Why I Dumped My Gratitude Journal

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I’ve kept a gratitude journal for most of my adult life. I didn’t always write in it every day, but it’s always been a tool that I’ve gone back to when I wanted a little more joy in my life. However, a couple of years ago it became a stressful chore rather than the ease-bringing exercise it had once been.

At the beginning of 2012, I was living in Australia, just having finished my masters degree. I had applied for a visa and was told the process would take a month. It ended up taking over a year.

The looming uncertainty of that visa application made it difficult to plan life more than four weeks in advance (the amount of time I’d be allowed to stay if the visa was denied). As you might imagine, this made building a freelance teaching portfolio rather challenging. Even really mundane decisions like “Do I buy these paper towels one at a time or in bulk?” were influenced by this ambiguity.

I was of course grateful for the opportunities I had there, and I was ecstatic about the community I found. I even started Sex Geekdom during that time. But I also felt deeply anxious about the uncertainty and frustrated by bureaucratic barriers.

My brain really wanted to categorize the experience as either positive or negative. That constant tension was difficult to process. Shades of gray can be challenging, and when things are both positive and negative (or exciting and terrifying), this can create anxiety. It certainly did for me.

Writing in my gratitude journal somehow seemed inauthentic – like I was glossing over the challenges that were so alive in me. It felt like every time I sat down to write in it, I was telling myself, “You should just be grateful you get to have this experience.”

Then I shifted the focus of my journaling from “gratitude” to “noticing.” I started writing things like this:

I’m noticing I feel scared about how much uncertainty I’m experiencing.

I’m noticing that I feel frustrated.

I’m noticing that I feel grateful to have a supportive friendship network.

Through the noticing, I’d get to the gratitude, but in a way that honored (rather than resisted) the crappier things I was feeling.

The practice of noticing has been one of the most useful skills I’ve learned in my adult life. When I can notice rather than evaluate a feeling, that feeling has less power to take over and become overwhelming. When experiencing more “positive” feelings, the practice of observation can counteract the instinct to “grasp.” This process is a classic mindfulness exercise that Western therapists and Eastern theologians have been recommending for ages.

When you can just notice, “Oh, I see. I’m feeling stressed right now. An hour ago I felt excited.” – you can ride the waves of uncertainty with more ease. Like most life skills, it takes practice. The longer I’ve been doing this, the easier it gets.

Kate Kenfield