Why Do Some Smart People Struggle With Gratitude?
Gratitude is a word we hear a lot these days. It's true, research suggests, if you can connect to feelings of appreciation, you may feel happier, more satisfied with what you have and more connected with others. So, what happens when it's difficult to feel thankful? Perhaps you are struggling, or it's an abstract concept. More people struggle to connect with gratitude than you may know. People may hide their ungracious feelings because they are afraid of being judged or are ashamed. It's okay. No judgment here.
If you are a highly capable person, or the parent of a gifted child, you may be reminded of gratitude more than average. How often have you heard, “You’re so lucky. It must be so easy for you, you should be grateful.” People assume all gifted children and adults are successful and life is easier for them as a result. In some ways it may be, but of course each person is different. Whether your child is academically successful or not, they may have some difficulty relating to their peers and building meaningful relationships if their talents, intellect and interests are vastly different than others. These challenges can continue into adulthood. Gifted people may also have asynchronous development, or be considered twice exceptional (2e). It’s important to take time to recognize and appreciate things in life, but what happens when you don’t really feel that grateful at all, or have difficulty connecting with the concept of being thankful?
Reasons Why Gratitude Can Be Difficult
This can happen for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you have had a particularly difficult year, or series of years. Maybe you feel disconnected from others and it's hard to feel appreciative. Maybe the idea of appreciation is odd to you. For some, the idea of gratitude is abstract and difficult to relate to due to their brain structure, personality or genetics. Additionally, gifted and twice exceptional children and adults who struggle to make emotional connections may find the concepts of appreciation and thankfulness to be abstract and confusing. Of course, this is not an issue for all gifted people, but those who struggle with this concept may be missing out on opportunities to improve relationships, feel happier and to connect with something larger than themselves. Fortunately, there is something you can do about it.
Ways Gratitude Can Be Helpful
Naturally occurring deep gratitude is also a sign of deep nervous system regulation, i.e. calmness, contentment and/or increased emotional capacity. Gratitude can help everyone to feel more connected to each other, can reduce the effects of stress and improve one’s state of mental health. Showing appreciation to others deepens relationships. Being thankful for positive aspects of our lives can help us to feel more content and more satisfied and can even benefit our physical health.
Working with people in therapy, I often suggest to people that they try to reflect on one thing they are genuinely thankful for each day, and show appreciation to others whenever possible to enrich relationships. It can even be the smallest of things, like seeing a hummingbird outside the window, a kind smile from a stranger or hitting all of the green lights on you're way to work.
Ideas to Help if You Want to Feel Gratitude But Can't
If you or your gifted child find it difficult to connect with the concept or feeling of gratitude, here are some ideas to help you.
1. Showing appreciation, or reciprocating with appreciation is important for healthy relationships. Some people use the metaphor of an emotional piggy bank, where one makes deposits and withdrawals from the bank of another person. Another more concrete way you could look at it is like balancing a math equation. Both sides must be equal. If someone engages in an act of kindness toward you, they are subtracting from their side of the equation and adding to yours. To balance the equation, it is necessary to subtract something from your side and add to theirs. Recognizing or helping your child to recognize when others are helping them or showing them kindness is a first step. Responding in a way that is of equal intensity, time and effort is the second part. Remember, when teaching children, to always do it with gentleness. It is important.
This is a pattern you can teach gifted children to recognize and repeat. For example:
Your grandmother sends you homemade cookies for your birthday. This took her effort, time and she likely spent money. To balance the equation you would first acknowledge the kind act by thanking her, then by doing something kind in return for her birthday or other special occasion.
You drop your backpack or purse and everything falls out on the floor. Your friend helps you pick it all up. In return you say thank you and share your lunch with them when they forget theirs
You are rushing to finish a project and need to use the copy machine, but your coworker is coping a huge project. They let you cut in, you thank them and return the favor by buying them their favorite coffee during break.
2. Learning to see things from another person’s perspective and understand how they might feel is an important part of learning to show appreciation for others. If you or your child can empathize, you are more likely to be able to appreciate what is being given and how best to reciprocate. Helping ourselves and our children to recognize they are an important part of a larger group is a significant part of being able to connect to the idea of gratitude and empathy as we can more easily recognize what we say and do matters, not only to us, but those around us. It can also help us to connect with something larger than ourselves, which deepens our sense of meaning in life, and can calm existential anxiety and depression.
3. Being grateful can help you to connect to the joy that is present in your life. As we all know, positive experiences can be fleeting and may disappear if we don’t recognize them. Recognizing with appreciation what is going right in your life, what you like about yourself and others, and the beauty that is around you can help you to shift your focus to what is pleasant, thus increasing your enjoyment and overall happiness.
4. Keeping a gratitude journal, or writing a list of at least 10 things you are grateful for can help people to better recognize aspects of their lives, selves and experiences they appreciate and why. Writing can enable creative expression, and make the ideas more concrete and relatable. Also, the act of writing often makes ideas seem more real.
5. Acts of kindness and appreciation can actually be fun. When you show appreciation to another person or doing something nice, notice how it feels, and teach your gifted child to do the same. Noticing the joy you gain from this experience will encourage you to do more. If you don’t believe me, notice how others are expressing joy when showing gratitude.
6. There are many different ways to express gratitude. You can do so privately in your mind or journal. You can donate your talents by creating useful and beautiful things for others, or providing services. Writing thank you notes, saying thank you and giving credit to others when appropriate are also great ways to show appreciation.
Over ten years of scientific research shows gratitude is great for your physical and mental health because it increases serotonin to the Hippocampus, reduces the effects of stress and improves relationships. In short, feeling and expressing thankfulness makes us feel better! Let this be one tool in helping yourself or your gifted child to reach their full potential for happiness.
If you or your loved one is struggling to feel connected to others, is unhappy or anxious there are helpers in your area. Make a meaningful connection with a mental health professional in your area who can help you through this difficult time.
About the Author: Christy, is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist and Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, practicing in San Diego, California. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, teens, parents, families, couples and individual adults with complex psychological and relationship problems. She specializes in the needs of gifted, bright and high achieving people, as well as those who have suffered past trauma. Christy uses an eclectic approach, meeting the needs of whomever she is working with. Her work addresses the needs of the whole person, incorporating mind and body