Hi there! Liz here wanting to wish you all a happy holiday season! Can you believe it’s here already?!? I know this is so cliché, but 2018 was a whirlwind for me. It was jam packed with ups and downs and flew by, how about you? How are you doing this holiday season?
I know that during the holidays there are so many women out there struggling with really loud food and body fears. Is that where you find yourself today or are you in a different place this year? I know that these kinds of repetitive and persistent thoughts really distract us and take us away from the fun, joy, connection, and celebration this time of year can bring. If we are worried about all of the calories in those cookies our mom makes every year or about all of the butter in the mashed potatoes, it is really hard to be present with enjoying these delicious foods and feeling the nostalgia and memories we have associated with them.
So many of my clients talk about how much they miss the way the holidays used to feel when they weren’t stuck in their heads, distracted by counting, or feeling “guilty after binging.” During this time especially, I think gratitude can be a helpful tool to get us out of our heads and back into the present moment and able to appreciate what deeply matters to us. Before you read “gratitude” and think, “not again…” and click way, stick with me here!
Below are some gratitude practices I hope can be practical and useful for you during this holiday season. Thanksgiving is a fitting time to slow down and create some space for reflection in our lives. Yes there are a million things to do and people to see, but give yourself the time + space so to try a few new practices and see how they fit into your life!
Daily Gratitude List
Daily gratitude practices can really support us in re-wiring our brains so we are more prone to notice the things we appreciate as opposed to our brains being stuck in constant problem-solving mode. It can be helpful to start the morning by listing five things we are grateful for and then in the evening listing five more things we are grateful for. When starting this practice, try to keep in mind that it is most effective to mix up the big and small things we appreciate. Sometimes when we are struggling, it feels hard to think of anything we enjoy in our life because we are focused on what we wish were different. BUT, we can train our brain to appreciate and take comfort in even the smallest things with practice. This morning my gratitude list included: my husband, my clients, my car starting, the pumpkin creamer in my coffee, and really good sleep the night before. Your mind might feel blocked at first, but I have found that by making it a daily routine the list comes easier and I am noticing more things throughout my day to be thankful for. The small things matter!
Gratitude List For Your Body
When struggling with negative body image, I find it most helpful for the women I work with to shift their focus away from the evaluation of their bodies based on its appearance and size and instead give more air time to thoughts about the functionality of their bodies. The mantra, “My body is an instrument for my life, not an ornament.” often resonates with clients. If we think about it, our bodies really are our vehicles to move through the world, and these vehicles allow us to do so many tremendous things! Write a list of some of the things your body makes it possible for you to do in a week.
Here is my recent Body Gratitude List: dancing, seeing a sunset, smelling rain on the ground, hugging my best friend, walking to work, smiling at a stranger and seeing them smile back, hearing a client share a victory, brushing my teeth, holding my husband’s hand, tasting my dad’s homemade pizza, participating in a beach clean-up with my alumni organization. I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences if I didn’t have my eyes, no nose, my hands, my thighs…my body and all of its parts! Sounds cheesy, but until you try it you can’t say that 🙂
I do want to note that as I write this I am immensely aware of my privilege in regards to physical health and the fact that I am living without physical disabilities. I know that there are many out there who live with disabilities, chronic pain, or even temporary illness that might make doing a gratitude list like this painful. And at the same time, a lesson I continually learn is that we can usually find small things to appreciate while still honoring our pain and grief, both can happen at the same time. We can hold both.
Appreciation vs Expectation
There are so many expectations that we have during the holidays around what this time is “supposed to be”. It is hard to turn the television on, open up our social media pages, or even walk into a store without seeing the picture perfect “Hallmark Holiday” where families are laughing, hugging, playing in the snow, and surrounded by beautiful decorations. That is not real life. These kinds of images create super high expectations about what our holidays should look and feel like. And those that struggle with disordered eating often have perfectionistic tendencies in other areas of their lives. So the struggle is real in trying not to be overtaken by the expectations and hopes for a “perfect holiday” I don’t know about you, but I have never ever had a “perfect holiday.” From my train being late, to getting in an argument with my dad about how to make yams, to feeling sad about a gift not being thoughtful enough or appreciated enough, family drama, the list goes on and on.
When we go into the holidays with these high expectations, it is so easy (almost a set up or a guarantee) to feel disappointed. So another gratitude mantra you can use during this season (and whenever!) is appreciation not expectation. How can we step out of future oriented thinking about what our holiday should look like and instead focus on being present in the moment and finding little things to appreciate as the days unfold? How can I be surprised by gratitude? Like a spur of the moment conversation with my aunt or breaking out into laughter with my sister or enjoying a cookie my coworker brought that is so perfectly chewy on my lips? Appreciation not expectation has been such a helpful affirmation for me to use and has allowed me to be present in the goodness + joy of my own, real life as opposed to the movie I think it should be.
Gratitude Alphabet and Prompted Gratitude Questions
If it’s difficult to find things to be grateful for there are two other practices that can be helpful in getting your mind going.
One seems silly, but can be really fun and spark your imagination in thinking about what is there to appreciate in your life. I call it the Gratitude Alphabet. The way it works is that you go through the alphabet, A to Z, and state one thing you are grateful for starting with each letter. Here is an example: A – apple cider, B – books, C – Catherine (my sister), D – dogs etc. Be creative, have fun with it!
You can also use prompted gratitude questions to help guide you. I have added one that I often offer to clients:
- I’m grateful for these three things I hear:
- I’m grateful for these three things I see:
- I’m grateful for these three things I smell:
- I’m grateful for these three things I touch/feel:
- I’m grateful for these three things I taste:
- I’m grateful for these three blue things:
- I’m grateful for these three people:
- I’m grateful for these three things in my home:
- I am grateful I am able to do these three activities:
Letter of Gratitude
A gratitude practice is also about directing that gratitude towards others and letting them know how much you appreciate them. Pay it forward! Something that might be meaningful and add some cheer to your holiday season (as well as someone else’s!) is to write an unexpected letter of gratitude. As opposed to sending a text or a holiday card, choose one person in your life who you are grateful for (maybe someone you haven’t told in a while or ever) and write them a letter to mail or give it to them in person. Who in your life has recently shown you kindness, taught you something, been there for you as a listening ear, or gone out of their way to help you? Writing that person a letter where you share in detail are how they have added to your life can actually do wonders to your own mood and attitude. And I can guarantee it will mean so much to that person. But you might be surprised with how much the simple act of writing the letter improves your day too!
Gratitude for the Struggles
Being grateful for our difficulties is a really tough one, but can be immensely helpful – it helps create meaning to our pain. This is very hard to do in the moments when you are deeply suffering so I don’t suggest trying this right in the thick of it, as it doesn’t give us enough space to feel and validate our emotions. We do not want to skip over sadness, anger or hurt by jumping to gratitude. However, it is often life changing when we allow both experiences to be true at the same time. Meaning we can be both sad it happened and grateful for the lessons learned.
My suggestion is that when the intensity of the moment has decreased, you take some time to reflect on how your current struggle is supporting or helping you. For example, I am often able to feel grateful for my personal struggles with anxiety, perfectionism, etc. as they have allowed me to be a therapist and coach who deeply understands and relates to my clients’ own experiences. And I believe (and hope) that my deep empathy based on my own pain helps my clients to feel understood, seen, and less alone. Another example is that in moments when I feel frustrated because plans suddenly change, I can be thankful that I have an opportunity to let go of my desire to control the future (anyone else with control issues or just me??). Are there struggles you have faced or are currently dealing with that you can create some meaning to? How did those struggles support you in becoming the person you are today? Or how might they serve you in the future?
I hope this list was helpful for you in thinking about some tangible and simple practices to bring more gratitude into your life during this season. And I hope you have a peaceful, comfy, joyful, fun, delicious, holiday season spent with those you love most!
Liz Hooghkirk is a therapist and coach specializing in treating women struggling with disordered eating and eating disorder. Liz supports women from a HAES framework in learning to trust themselves and the wisdom of their bodies to live an expansive and joyful life, aligned with their individual values. Liz provides both individual and group coaching online to women throughout the country and internationally. You can read more about Liz and her services here and here. She also sees clients locally in San Diego, read about that here. And then follow her on Instagram!