What can we, as therapists, use in our work with clients to promote positive mental, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual health? This can sometimes be a frustrating pursuit, as those who come to us for help often carry confusing and contradictory messages regarding what they need to become more resilient and improve their overall well-being. In my therapeutic work, I have found that many clients already do things in their daily lives in the hope of staying or becoming healthier. I have often noticed that one of the most beneficial things I can do is to build on two qualities that my clients already have within them—gratitude and grit.

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Many of us have been taught from our early days from grandparents, elders, or other teachers that part of living well includes paying attention to what we are grateful for in life. Taking time to notice, name, and express gratitude has now become a studied phenomenon as well, with results showing that there can be many positive impacts:
Reduction in stress, depression, and hopelessness
Improved sleep and overall mood
Increased sense of motivation and agency in life
Expanded sense of positive self-esteem
Improved relationships and greater appreciation of others
Deepened sense of spirituality
Increased creativity and openness
Increased hopefulness

I often use this wisdom in my work with clients to encourage them to cultivate a positive outlook and take time to really notice, absorb, and express gratitude, thereby deepening an important state in mind and body. The benefit of this can be readily apparent—as is often evident in my conversations with one client, Casey, a single parent managing her own mental health challenges and navigating layers of stressors from physical health challenges, difficult family relationships and the exhaustion of raising a lively child on her own. It would be easy to focus on the problems in Casey’s life, and the daily distress. Casey, however, has a natural tendency to flip the conversation to the positive, and to notice what she loves about life and the “blessings” she counts as numerous and abundant. Casey has taught me more about gratitude than I have read in any book, as she visibly changes in front of me in our counselling sessions when her smile breaks out and the mood in the whole room shifts.

However, one catch is that gratitude is notably fleeting. Although it is readily accessible for Casey, gratitude is also easy to lose hold of. Her attention can move quickly to focus more on what is stressful in her life. Her natural survival instincts push her back toward watching out for what worries her, and problems resurface and grab her attention. Indeed, a session with Casey is often a bit like a two-step dance—smiles and laughter one moment, and just a few minutes later, tears and waves of anxiety. Casey has also taught me the importance of tools for managing this shift.

Which brings me to the other quality that has been helpful for Casey to cultivate: grit.

What do people rely on to get through a tough day? What behaviors, supports, or messages does a client reach for to help them continue to show up and carry on? Each person will have patterns of coping—in how they think, collaborate, or sustain themselves when facing challenges. One word for this quality, supported by the research of Angela Duckworth, is grit. Each person’s grit will look different, and everyone may use it to different degrees. Duckworth’s research, as well as what I have witnessed in clients, supports that when people are able to tap into their grit, the benefits include:
Increased ability to persevere
Expanded response and ability to adapt to challenges
Persistence to face fears
Growth in self-esteem and confidence
Increased hopefulness
Development of a growth mindset
Increased likelihood of achieving positive change
Long-term success and satisfaction

Grit is fueled by what matters to a person—do they have particular goals they’re pursuing? What do they care about and feel passion for?

When I sit with Casey through these waves of emotions as she shares the experiences in her life, this theme is apparent. Her intense emotional responses to all her life also demonstrates her incredible passion and tenacity for living well. Casey can become overwhelmed with helplessness at times, but connects back to her grit by remembering why things matter to her, and particularly what she hopes to pass on to her son. I’ve seen her pull herself up time and time again, landing solidly back in gratitude.

The more aware she is of her purpose and passion, the grittier she will become!

Building on Grit and Gratitude
In some ways, these two qualities can seem somewhat contradictory. Gratitude requires people to pause, relinquish any push for change, and shift to noticing the positive things that are already in their lives and relationships. Grit, on the other hand, allows people to keep moving, to notice and confront what might be challenging or feel negative in their lives, propelling them into more adaptable change.

I think there is an interesting and symbiotic relationship between these two qualities. When I have a hard time accessing gratitude, it’s my grit that I rely on to cope with a challenging situation. When I feel depleted and far from gritty, pausing to connect with gratitude refuels my hope and energy for perseverance.

What is encouraging to me about the benefit of both these qualities is how accessible they can be. Just as Casey naturally seems to have them both at the ready, I’ve come to appreciate how it’s possible for others to be intentional in turning toward each of these states to deepen their connection to them.

Here are some steps I have found helpful to encourage clients to use to be able to access more of the benefits of their grit and gratitude:
Observe it. Take a moment to name one thing you are grateful for and one thing that helps you persevere.
Express it. Journal, write it down, or say it out loud to yourself or a friend. Draw it, sing it, or build or sculpt it. Making it a bit more tangible in some ways will deepen its meaning and help you absorb the benefits.
Practice it. Choose a way to regularly practice the first two steps. The more regularly we dip into gratitude and grit with intention, the deeper the patterns and habits that bring us to connect more openly and regularly in line with these qualities.
I’ve come to believe deeply that taking a small amount of time to consistently notice what already matters can greatly increase mental, emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual well-being. Encouraging my clients to notice what they are grateful for and what they find challenging allows them to tap into this powerful tension between gratitude and grit—building on one helps fuel and nurture the other. In the end, I believe well-being and relationships will be strengthened by tapping into these inherent qualities. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections