Expressing Gratitude


Expressing gratitude is something I’ve struggled with for awhile. I am still learning. Saying thank you is easy for me in obvious situations where a “thank you” is part of courtesy–when someone opens a door, or gives a gift, or treats me to a coffee or a meal.

It’s different in situations where I feel deeply, or where I am engaged in what’s going on and not thinking because I am so immersed in it. Situations when I am collaborating, or when working with others toward the same goal, or when I am part of a family group.

In these situations my need to feel competent and self-sufficient can get in the way of acknowledging and appreciating the help I’ve received and the contribution made by others. Needing help or having been given help, especially if it wasn’t asked for, has  sometimes meant I felt shame, resentment, or defensiveness rather than gratitude.

I also have had difficulty receiving appreciation.

Here are some of the things that have been helpful as I’ve learned to express and receive gratitude.

Watching those who do it well

The first time I remember seeing someone who knew how to express appreciation and gratitude easily and naturally, I was entering mid-life. When someone can do this well it really stands out. Being able to receive thanks and appreciation gracefully; being present and not deflecting its as soon as someone starts is worth learning.

Russell Precious, one of the folks who founded Capers Community Markets hired me while when there was only one market in West Vancouver. Watching Russell talk with staff and customers provided lessons in how to connect with people, engage them, acknowledge them, and appreciate their contribution. He noticed what was going on, expressed his pleasure and shared the significance of what he saw. He caught people doing something right. Whether it was letting a cashier know how wonderful she was for being present, accurate, and human with every person in the endless lines at the holidays, or savouring the newest dish from the restaurant kitchen, he conveyed his gratitude in a way that let the person know he saw them and what they did and what he found worthwhile and unique. This made it easier to receive his thanks and know they were genuine.

Cynthia Baxter-Diggles  was my Training Director at Wild Oats, a person loved for her ability to recognize the contributions of her team. Her knack for seeing the “superhero” ability of each person inspired outstanding performance and kept us engaged in innovation as we worked to introduce new ways of learning and training at each store. The training team became incredibly supportive of each other in very concrete ways even though we worked in different locations and only connected through conference calls and quarterly meetings.

Assertiveness Skills

When I learned that providing appreciation was being assertive I stopped expecting it to be easy, and I knew practice would help me get better at it. I understood it wasn’t a case of not appreciating others, just feeling slow and a bit awkward when I offered thanks or appreciation. This made it feel inauthentic and I often felt  embarrassed.

In People Skills Robert Bolton, Ph.D. defines an assertion message as

  • a non-judgmental description of the behavior to be changed;
  • a disclosure of your feelings; and
  • a clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person’s behavior on you.

Changing the focus slightly provides a three-step process for expressing gratitude, appreciation, and praise.

The gratitude message:

  • a non-judgmental description of the behavior you are grateful for;
  • disclosure of your feelings; and
  • clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person’s behavior on you or the situation.

Boltan notes that the process of framing assertive messages leads you on a voyage of self-discovery. Learning to express gratitude and appreciation continues to help me grow.

Making the effort to be concrete, specific and descriptive about what you are grateful for and expressing it in a way that includes your feelings and the impact is powerful, and–good news–the more you do it the easier it gets.

Expressing gratitude and appreciation calls for

  •  Vulnerability — We need the willingness to dig a bit deeper (the feeling and impact part) .
  •  Presence — You have to be in the present moment to experience gratitude and be aware of it (the specific, concrete part).

For me this means being aware of the sometimes mixed feelings I am experiencing, recognizing the old reactions of defensiveness or resentment, and setting them aside for later reflection so I can catch someone doing something right.

Accepting appreciation

I am still working on learning to accept appreciation and share how happy I feel when gratitude and kind words come my way; still learning to say,”thank you for letting me know.”

Join the conversation: When has your expression of appreciation or gratitude been difficult? When has it been satisfying? What’s it like for you to receive appreciation?


Learning Gratitude


When I was a child it seemed that gratitude was something I was expected to display. I learned to mimic the desired behaviour, but I didn’t really understand gratitude or being thankful. I understood pleasure, and being glad that something had happened, or that I had received something, but the feeling I now associate with gratitude, a sense of heart-opening warmth and grace, wasn’t part of it.

My mother asked us to write thank you notes for presents within two weeks of receiving them. Sooner was better. So we wrote to distant Aunts and Uncles thanking them for presents that we weren’t sure we wanted: socks, handkerchiefs, soap. While faraway family appreciated the effort, the notes were bland and formulaic. Thank you for X. I like it very much. I hope you are enjoying (season or holiday), XXOOXX. As a teenager I moved to simple declarations: Great! Wow! Awesome! These exclamations were added to greeting card notes with some sentiment already printed. I faked gratitude in order to meet a social need.

When I began to work I was surprised by how much a thoughtful thank you from my boss or a co-worker influenced how I felt. I began to appreciate small kindnesses. The person who remembers to tell you where everyone is going for lunch. The person who remembers the type of pen you like when they order supplies. The person who helps you empty waste baskets on Friday afternoon so you can leave earlier for a date.

“Thank you” began to be a more genuine, more personal response, but understanding didn’t begin to develop until my early twenties.

Things that helped me learn gratitude:

  • Having little money

When I was on my own and unemployed for the first time in my early twenties I had very little money once I paid rent. Food was the highlight of the day and I enjoyed my meagre meals far more than I had when I never worried about when my next one might appear. I am not suggesting lack of money is good, just noting the way it increased my awareness and appreciation of food.

  • David Mekelburg’s Lettering and Layout Class, the camera square exercise

David’s class at Immaculate Heart College changed the way I looked at everything. The exercise that taught me the most asked us to take a cardboard square about 10 x 10 and cut a one inch square in the centre of it using an exacto knife. The first time we used it we went to a tire store with the assignment, “come back with a list of 100 beautiful things.” We found something we responded to and then examined it through our one inch lens. We also made collages using the square to see parts of pictures and lettering layouts. Revelation! So much beauty right in front of us that had been overlooked, dismissed, unappreciated.

  • Learning to cook

I’d been given a Joy of Cooking when first married and it helped me through those first traumatic meals, but I didn’t become a cook until I my brother and his wife gave me Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook over a decade later. The exuberant dishes were easy, delicious comfort food, and brought the author’s love for her ingredients into my kitchen. I began to cook with what what was fresh, local and available and I began to thank my food and the farmers who grew it.

  • Being a stranger

When I left Vancouver for the Okanagan in B.C. ‘s Interior, I only knew two people there: my boyfriend and my best friend’s best friend from high school. The generosity and welcome of my friend’s friend was like heat in winter. It provided the warmth needed for life to take hold in a new environment.

This book introduced me to keeping a journal. The author realized she had everything in her life to make her happy yet was more often discontented. What was going on? She began to look for moments when she felt happy and wrote them down. The simplicity of the question appealed to me and I began to write about when I was happy. Doing this helped me find out more about who I really was; this turned out to be quite different from both who I thought I was and who I thought I should be. It also made me appreciate when I was happy and what seemed to cause being in that state. Often I was happy because I read something wonderful or because I’d had a chance to appreciate some natural aspect of the day, or I’d had an engaging conversation. Gratitude for those moments of happiness began to arise. Gratitude started to show up without being called.

  • Suggesting books

I love books and love sharing them. I find myself suggesting a book and learning more about it in the process. When I’ve had a good experience with a book, I want to pass that along, and find myself thanking the writer for my own pleasure and for producing something that it is a pleasure to share.

  • Meditation Practice

When I began to practice the hardest thing to do was simply sit on my cushion. Again and again I’d catch myself straining to reach the next moment, the next breath; missing the present moment, present breath. When I could just sit on the cushion the world began to open, one breath at a time. I began to be thankful for each breath and marvel at the recurring wonder of it. From that place of gratitude, my experience of the world began to change.

  • Friends

Through meditation a deeper appreciation of friendship developed and a new way of thinking about it. When I was young my family moved frequently so I had attended ten schools by the time I entered high school. I developed some friendships that survived some of the moves, but learned to be happy reading and playing on my own except for school lunch times when it seemed critical to be part of a group. My earliest definition of friendship was tied to reading (those who liked books I liked) and solidarity (people willing to eat lunch or play with me). I was grateful to find them. There was a hint of desperation in my gratitude though and it wasn’t until I encountered meditation many years later that my definition of friendship evolved.

In Buddhist practice I learned about the spiritual friend, the Kalyāṇa-mita, the one that shares ethical values and supports practice as a way to attain enlightenment. Later, from John O’Donohue, I learned about the Anam Cara, an Irish term meaning soul friend. The sense of blessing that comes from relationship with a soul friend has enlarged my heart and gratitude.

  • Family

As a child and young woman I was more aware of what I felt was missing from my family.  It wasn’t until my mid-thirties, after therapy and years of meditation practice, that I began to appreciate my family. I finished grieving what I missed and began to realize what was there. As my child’s eye view of my parents dissolved I marveled at what they had been able to accomplish and all they had sacrificed to be able to give us what they did. I woke up to my good fortune in being born in North America to a mother and a father who wanted children, loved them, loved each other, believed in education, believed their children could be what they wanted to be, and taught them that each person is accountable for his or her actions. Gratitude for their faith in me abides.

  • Teachers

I had a remarkable group of teachers in high school. The faculty who taught senior students, led by John Sage, put together an honors seminar and introduced us to multidisciplinary perspectives and many of the skills we would need for college work. The use of questions, research into primary sources, dialogue in a seminar setting, and work to hone both our listening and reading skills were presented at just the right time. It was challenging, exciting, thrilling learning, and set the bar extremely high for other academic experience.

At Immaculate Heart College I encountered a group of passionate teachers at a time of great change. The faculty had just moved from being a small catholic women’s college to one informed by the values of Vatican II. In the process they had become co-educational, open and adventurous. To give you a sense of the rich dialogue on campus Dorothy D. Lee taught Cultural Anthropology, Tom Hayden, Political Science, Carl Rodgers, Psychology and Corita Kent was the Chair of the Art Department for many years. I took David Mekelburg’s Lettering and Design course there. This poem by Sr. Helen Kelley, who was President of Immaculate Heart, may give you a sense of the call that infused classes regardless of the subject.

Choose Life

only that and always,

and at whatever risk.

To let life leak out,

to let it wear away by the mere passage of time,

to withhold giving it and spreading it,

is to choose nothing.

Sister Helen Kelley

I was at Immaculate Heart for two years. The generosity and spirit of the college gave me my first taste of joyous gratitude. It also opened me to learning from another kind of teacher. Teachers who teach what can’t be learned from a book or a lecture. Teachers who are the lesson.

Gratitude flows like a river fed by many streams when I reflect on my teachers. I hope to celebrate more of them in a future post.

Gratitude is an ongoing practice. Reflecting on what you are grateful for and how you have learned to be grateful moistens the heart.

Join the discussion: How have you learned gratitude?



Who do you thank?

Thanksgiving is Monday October 8th here in Canada. Have you ever sat down for Thanksgiving Dinner and felt disconnected? There’s the traditional litany of those to thank and what to thank them for: food, peace, freedom, family and friends, health, success, all worthy of appreciation and our gratitude should we be fortunate enough to have them, particularly in a world where so many lack them. I’ve sometimes felt ashamed and ill at ease at the Thanksgiving table when I just couldn’t connect to a feeling of gratitude. If existence itself is grace, then the bounty piled before me shouldn’t result in me wishing I was alone with a pizza and a good movie.

Discover what you are grateful for

Elsewhere war, famine, pestilence, and disaster thrive. Somehow the more aware I am of how badly off much of the world is, the harder I find it to open to receiving, to acknowledge what I already have. I find myself asking what I can do to reconnect with the spirit of thanksgiving.

“I made cranberry sauce, and when it was done put it into a dark blue bowl for the beautiful contrast. I was thinking, doing this, about the old ways of gratitude: Indians thanking the deer they’d slain, grace before supper, kneeling before bed. I was thinking that gratitude is too much absent in our lives now, and we need it back, even if it only takes the form of acknowledging the blue of a bowl against the red of cranberries.”

― Elizabeth Berg, Open House

The dream that is the inspiration for the novel I am working on was a dream of thanksgiving. In the dream a young woman, is intoxicated by the sense of interdependence and abundance she found in meditating deeply on the bread and corn, squash and fruit that were part of her harvest festival. This gives her a sense of the connection between the people who planted the seed for the grain that became the bread, the baker who fashioned the loaf, and the dairyman whose cows provided the milk to make the butter for the bread and her life. The joy that came from her recognition of interdependence is a memory that brings me back to thankfulness, to connection, when I’ve forgotten who to thank and what I am grateful for.

Starting with my current feeling of restlessness and discomfort, because that’s where I am, I settle into my breath, into the present moment, and reflect on thanksgiving, and on the dream’s gift.

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”

― Thich Nhat Hanh

Reconnecting to your bounty

Good news! Gratitude is a practice that starts with simple actions.

  • Say “Thank You”

Whether you are saying it to your body, to the rose that offers its bloom, to your family, to the author of your favourite book, or the cook who prepared the thanksgiving feast, expressing your thanks changes what’s going on.

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”

― Meister Eckhart

  • Open to what you have and concentrate on what is positive and present in your life

By acknowledging and appreciating what we have we cultivate a sense of abundance and grow closer to realizing that existence itself is grace. Don’t forget to include your strengths and your experiences in what you have.

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

― Epicurus

  •  Remember the people in your life

Kindness, compassion and support can come from family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances or strangers.

 At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.

― Albert Schweitzer

Join the conversation: What awakens thanksgiving in you? What traditions and rituals help you keep that holiday alive?