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Thankfulness, Pain and Self-Compassion
November 24, 2021
Help someone, you earn a friend. Help someone too much, you make an enemy.
-Erol Ozon, professor and writer

As this Thanksgiving approaches in the United States, during a time still filled with challenge and pain for many, an article on the Greater Good website provides insight into ways to avoid fake positivity, deal honestly with emotions, and move toward genuine gratitude. Although written in 2013 during a different kind of challenging time, its research findings are still relevant today. The article’s author, Robert Emmons, writes:

“The field of positive psychology has at times been criticized for failing to acknowledge the value of negative emotions…To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth…

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude. A growing body of research has examined how grateful recasting works.”

Emmons describes a study conducted at Eastern Washington University, where participants were assigned to three random writing groups that would recall and report on unpleasant and still upsetting memories. The first group simply wrote for 20 minutes on any topic. The second group wrote about their unpleasant memories. The third group was asked to focus on finding positive aspects in each difficult memory, to try to discover if anything about it might now make them grateful. Emmons explained:

“Results showed that [the third group] demonstrated more closure and less unpleasant emotional impact than [the other two groups]…Thinking gratefully, this study showed, can help heal troubling memories and in a sense redeem them—a result echoed in many other studies.”

In the Exchange Reflections, “Self Compassion,” Tamar Jacobson offers a number of food-for-thought ways to deal with challenging feelings. She writes:

“I have been asking myself, ‘Can I be more compassionate with myself? For if I am not, am I able to have compassion for others?’ These questions have been on my mind constantly since reading about self-compassion by Kristen Neff (2012). They have made me think about what critical voices from my childhood I developed in my brain when I was growing up. I realize that these early voices from significant adults in my life have stayed with me until now. Our earliest emotional memories are un-erasable in our brains.

Becoming aware of how I talk to me about me in my head is half the battle toward becoming more compassionate with myself.”

Exchange Reflections

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