Gratitude in Early Recovery
Treatment center counselors/therapists are learning the benefits of having clients write gratitude lists regularly to keep them from spiraling into negative mindsets. It is important to retain the early feelings of hopefulness and optimism that inspire clients to do the work that is required for ongoing recovery.
There can be more to it than that. In early recovery, one challenge for persons who are new to the process is difficulty identifying their emotions. They have used substances to stifle and cover up emotional responses for so long that they are not aware of what they feel. Finding ways to identify and process emotions is one of the tools they will be asked to use repeatedly in ongoing recovery. This is a daunting task when they are not yet sure that they want to feel them. The two most common emotions that can be named are fear and anger. Frequently, they are confused and the two are quite often simultaneous or causal to each other.
Asking anyone with feelings of fear and/or anger to express gratitude is a huge leap for these persons. A good way to bridge that experience is to invite them into a place where they can express thanks to their anger or their fear for simply existing. This is a good starting point. The conversation can begin where the client expresses their disdain for a gratitude exercise. From there it moves into them expressing the emotion(s) they feel. Using the emotion, the counselor/therapist invites them to thank their anger/hurt/pain/fear for what it is telling them and breathing into the emotion. As they release the breath, they release the emotion, but only after they have listened to what it has to teach them. They can express gratitude for the lesson as well as the emotion.
If the recovery client is willing to share this, encourage them to do so. If not, invite them to write it down. In this way, they can befriend their emotions and learn from them. Many will go so far as to develop a practice of becoming authentically grateful for the emotions they are experiencing and the process of learning to name and share them. This gives them an opportunity to begin the kind of healing that will lead them into recovery with the ability to safely feel, express, and then dismiss emotions. They begin to develop a life skill which allows participation in full emotional relationships with themselves, their peers, and with family and friends.
While clients may fear the emotions that have accumulated over the period of their substance use/abuse, this will give them a processing mechanism that they can easily practice anywhere. As they learn to use it often, they will become comfortable with the idea of thanking their emotions for what they can discover about themselves. This is of benefit in ongoing recovery. They will be more aware, more present to their feelings, and better equipped to handle the situations and feelings that come up without relapsing into the substances once again. Learning to cope with emotions is difficult for most people. Learning to thank them for their presence and teachings is a true gift.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. She is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.