Shortly after I was diagnosed with BPD, I came across the idea of keeping a Gratitude Journal. I’d been researching different types of therapies that I could do by myself at home and discovered Journal Therapy. Though truthfully, it was more of a re-discovery. I’d kept a journal religiously as a child and at a few points during adulthood, so I already knew it was quite therapeutic, I just hadn’t known it was an organized style of therapy.
The suggestion to keep a Gratitude Journal kept popping up in several locations that touted the healing effects of Journal Therapy. I’ll admit, though I read about it several times, I kept dismissing the idea. And the reason why seems rather silly to me now. In a nutshell, it sounded too simple. I thought: how can keeping a list of things for which I am grateful make that much of a difference in my life? It just didn’t seem possible. Well, of course not. When you’re stuck in a negative thought pattern, virtually nothing sounds promising – basically, you can’t see the forest for the trees. It makes sense. How do you make yourself feel grateful when you’re not? Sometimes you’re just too depressed to feel any gratitude at all.
At a time when I was more depressed than I’d ever been, I thought the answers to my problems somehow couldn’t be as simple as keeping a list. I didn’t feel simple. I felt very complicated, uncertain, perplexed and convinced, of course, that nothing could make me feel better. How to get away from those negative feelings then just had to be elaborate! Ah, the ironic joy of hopelessness!
Staying stuck in the same old rut had its rewards. If I thought the answers had to be terrifically complex, then I could avoid helping myself and stay a victim forever. And the fun in that? Well, you get to keep throwing yourself one pity party after another.
But one day I decided to try it. I figured even if it did absolutely nothing for me, it couldn’t cause any harm.
At first, I wasn’t that motivated, so I didn’t keep a “real” list - a legitimate journal. I’d just scratch out one or two things on a sticky note, the backs of envelopes and receipts, or even next to an inspiring paragraph I read in a novel. But at some point, I realized it was helping. I felt better, more positive, less depressed, when I concentrated on feeling grateful. With that awakening, I moved to whole sheets of paper. Oooo! Ok, so the migration didn’t improve my organization, not right away. I’d often write something down at odd angles and just circle what I’d wrote, so the result was a bunch of text-filled bubbles on a plain piece of paper. One day, though, I noticed that these sheets were adding up. Instead of writing one thing on Tuesday, six things on Friday, and perhaps two on Sunday, I was adding several items each day. Whoa! That’s when I sat down and really thought about the difference it was making. It had become a habit and a good one at that. I did feel better, no longer quite so hopeless, hapless and helpless. I took a leap then and went out and bought myself a pretty bound journal. Since then, I look forward to filling one up and starting another. They help me stay positive now, but even better – maybe someday they will inspire my great-grandchildren.
Following is a sampler, a partial list of benefits I’ve uncovered so far. A year ago, I never could have imagined so many. I am actually grateful for gratitude. If you think about it, that’s pretty powerful.
- Keeping a Gratitude Journal helps me stay focused on the present. Zen mind. It keeps me from spending too much time thinking about the warts of the past and the bunions of the future. What’s in front of me or within me, right this minute, that I can appreciate?
- Over time, the journals have increased my overall awareness, period.
- They have helped me slowly establish positive thought patterns instead of negative ones. Oh sure, I still get downright pessimistic sometimes, but instead of despair-dwelling for ten hours at a time, or even several days, I will feel contrary for a few moments – maybe an hour. This is obviously a major improvement. Looking for the negative in anything and everything used to be the norm for me, but now I find that more frequently I’m automatically looking for something more optimistic.
- I say “thank you” more. The more I say “thank you” the more my family appreciates me and says “thank you” back. It has helped improve my relationships.
- Finding things to be grateful for has reduced my feelings of anger considerably. I don’t even think I could measure the difference. It’s hard to be mad when you’re feeling grateful for something!
- The more grateful I am, the more grateful I want to be. A wonderful ripple effect in place!
- Gradually I’ve learned that I don’t need STUFF to make me happy. I can be grateful for things like air, sunshine, water, clouds, my own breathing and even the spotting of a lizard scampering happily (I’m assuming) in my garden. I am happy now with things that don’t come in shrink-wrapped packages. I don’t need a shopping fix in order to feel better.
- Quite naturally, I take less for granted. I think about the gift of electricity, as an example. I can curl up on the couch at 9 pm, with a hot cup of peppermint tea, and write in my Gratitude Journal – electricity makes this possible. It’s so much easier to form letters sitting next to light bulbs. Yes, I’ve tried it by candle light, just to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to write at night a few hundred years ago. The ambiance is lovely, but penning in my journal is a bit on the difficult side.
- Establishing this one good habit motivated me to create more of them. From the simple act of being grateful, I’ve been able to trash many of my maladaptive coping strategies and replace them with adaptive coping strategies.
- Keeping track of what I am grateful for has allowed me to reduce the intense sting I’ll feel when I think I’m being rejected. Of course, being Borderline means I can be quite sensitive to rejection, but whenever I feel that way I can pull out a Gratitude Journal and remind myself of positive events – times when I was accepted in some way. After reading a few pages, I am back to coping in a healthy way.
Obviously keeping a Gratitude Journal is not a magic pill. There is no happy fairy dust. But it helps, tremendously. I am far less depressed. As more proof of its power, I offer this: I don’t take any psychiatric medications. I used to, but I don’t need them anymore. Of course, keeping a Gratitude Journal isn’t the only way I have learned to manage my moods (more posts coming soon) and it’s not the only way that I was eventually able to table the pills, but I encourage all to take that leap of faith and give it a shot, it really helps that much.
The feeling of wanting to quit sometimes is very nearly unbearable. It’s such brutal work to change destructive habits and so easy to give up. Yikes, the temptation! Better than all the best foods right when you want them. Better than drugs. Better than success. Because at least, if you quit, you know you’re right – about yourself. You’ll never amount to anything, and you know it, so why bother to continue!? So satisfying. What disgusting happiness it is to put oneself down. Ever notice how ironically wonderful it feels to shun yourself?
So, this not quitting thing, well, this is relatively new for me. I won’t. I can’t. I promised. I promised myself and I promised my beautiful boyfriend. He made me. Well, damn him!
(I’m laughing, really!)
And what made me want to quit?
Last night, I asked my boyfriend what he thought of yesterday’s post. He said, “It was okay.” Just okay? Nothing more? I wanted to quit. Just quit. Delete my blog. Be done. Wipe my hands of it. I mean, why waste my time if it’s just okay? I felt so inadequate.The feeling was intense and tossed me right back into the invalidating, shark-filled waters of my childhood.
Oh, those annoying self-harm urges! Even when you know why you have them, they’re still a nuisance.
In my very first readings about Borderline I thought self-harm meant only the physical. But then I realized, no, it’s not. It’s anything you do that in the end brings on exactly the opposite of what you really want. It gives relief, this self-destruction, because you’ve just validated yourself by invalidating yourself, but it’s temporary bliss. Later you feel worse. I wanted to destroy the thing on which I’ve worked so diligently. Not okay. Quitting won’t bring me what I want. It will only affirm, for a DAY, negatively positive thoughts, positively negative thoughts and (joke on me) make me feel smug – see, you knew you’d quit - and then what? No! No quitting.
I remembered my DBT skills, thankfully, right at that moment – when I wanted to punish myself. Oh, what a pain they are at times. Well they are! They can be immensely burdensome to remember, when you want to lash out at not just others, but yourself. I don’t know which feeling is worse. But use them I did. “What, wait, why was it just okay?” And, no, it’s not that I’m looking to be perfect, as much as I’m trying to avoid INADEQUATE. I was munching away on baked potato skins, while I was asking him, trying to keep my cool. DIFFICULT! Because really I wanted to yell and tell him what a terrible boyfriend he was for not saying something glorious about my post – so I didn’t have to feel inadequate. He hasn’t seemed to enjoy them much lately, so the feeling of inadequacy has been building. I was proud though, despite feeling inadequate, because I didn’t lash out and bash the poor guy and I didn’t self-harm. I asked a question. I was clarifying, using Opposite Action!
I was surprised by his answer.
“Well, honey, you didn’t write about your shrinking and I thought that was the cool part,” he said. Shrinking? Confused, I was. He saw the look on my face and explained. “You know…you told me, when you’d go visit the Itty Bitty family, how they’d shrink you, magically, so you could fit through that little door.”
Oh, yeah! Right. Shrinking! I did forget. Well crap. Okay, so I’m not horrible. Now here, in this, is the art of Borderline maintenance. It’s in the constant self-monitoring and positive self-talk.
Right, it’s okay, these are just feelings. They’ll go away sooner or later. You’re upset because it’s challenging to get out of the habit of putting yourself down. Hey, remember, you’re not four anymore and no one can MAKE you feel bad. You’re an adult now, not a child and you can handle this. You’re not inadequate. How silly you are for thinking that. You’re not horrible either. You didn’t do anything wrong. So, you forgot a part you didn’t want to forget, but no biggie. Life goes on. Continue with your blog, continue to share, continue to trace your illness – to help yourself and maybe others. Keep writing. You like it! Stop feeling bad now, you, and go on and enjoy the new journal you’ve just bought for yourself. It’s red, your favorite color. The creamy pages are scrumptiously lined, elegantly detailed with flowers at the top and bottom and you really like it. Don’t be down. Don’t quit. Stop feeling sad and write in that journal.
You know what I bought the journal for? To keep a Gratitude list. I’m sitting here laughing. Yes, specifically to keep a list of things for which I am grateful. So would I be grateful if I’d quit, just because I had a few moments of feeling inadeQUIT? Uh, no, I don’t think so. What would the first entry look like? How nonsensical. “Today I quit writing. I gave up on my blog. Yep, just got rid of it. Oh, because I forgot something, about shrinking.”
My boyfriend, he’s a good guy. He does his best to understand me, even when he’s terribly confused by my emotions. I AM grateful for this. So, I put those iffy, self-doubt thoughts on clouds and let them float away. Then I grabbed the cute, butterfly-adorned notepad that I’d also just purchased and inked out a message on the very first sheet of paper:
I know it’s hard to understand me, thank you for trying so hard. It’s not easy to keep going, to not give up. Giving up has always been easier. Thank you for trying to help me keep going. I love you.
Well, I am happy to report that my first entry in my Gratitude Journal is this: I am grateful that I did not quit! I did not give up on myself. I can survive that feeling called inadequate and I don’t have to look for the elusive perfect feedback in order to keep going. I am good enough to pursue what I want.
Love, compassion to all. And don’t quit when you feel inadequate. THIS is part of - the art of Borderline maintenance.