How gratitude—not expectations—create successful, happy days
You know how birthdays are supposed to be these super, terrific, fabulous, fun-filled days where everyone you know comes out of the woodwork to celebrate and shower you with love so that you feel so very happy all day long?
Yeeaah, well, I’ll bet big money that not all of your birthdays have panned out quite this way. And I think you’ve even probably experienced more than one birthday that left you feeling sad and lonely.
I’ve had my share of gloomy, woe-is-me birthdays. One particular year in my early 20s, I felt especially lonely and uncared for. Only a few people called to wish me a happy day. No one at work acknowledged that I turned a year older. I felt downright un-special, and I spent most of that day wallowing in my unhappiness.
I remember lying in bed the night before my birthday unable to sleep. I was feeling anxious, like a pit was in my stomach, a tightness was in my chest, and my thoughts just WOULD NOT STOP. So instead of sleeping, I was watching the clock tick away until midnight.
The second my birthday came, I felt so miserable. No one called me at 12:00am on the dot! No one reached out at 12:01am or 12:02am! No one is thinking about me on my BIRTHDAY! No cares about me. No one loves me. This is going to be the worst birthday ever.
I might as well have thrown my hands up in the air and given up....just three minutes into the day. Back then, I was awesome at complaining, focusing on the negative, and then complaining about all that was negative in my life.
Fast forward more than 10 years to my most recent birthday this past week. I enjoyed a beautiful (and simple) day where I felt loved and deep appreciation for my life and the people in it. I paused and recognized all that I’m grateful for. I felt happy and completely at peace.
What has happened in the decade or so between those very different birthdays? Well, lots actually...I moved several times, got married, and had a child. But that’s not why I felt despair one day and joy on the other.
It’s because I’m grateful. Grateful for what DOES exist in my life. Grateful for the special people in my life. Grateful simply for feeling good.
If I had spent my 20-something birthday focusing on the positive, feeling gratitude, and appreciating the good things in my life, I would have felt much happier. And looking back, there was plenty to be thankful for—a loving and supportive family, strong friendships, and a wonderful boyfriend (who became my husband). Plus, I had a very comfortable roof over my head, a job I was enjoying, and I lived in a city that was fun and vibrant.
But I couldn’t see any of that. I felt as blah as could be, because the day responded to my expectations....my very high expectations. And when those unrealistic expectations weren’t met, the story I told myself was that life sometimes sucked and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t see the sunshine through the dark and dreary clouds I ended up creating for myself. And so the tone was set for the rest of the day.
Here’s the thing — it’s not the life experiences that make us happy or sad. It’s our PERCEPTION of those experiences. And I think gratitude shapes our perception of reality.
When you’re bogged down in what isn’t working, you feel emotional pain and suffering. That’s why I felt sad, unloved, unworthy, and uncared for. But when you’re attentive to what is working, you feel uplifted and blissful.
It was completely within my ability to change my thoughts, improve my day, and enjoy a lovely celebration of myself. Although I couldn’t see it at the time, I chose to perceive the day as gloomy. I chose to feel sadness instead of choosing to be happy.
If I could go back and talk to my younger 20-something self, there are many things I would say (meanwhile resisting the strong urge to shake her senseless and tell her to snap out of her self-imposed misery. But that would have deprived myself of all the learning opportunities I was soon to experience...)
But it’s not up to anyone else to recognize you. It’s up to YOU.
I had a crappy birthday back then because I wasn’t recognizing myself. I wasn’t showing any love for ME. And I absolutely wasn’t appreciating the people in my life who WERE demonstrating love and care.
If you’re feeling some of the same emotions I did
back then, these steps will help you ease your
emotional pain and suffering:
1. List five things you’re grateful for. It doesn’t matter how insignificant they might seem...just write down the first five things that came to your mind.
2. Tell yourself that you’re loved and worthy and whole exactly as you are — with or without friends, family, a partner, a great job, the perfect house. Write those statements down and place them somewhere you can read often.
3. Do something nice for yourself, especially on special days like birthdays. That’s how you show up and love yourself. Because if you don’t do it, how can you expect anyone else to? So, go ahead, and get a mani/pedi, go to your favorite restaurant, enjoy a special activity...whatever it is that makes you smile and feel joy, find a way to do it at least occasionally.
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