Mental Challenges

What Does Thanksgiving Gratitude Look Like in a Year That’s Truly Been the Worst?

Emily Laurence

Photo: Getty Images/MundusImages

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that 2020 has been pretty…sucky. Scratch that, very sucky. (Unless you work for Zoom or Peloton, then three cheers for you.) This isn’t going to be a year we look back at fondly or memorialize with theme parties. It’s a year we’re just all collectively trying to get through. And the fact that everyone is suffering makes the Thanksgiving season difficult. Some years it’s easy to feel grateful. But this year—a year with so much loss—it doesn’t. So, what does being grateful during a pandemic look like?

Give yourself permission to feel the “ugly” emotions

Therapist Lauren Cook, PsyD, recommends resisting the urge to make this year like years past. The truth is, Thanksgiving is going to look different. “I think it’s important to acknowledge that this Thanksgiving is going to be very triggering for a lot of people because it’s a reminder of how different our lives were at this time last year, and how much has happened since,” she says.

This realization, she says, is the first step toward accepting how you’re feeling—feelings which are 100 percent valid, by the way. “Thanksgiving can induce this forced sense of gratitude and can cause people to feel guilty if they aren’t feeling grateful,” she says. “It’s important to not only acknowledge how you’re feeling but also be okay with that. If you’re feeling sad, give yourself space to feel the real pain that you’re going through.”

Therapist and Advekit co-founder Alison LaSov, LMFT, also points out that emotions are complex and you can feel angry, grateful, and sad all at the same time. “All these feelings can coexist and be experienced simultaneously,” she says. “And they’re all valid.”

Lean into gratitude

That said, therapist Tiffany Rowland, LCSW, believes there are steps you can take to try and inspire feelings of thankfulness. “Gratitude is something you have to work at and be intentional about,” she says. “That’s why it’s called a practice.”

Rowland points out that there is always something to be thankful for—even if it’s as small as the ability to walk around the block or a funny meme your friend texted you. “Focusing on what you do have to be thankful for can be your saving grace during hard times,” she says.

Besides shifting your focus, Dr. Cook says it can help to spend time—even virtually—with people who are in a positive mindset. Positivity is contagious. “Often when we’re sad, we tend to isolate and this is already a very isolated time,” she says, urging people to resist that pull. “Seek out community where you can, even if it’s not who you would normally spend Thanksgiving with. That will help build you up and give you support so you’re not all alone.”

In these ways, you can still honor the difficult emotions you’re feeling while actively taking steps to lean into gratitude.

Pay it forward

Maybe you aren’t struggling to feel grateful during the pandemic. Maybe all your loved ones are safe, you still have your job, and the year hasn’t been as bad as it has for those around you. LaSov says it isn’t uncommon for people in this position to feel guilt. “Gratitude does not minimize or negate the hardships of other people. It’s completely okay to be grateful for what you have,” she says.

And you can be grateful while still being mindful of others’ pain. “Be conscious of what you post on social media because highlighting what you have to be grateful for in that way may magnify the loss someone else is experiencing,” says Dr. Cook.

Rowland says a kinder way to express your gratitude this year is to think of ways you can pay it forward. “There are times in life when you are the one going through a hard time and need encouragement, and there are times in life when things are going well and you’re in a position to offer encouragement to others,” she says. If you know someone who lost their job and is struggling financially, you might be in a position where you can drop off some Thanksgiving groceries or dishes to them—if that is something they would be comfortable with. Or, if a friend has lost a loved one to the virus, just sending them a thoughtful text acknowledging the validity of their pain and that you are there for them in whatever way they need can go a long way.

Because of the vast devastation, COVID-19 has caused this year, you won’t have to look far to find someone in need who could benefit from your kindness. “It’s the ability to recognize, ‘I am on the higher end of the spectrum and doing well during the pandemic right now. How can I help others?'” Rowland says.

The truth is, Thanksgiving is going to look different this year, both in terms of how you feel inwardly and how it’s celebrated outwardly. But all three therapists underline the fact that whatever you’re feeling is valid. “Give yourself what you need this holiday, Dr. Cook says. “That’s the key.”

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