Written by: Sabrina Sourjah, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
This simple habit can rewire your brain and upgrade your life When I went through my divorce a few years back, I questioned my decision to part ways with my ex, whom I had been with for almost 15 years. What made me think that I deserved a better relationship? Are marriages even supposed to be fulfilling anyway?
As an immigrant woman in her mid-thirties, who opted not to have children, I felt empty, just as society had taught me to feel. This was regardless of the big career change I was simultaneously making to leave an unfulfilling career or other so-called achievements I already had under my belt.
But a few months in, my appetite for life slowly returned. Joy flew through my body. One of my managers noticed the change in me and said, “You look really happy, Sabrina.”
“Yes, I really am,” was my honest response.
So, what got me through this trying time?
My Therapist was fantastic and helped me build a meaningful narrative about my divorce and why I had stayed in my marriage longer than I should have. She helped me understand my behavior using my childhood experiences without blaming my ex.
My Support Network consisted of friends who had gone through divorces themselves and kind strangers. They helped me seek out the universal nature of what I was going through and conquer the shame that was handed down to me.
My Work helped me find meaning in my life during the gray days. It gave me a purpose and made me feel useful most of the time. I felt like I was impacting other people’s lives despite my life being in shambles.
But what truly anchored me and got me through my divorce on a daily basis was my gratitude practice. I listed three things I was thankful for every morning. This forced me to look for what was going well in my life, no matter how bad I thought things were going. I continue this practice to date, although I’ve graduated my practice to something a little more nuanced now.
My Definition: Gratitude for What?
My lists generally consisted of things that happened on the previous day. But if I had a pretty rough day, I would just draw from the past in general or repeat the same items if I still felt grateful for them. As I was progressing along in my gratitude practice, I observed a pattern to what I was thankful for:
Material things and experiences I was thankful for like my warm cup of tea, the awesome restaurant I dined alone at, and the walk on the beach.
People I was grateful to have in my life, like my family and friends. This list is sometimes expanded to include the Uber driver and the Instacart delivery person too.
Things I did that I was grateful for, like cleaning up my fridge or meditating. As someone who lacked self-love, this allowed me to become more aware of how I can love myself better.
Why Gratitude Is Important: The Science
According to science, the brain releases feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin when we express gratitude, leading to improved optimism, productivity, and kindness. Furthermore, research from UCLA shows that people who record things they are grateful for feel 25% better than others. In the long term, gratitude “literally changes the brain’s molecular structure, keeps gray matter functioning, improves sleep, reduces anxiety, and makes us healthier and happier.”
Gratitude in Action: Adapting the Gratitude List
As a coach who recommends the gratitude practice to all of my clients, I often come across clients who seem skeptical at first or clients who have a slightly different need than straight-up gratitude. Working with them, I have learned to make adaptations in this practice based on what the client needs the most.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) recommends gathering evidence from our day-to-day activities to restructure our thought patterns. The adapted gratitude list not only helps gather data that disprove our thoughts and beliefs but also helps clients behave in certain ways throughout the day so that they collect something to add to the list.
For example, when a client found it hard to be kind to herself, I recommended that she list three times she was kinder to herself as an experiment. Although resistant at first, when she kept at it for two weeks, her brain slowly started to view herself with love. This, in turn, encouraged her to be even more kind to herself each day.
How Gratitude Changes Your Brain: Design Your Own “Gratitude” List
If we dig deep enough, we will find that our struggles are essentially a result of our beliefs. Beliefs that are holding us back from our best lives. These beliefs are often buried under layers of sound excuses and confused busyness. Coaching and journaling are some tools that can help us identify these beliefs.
Once you identify the beliefs, create a daily list that disproves that fear or belief. As this becomes a practice, you will see how your belief gradually shifts over time.
Let me give you a personal example. I have a deep fear of safety. I don’t truly feel safe to be me, express my opinions, and show up as myself without apology. This is due to feeling emotionally invalidated over the years, especially during my formative years. I became present to this fear after both my therapist and reiki practitioner picked up on it.
How did this show up in my life? I had a lot of trouble telling my stories to promote my coaching practice on social media. I did not want to interact with people online because I feared being seen and rejected for who I was.
The solution was to develop a list of things and people that made me safe the previous day, including myself. The list included people, instances, actions, or experiences. Some examples are my date tuning in to my needs and reassuring his availability or activities that make me safe, like sleeping under a comfy blanket or doing yoga.
Gratitude Training: Lists for Every Limiting Fear and Belief
If you’re willing to think creatively, I believe you can create a list to reverse any of your limiting beliefs. According to executive coach and author Shirzad Chamine’s introductory positive intelligence course, our inner critic or judge turns up in 3 ways:
To judge and criticize our own selves
To judge and criticize others
To criticize the world and our current circumstances
Therefore, most of our self-limiting beliefs also fall into these three categories. Here are some common beliefs that fall into each judging category and a gratitude list adaptation that can help curtail the said belief.
Judge our own selves
For many of my clients and me, this is the strongest judge voice, always telling us that we’re not good enough and that we should do more and more. Creating these lists may be harder if your judging voice is significantly stronger.
“I’m unlovable” ‒ Create a list of when you felt loved by someone or the Universe (or other higher power) the previous day, e.g., I felt truly loved when my boyfriend got angry with my arrogant client on my behalf.
“I am useless” ‒ List how you have been useful to others, the world, and yourself, e.g., I made myself useful to my neighbor yesterday by helping mow her lawn, or I journaled yesterday morning to constructively process my emotions.
“I am unworthy” ‒ Create a list of when you felt worthy due to a particular experience or when someone made you feel worthy, e.g., I felt worthy of my warm tea after that frustrating argument with my partner.
“I’m not a good parent/child/partner” ‒ Write down all the ways you’ve been a good parent/child/partner, e.g., I stopped and took a breath to avoid screaming at my daughter when she spilled the milk yesterday.
“I am a bad person” ‒ Create a list of all the times you demonstrated that you were, in fact, a good person, e.g., I was a good person when I helped my co-worker finish up before his deadline.
Some blame others to try to stay safe and convince the world they are always in the right. Also, it’s easy to judge people from different walks of life than ours.
“People hate me” ‒ Create a list of how and when others loved you the previous day, e.g., I felt truly loved when my niece gave me that extra-long hug.
“Everyone is a liar” ‒ Write down all the ways people were honest and forthright with you, e.g., I really felt the Ted talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability.
“People always leave me” ‒ Create a list of all the people who have stayed with you throughout the years or the previous day/week, e.g., When my date told me that we could work through the conflict, I felt like he was trying his best to be there for me.
Judge the world
“This world is a cruel place” ‒ Collect stories and instances of kindness in your immediate surroundings or the far corners of the world, e.g., I was touched by the kindness of the restaurant who sent me an extra portion as a thank you for my loyalty, or there are so many medical professionals doing their best to help patients through COVID.
“There is too much uncertainty everywhere” ‒ When have things been certain for you the previous day? e.g., I was certain of my child’s love for me when she looked into my eyes and smiled or if it’s really difficult to find certainty at times, try something like I’m certain the sun will rise again tomorrow.
Gratitude for You: Parting Words
Just to wrap up some logistical ends now, we’re generally more alert in the morning after a good night's sleep and tend to be more relaxed at the end of the day after our workday. Although most people prefer to utilize this alertness and relaxation to work on their lists, you can pick lunchtime or evening if that works better for you and your energy level.
In addition, many have asked me how many things we need to include in the list daily. Although three is considered the magical number of harmony, wisdom, and understanding, some days I can write up to 20 things, while on not-so-good days, I struggle to find even one item that can graciously make it to my list.
Finally, what happens if you miss a day? Nothing, really. It happens to the best of us. However, according to writer and speaker on habits and continuous improvement James Clear, it’s crucial not to miss a new habit on two consecutive days when forming the habit. He says, “One mistake is just an outlier. Two mistakes is the beginning of a pattern.”
Are you ready to rewire your brain and beat those unhelpful fears now?
Please reach out with your questions/thoughts and let me know how you will adapt the gratitude list.
Sabrina Sourjah, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Sabrina Sourjah is a certified authenticity coach based in Toronto. She began coaching because of her unshakable belief that we all deserve better jobs, better relationships, and better lives. She gets a genuine high every time her clients progress towards their most authentic life by outdoing their former selves. In her past life, she has worked in various corporate and technology roles. She was mostly stressed at work, no matter how well things were going. Now, Mondays are Fridays for her. This is why she’s on a mission to get you to your most authentic life. Because she knows how wonderful life can be on the other side. When she's free, she loves to read, sing karaoke, go on long walks, and watch the sunset.