring to the table and noticing their reaction has been humbling.

It didn’t stretch me as much It could of.

Don’t get me wrong, I was stretched, I felt outside my comfort zone and I learned so much. I think there is another step for me in my growth and that is to have some of these conversations face to face. I think there is some protection doing it through cards and messages and having some conversations with people will take me further outside my comfort zone.

So, what are you grateful for in your life?

Andrew Williams is a speaker, coach, facilitator and author of Survive and Thrive: 120 Ideas to Cultivate your Leadership Agility. He can be contacted at andrew@agilityconsulting.com.au or visit www.cultivateagility.com.

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