I hate my life -- so I'm supposed to feel grateful?!

I got a raw deal, so I'm supposed to say thank you very much?

Published May 20, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

When I was younger there were certain older people who seemed to have become sadly warped over time, leaving them bitter, resentful, angry and toxic to be around. I pitied and despised them. Now I'm afraid I'm becoming one of them.

I am very aware that I am supposed to feel gratitude. I live in a nice house, not on the street; I'm healthy, not struggling with chronic or terminal illness; my kids are all right, not bums or sociopaths. But I don't feel gratitude -- I feel massive, near-universal disappointment. We had to move out of the "good" neighborhood where we'd been for decades because we could no longer afford it, and nothing of the life I thought I'd have -- a stimulating, rewarding partnership with someone equally involved with our children; opportunities for travel; a secure, comfortable income -- has or will ever be realized. Everything about my life, from my miserable, insecure, occasionally abusive childhood to my and my spouse's failed careers; my mean, petty, rejecting in-laws; to the fact that I've never been anywhere and there's never any money to go, is a complete disappointment. I know that no middle-class American should say this, but I feel seriously deprived. And I'm supposed to feel grateful. I'm a good listener for my friends, but they don't like it when I refer to my miserable childhood or talk about resenting my mother, and they don't like it when I talk about not having enough money, either.

I do have aspirations for another career, but it will be next winter before I find out whether or not I'll be admitted to a new degree program in that area. In the meantime, I'm working and volunteering for a couple of worthy causes, trying to support and launch the youngest and saddest child, and listening to my spouse's incessant, Tourette's-like muttered curses and explosions (we both work at home).

I guess I am in mourning for the life I wanted and thought I'd have, only now it's too late, and I am stuck in a loop of regret. How to get out?


Dear R.

So, who says you are supposed to feel gratitude?

Maybe there's been a misunderstanding about this gratitude business. Some people, when they are feeling bad, make a "gratitude list." But that's not an instruction about how you're supposed to feel. It's an activity. You might try it. But giving yourself instructions for how you're supposed to feel is not helpful.

What is helpful is to assess just exactly how badly you feel. With accurate information, then you can reframe the situation. Statements like, "nothing of the life I thought I'd have ... has or will ever be realized," and, "Everything about my life ... is a complete disappointment" make it hard to gauge exactly what happened and how badly you feel about it and how long you're likely to feel bad about it.

So, for instance, how would it feel if you were to say that your income fell by a certain dollar amount, which created a gap of X amount in the budget, which meant you had to make some decisions about where to cut the budget, and you chose to cut the housing budget?

You may say, What choice did we have? Well, even if your alternatives were to get rid of your kids, or stop eating, you did make a choice. Even bizarre choices are choices. Reasonable choices are choices. We can choose to act irrationally. We can stop eating to save money. We don't, because we retain a good bit of rationality.

It sounds like I'm trying to get you to be grateful, doesn't it? But I'm not. I'm just suggesting that you be accurate. Being accurate is not about avoiding feeling or being clinical, either. It's more the opposite. You will find that when you examine these events in detail, your true emotions come. Let them come. They may be strong. But let them come. That is how you will get through this -- by experiencing these losses in their fullness.

While we're at it, not to be argumentative, but I don't get what a failed career is. I know what losing a job is like. I know what it's like to reach a point where something isn't working and to decide to try something different. I've certainly done that. And it's been painful. And I've discovered I have strengths and weaknesses, and many of my ideas have not panned out. And I've felt bad about missed opportunities.

But I'm not sure I believe in the existence of a "failed career." Was there a prize or a job you applied for and didn't get? Was there a whole series of such events? How many? Were you fired? Who fired you? Were there personal conflicts involved? Were they resolved or are they still active in your life today?

Just how bad was the experience on a scale of 1 to 10? How long did its emotional effect last? Is the effect still as strong as it was when it happened, or has the effect lessened? How often do you think about this bad thing that happened? Are you thinking about it as often now as you did right after it happened? How long do you think it will be affecting you in an important way?

Just be specific and honest. And it's OK to be vivid, to say, well, I wanted to crush my head in a vice. I wanted to burn something down. OK. It's good to focus on what exactly happened and how it made you feel.

This belief that you're supposed to feel grateful for your misfortune bugs me. It even sounds vaguely masochistic. But maybe behind it is simply the social expecation that we're supposed to take our lumps in silence, and not let on that we're devastated, not let on that we had beautiful hopes that were crushed; maybe we're supposed to not feel anything at all! But then you're not digesting experience. It's still raw, lying on the surface of consciousness, distracting you. So take it in. Feel it. Be specific.

And another thing. You don't have to "move on" either. Not until you're ready. People say, Oh, you should be grateful. They say, Oh, it's time for you to move on. I'm like, What are you, a cop with a nightstick? I'll move on when I'm done playing the blues on my harmonica, thank you very much.

Really, people will tell you all kinds of garbage. Don't believe it.

You don't have to move on until you're ready.

Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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