With Thanksgiving just around the corner, there’s obviously a lot of messages out there about gratitude, and giving thanks for all that we have. I mean this is of course understandable, given that is in fact the point of the holiday! In any store I walk through, there are tons of items with all kinds of holiday-related platitudes about being grateful and counting our blessings. Now I’m okay with this; I feel very lucky and that I do in fact have a lot to give thanks for- I have a happy, healthy family with two (mostly) adorable little kids, a career that feels fulfilling and a community of friends who support me in countless ways.
And yet, what about the people who feel like they have no blessings to count; those who truly feel like their lives are empty? What about the people who have burned through relationships (often as a result of their own mental illnesses) and therefore have no one to sit down with on Thanksgiving and share a feast with? What about those whose lives feel so bleak that there is nothing to feel grateful for? The reality is that these folks are often the people that we see in DBT, and this message of gratitude is a really tough one for them to tolerate. How can we support people who are struggling like this, without either reinforcing or invalidating their pain?
Certainly in my role as a DBT therapist, I do think it is part of my job to help clients gain perspective but I have to admit that I have often struggled with the “Compare” skill myself. Theoretically, I understand it but it doesn’t always feel particularly helpful for me. To be honest, I sometimes experience it as a little shaming- kind of like “why should I be complaining about something when there are kids starving in China?”. When I can use it, it’s a great skill- it helps me to gain much-needed perspective and not be stuck in my own thinking; but there are times when it feels invalidating at best and shaming at worst, and I can’t imagine that I’m alone in that.
The good news is that DBT always offers another option when I feel like a certain skill isn’t really helping, and in this case, I turn towards dialectical thinking- finding silver linings without pretending that the cloud isn’t black. This is the skill that I’ll be encouraging people to use this week and next week if they’re struggling with the concept of Thanksgiving, and want help with that. I don’t want to ignore or invalidate their sense of hopelessness, and I don’t want to feed into it either. Instead, I can work to help my clients acknowledge both their pain and any silver linings; to move away from completely rigid thinking about their lives and find some things, however small they may feel, to have gratitude for without ignoring the very real big issues that still exist. And in doing so, it gives me something else to be grateful for myself-the opportunity to help people create for themselves lives that feel worth living, one step at a time.