How I’m Going to Blow Your Mind: The Anti-Gratitude List

Ok. I know what you’re thinking: All right, all right – Gratitude, I get. But  what the fuck – anti-gratitude? Yes. Anti-gratitude.

I came across this idea sitting in a Borders (remember those?), having just moved to this super cute suburb of Chicago, not knowing many people yet. I grabbed some books and headed down to the children’s section with my son. While he played with their toys, I stumbled upon spiritual magic.

One of the books I grabbed was Melody Beattie’s book Make Miracles in 40 Days: Turning What You Have into What You Want.

Some of you may know Melody Beattie from Codependent No More, a self-help classic that helped found a whole 12-step program (Codependents Anonymous.) But I knew Melody Beattie from her daily reader The Language of Letting Go, which a friend of mine gave me many years ago.

In Make Miracles in 40 Days, Melody Beattie outlines this practice that I call the “anti-gratitude list”.

Here are the directions:

  1. At the top of a sheet of paper, you write, “Today I am grateful for/that:”
  2. List 5 - 10 things you are NOT grateful for.
  3. Feel like this is dumb and pointless.
  4. Be amazed as you discover gratitude you did not think was possible.

 I’ve explained this to people before. I know you’re rolling your eyes.

I once explained the anti-gratitude practice to a small group at church. We were talking about our daily spiritual practices, and the leader of the group, a cynical, overworked, martyred woman (sadly, I can relate), just winced and, with her eyes closed because she was using up all her patience just talking to me (again, been there), asked "WHAT is the point of THAT?"

I agree. It seems stupid. But, for me, it has worked miracles.

When I made my first anti-gratitude list, it started like this:

Today I am grateful that:

  1. My son cries so hard every morning when I leave him with his babysitter.
  2. I feel so distant from my husband.

Now, I wasn’t grateful for these things. This wasn’t a gratitude list, it was an anti-gratitude list.

It was a challenge to God, like WTF, GOD? DO SOMETHING.

But, you know, I am open-minded (sometimes), and I liked Melody Beattie’s other book, so I said, Ok, fine. I’ll try it.

What did I have to lose?  

So, I began –

Today I am grateful that:

  1. My son cries so hard every morning when I leave him with his babysitter.
  2. I feel so distant from my husband.

And do you know what happened?

By the third day, I dropped my son off and it occurred to me, it really is good that he’s crying. Because it’s developmentally appropriate, and it proves that he is well-attached to me. Some kids don’t attach. Some kids don’t connect with the adults around them, or the adults don’t connect with them, so they aren’t crying when they separate. They’re glad to get away. This baby loves me. He needs me. He knows I’m his person, and I’m glad he does.

Whoa.

It worked.

I found gratitude – actual gratitude, not anti-/just-faking-it/whatever/I’ll-give-it-a-try gratitude, but actual, real gratitude. I was glad my son was crying when I dropped him off. It was the right and natural course of an attached mother-baby bond. He cried when he went into someone else’s care.

My marriage, that one took longer, you guys. That one took longer.

The miracle of true gratitude for a struggling, distant marriage took longer to reveal itself. It’s a long story. I’ll tell it some other time, when I know you better. What I will tell you now is that, we eventually separated and then reconciled, and we have been better in our reconciliation these past few years than we ever were before, even when we were dating. We take good care of this marriage and it’s precious to me.

You may have read all about our fight a couple weeks ago. Brutal. But it’s over now. And it’s actually over, not like, we just secretly hate each other and pretend we’re fine. It’s actually over. We talked it through. We’re fine. And I’m fine.

But I am almost grateful now for that distance a few years ago, for that struggle that turned into a full-blown separation with two homes, co-parenting, the whole terrible mess. Because we were really were at a crisis point in our marriage, and then the whole thing changed. It deepened. As our marriage counselor at the time said, "If you get through this time, you’ll look back and see this as the true beginning of your marriage." And we do, I think. I know I do.

So. Anti-gratitude: Let’s try it.

I’ll go first.

Today I am grateful that:

  1. I struggled so much with my son’s teacher this year.
  2. I weigh 18 pounds more than I’d like. (Ugh. To even admit it.)
  3. I’m an alcoholic. (Recovering, yay! But still.)
  4. I can’t eat sugar.
  5. We don’t have enough money yet to buy a house here.
  6. My car is so messy.
  7. The neighbor’s stupid dog barks so much.
  8. I have that self-injury thing and I don’t like it. (*)

(*) NOTE: Melody Beattie explains in the book that if you truly can’t say that you are grateful for something, you don’t. But this exception has to be extreme and personal. She uses her son’s death as an example. She couldn’t bring herself to say she was glad he died. Of course not. She just wasn’t. She couldn’t say it. So instead she said something like, “I’m grateful I am heartbroken about my son’s death.” That, she could say.

For me, with this self-injury thing, I’m not glad I have it and I think it is harmful to myself to even say that I am. So, I won’t. But I will say, in the spirit of anti-gratitude, I am grateful I self-injure and that I don’t like it.

Even as I say that I can see that it is better to have it and not like it than have it and like it. I don’t. I’m closer to giving it up than I would otherwise be.

But, oh god, can that dog across the street stop barking or what? Man.

Ok. If you’ve struggled with gratitude lists, with the enforced cheerfulness of it all, if that feels too Pollyannaish for you, try this: Anti-gratitude. Today, I am grateful that ______.

Let me know how it goes.

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