Living with Gratitude-Even When Youʻre Mad, Sad, or Angry

By Jenny Silbiger

I promise this is not a preachy, everyone should just smile, then love and laughter and butterflies will follow type of note.  While thereʻs nothing wrong at all with love, laughter, and butterflies, there is something to say about smiling when we don’t feel like it, or society’s pressure to gloss over pain.

South shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Provided by author.
South shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Provided by author.

Living with gratitude can sound like a burden to someone who is escaping a terrible situation—an unforgiving workspace, an untenable personal life challenge, or to someone who is suffering from physical or mental pain.  Telling someone to smile while suffering can feel like a cold slap in the face.

What I’ve been learning through my survival of life—and full disclosure, there are a handful of times that could have erased my time on this earth, yet somehow I am still here (another post!)– is that living with gratitude is not about faking happiness at all.  Or forcing happiness when we feel like crying or we happen to be angry.  

Living with love and gratitude is about making space in our painful experiences, even the tiniest space, to allow a belief to tiptoe in: that we are worthy of love, worthy of being seen, that we are separate from the pain we’re living in. Gratitude and love can start by daring to create the tiniest spark of kindness and forgiveness—to ourselves.

Do you know that saying ‘everything happens for a reason’?  Some people live by that and there are tons of religious and spiritual arguments and justifications for why that is so.  Maybe I’ve marched to that tune in my own life, have surmised that conclusion at a few different times.

But, hereʻs the thing: I would never tell someone who is suffering grief, or is a victim of abuse or violence, or struggling with debilitating physical or mental illness, that their pain is ‘for a reason.’ That sounds insufferably judgmental at best and straight up cruel at worst. I don’t personally proscribe to that train of thought, i.e. that children should be trafficked because it happens “for a reason.” No. I understand how that mindset can create a narrative for redemption: I suffered a great deal, I overcame it, and now I live happily ever after and ride off into the sunset. Life is more complicated than a nicely fit feature film or tidy story. And, life, honestly, is rarely linear.  

I do not embrace that human suffering exists in the world because it makes for people (many with privilege) to feel comfortable with it, if it ‘happens for a reason.’ I’m also not saying folks who have great and wonderful lives are responsible for the suffering in the world and/or responsible for fixing it all. Rather, we can all recognize injustices and hold in our hearts space for empathy when we see it, doing what we can, when we can, instead of justifying it away as some explainable big picture. While we cannot know another’s journey, we can be kind and work on loving ourselves as we heal and make our way through our own.    

While there is terrible suffering in life, there is also the tiniest space for us to scrape out a place of healing. Sometimes, we can miraculously break out of the pain and welcome in light by the floodgates. Other times, it can be the smallest act of kindness either to ourselves or to someone else—just one small phrase or whisper: I believe in you. I see you. You are worthy of love.  

And so all these mixed up files of experiences and emotions and life can add up to complicated, complex people who end up in a workplace, working together.  And so if we circle back to making space for gratitude (even if we are feeling mad, sad, or angry at times), then how does that work, at work?

Here is some thoughtful and researched guidance from Dr. Amie Gordon and Chris Murchison.

  • Gratitude is about noticing and acknowledging the value in someone or in an action.  In the simplest terms—it is about being seen, being shown that we have value in ourselves, in something that we did.
  • When we are feeling open to gratitude, recognize the “you” in thank you.  We may say ‘thank you’ a million times, but sometimes we can thank ‘you’ and take the extra small step to recognize the person behind the action, to connect and communicate our appreciation to the coworker who did something kind and helpful. (And if we feel embarrassed or concerned about being ‘extra’ at work, ask ourselves: how would we feel, if someone were saying those words us? And if the answer is good…then give ourselves permission to say them.)
  • When we see or experience an act of kindness, saying thank you, aloud or even to ourselves, for having that moment.  (practicing gratitude doesn’t mean we have to write a love letter to the CEO/President/Big Boss). 
  • Gratitude is expressed differently from different people, and that is okay. 
  • Practicing gratitude makes space for the human experience, big, small, complicated, simple and everything in between—and we can invite gratitude further in our workspace:
    • Small acts of kindness (in Hawaii, we often bring snacks or small gifts of aloha to each other, i.e. when returning from a trip and being out of the office,* or just because).
    • Expressing thanks for a colleague or employee that aligns with their individual personalities (beyond the thank you card—creative ways to say thank you)
    • Keeping communication open through de-briefs and check-ins to nurture connections and openness.
    • Beginnings and Endings:  when a new colleague is on-boarded, incorporate gratitude and expressing thanks in their time for interviewing, acceptance of job, and in their first week of work, so they feel accepted and seen right away (and feel more welcome and a little less pressured in a brand new situation).  Similarly when employees leave us, find ways to express gratitude such as small or big celebrations, thanking them for their service—this lets them know they were seen, that they mattered and were valued, before stepping into their next adventure.

Big or small, being kind to ourselves and others is a miracle that makes a difference in our divided world.  Even when we are angry, hurt, mad.  We do not “smile” away the complications, instead accepting them, external or internal pain and challenges.  Gratitude does not erase or invalidate challenges, there is space for both to co-exist, and to let self-forgiveness and kernels of hope and belief in ourselves creep into our hearts and minds.  

On a personal level, Tom Earl, shares some strategies to help us live with gratitude, to recognize the magic in living. It starts with envisioning three things we are grateful for, every day, before going to bed. Today, I feel grateful to have woken up to a new day and to share these words with you. I know there are personal challenges ahead—I have a list that grows and shrinks, depending on the day, hour, minute, and can also change with the setting.  For now, I accept that I can do my best to meet them.  

I am grateful for the beauty of the ocean and for my ability to ride the waves, for the health of my family, coworkers, and friends, and to be able to add a little kindness to the world. And to wish you health, safety, love, and acceptance.  <3

*(referred to as omiyage, a Japanese custom that has been incorporated across the islands—it is why, if you have seen me at one of our AALL conferences, filling up my suitcase with Trader Joe’s goodies, to bring home.)


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.