Fostering the Flip Side of Gratitude

dark side of gratitude, responding to nay-sayers, when those in authority predict doom, when doctors are wrong, when teachers are wrong, when therapists are wrong,

Cajoled into seeing a friend’s obstetrician, the one she praised so highly, I came prepared with a list of questions folded in my jeans pocket. But I didn’t get a chance to ask about a doula, the Leboyer method, or anything else. The doctor walked in, greeted me and looked me over without performing an exam. Then he announced with certainty that I had “insufficient pelvic capacity.” He assured me that my petite size meant I would never be able to deliver a full-term baby.

“What do you mean?” I gasped.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “It just means you’ll require a Cesarean.”

I was six weeks pregnant.

I may have been young and expecting my first child, but I dared to question his judgment. He became indignant. A lecture followed about the number of babies he’d delivered. He went on about anoxia and brain damage, then intoned the words that surely convinced legions of women before me, “Do you want to endanger the life of your baby?”

That was all it took.

I never returned.

But how was this self-satisfied man to know if his assertion turned out to be valid?  I didn’t get back to him. Nor did I refute the next obstetrician whose office I also left after he told me my vegetarian diet would result in a sickly, underweight baby.

Although these physicians never knew if their dire predictions came true, I went on to deliver a 9 lb, 10 oz baby quite naturally. In subsequent years I had three more sizeable vegetarian-grown babies.

On behalf of each of my children I learned to speak up–forcefully and often. This pushed me right past the shyness I thought was an indelible part of my personality. Once I became comfortable speaking up I felt empowered to assert my feelings of gratitude as well.

According to Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude, regularly practicing gratitude boosts our health and well-being. Small acts of kindness also create a ripple effect, generating more compassion in others. Sometimes it’s easier to thank those who are close to us but it’s powerful to acknowledge people who are consequential strangers or people we’ve never met but whose efforts make a difference.

My gratitude practice often takes the form of appreciative letter to strangers. I leave a note for a waitress whose cheery demeanor has healed me of some common sadness. I send a letter to a nursing home administrator describing the tender affection I witnessed an aide show a patient. I send written kudos to the cast of a locally produced play. They don’t take long to write although occasionally I have to make an effort to find out where to send one.

Not long ago I was delighted to finally locate the address of a local school bus driver. I regularly wait in my car as he stops on a 55 mph road and in only a few moments backs into a narrow entry way with the grace and dexterity of a ballroom dancer. So I wrote a letter to explain that seeing him drive with such skill gave me the sense one day I too might develop true mastery in my line of work.

I never sign my name. I think it’s better to write “your customer” or “fellow traveler” or whatever fits the situation. That way it isn’t about me, it’s about a wider sense of appreciation. Although I have to admit, I benefit too. Looking for the good in a situation changes my energy in a positive way.

But really, paying attention only to sweetness and light ignores the shadow. People in positions of authority need to know when their judgments or actions are harmful. All of us can learn from mistakes, unless somehow we’re deprived of the consequences of our words or actions. Today, many professionals are well insulated from those consequences unless they reach litigation.

I don’t advocate griping or threatening. I’m talking about communication that fosters understanding. A simple letter can spare future clients, students or patients the same struggles your family may have endured. Of course this isn’t necessary when the situation can be handled right away. But how many of us have faced long term predictions of doom? A family bed is nothing but bad parenting.  Without this surgery you’ll end up crippled. Homeschool and you’ll have a maladjusted child on your hands. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior. After years of hearing such pronouncements I have come to realize that updating a professional on his or her assessment is another form of kindness. It’s the flip side of gratitude.

If you choose to get in touch with someone for these same reasons, here are guidelines that have worked for me.

1. Be clear about your own goals before writing that letter or email. Wait until you can proceed without anger. The person you are contacting will be unlikely to learn anything unless you maintain a positive and respectful tone throughout.

2. Refresh the recipient about your situation as it was when you were last in contact.

3. State clearly and kindly that (as a physician, teacher, therapist) he or she is in a position to help many people. You assume that as a matter of professional interest it would be helpful to know about the outcome of a situation he/she assessed.

4. Sticking only to the facts, explain how in your situation their judgment or actions were misguided. Then update with pertinent details.

5. If relevant, include research or other data which the professional can use to gain insight.

6. Wish this person well. Don’t expect or ask for follow up contact.

The highest response to nay-sayers is to flourish joyfully in our choices. So I respond  to those who predicted doom for my children who were held long and nursed often, to those who judged our learning and lifestyle choices harshly—we are well. For that I’m endlessly appreciative.

Lets try, whenever possible, to find the freedom right beyond the boundaries of old ideas. To do that we need to share the insight that comes from experience. There, even the flip side of gratitude turns toward wisdom.

when professional advice is wrong, shadow side of gratitude, finding peace rather than revenge, gratitude's underbelly,

A version of this piece first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Natural Life magazine

Writing Hands image courtesy of Jggy

A Childhood Idyll by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

17 thoughts on “Fostering the Flip Side of Gratitude

  1. Beautiful post, Laura! Your “horrible doctor” stories have me recalling some of my own–including one pediatrician that had lied to me with clear intent. Though I don’t think anything would have made it through to that particular very horrible doctor (his sister, also an MD, came to my aid and expressed disgust at his behavior), I could have used your guidelines for my own piece of mind back then. Love your “appreciative letters to strangers” idea and will definitely run with it in my own way. You have my gratitude…


  2. Laura–Another wonderful article. I keep a gratitude journal but don’t write in it enough. You are right–when I do write in it, I feel better, and I feel blessed. I also love your practice of writing letters. I often think about doing it but don’t. I’ll use this to push me to do it! I love that you write anonymously. That is perfect!


  3. @Shay. You’re right, the worse professionals probably wouldn’t be open enough to learn anything from the sort of letter I recommend (although everyone everywhere still has the potential to change). But even writing such a letter knowing it isn’t likely to make an impact can, as you say, help with the peace of mind thing. And that’s something!

    @Katherine. I’ve never written a gratitude journal, you’re way ahead of me there. My biggest effort there is to try making my first thought upon waking one of gratitude. Some days, fail.


  4. Laura, thank you for sharing this. In our culture, I think it’s great that people are thinking so much and talking so much about gratitude, but it seems that other important virtues — such as standing up for yourself and asserting yourself — can get lost in the shuffle or eclipsed by the rhetoric that everything we experience is “for the best” or “a learning experience” — like we are never allowed to just express disappointment or refuse what we are offered! I’m impressed with the letters you wrote and the guidelines you suggest for others in a similar position. Many things we take for granted as common sense were, decades ago, the opinion of a few who had to really stand up.


    • I guess it’s a matter of balance. Some folks tip way over on the side of me-me-me and could really benefit from focusing on gratitude. Others (my hand is up) could stand to do better with assertiveness and, as you say so clearly, “express disappointment.” It is indeed common sense to find the balance—-gratitude and the flip side of gratitude.


  5. Pingback: Healing Holiday Stories | We Are One World Healing :: Distant Reiki by A. Lee

  6. I completely identify with being a shy person who never learned to speak up until it concerned my children. Now it seems I never shut up : )
    I have been reading your posts for several hours now, and have concluded that I wish you were my shoulder angel.
    Blessings to you and your family!


  7. I “struggle” at times with this idea of giving feedback to those who have handled situations/interactions in a manner that was unkind/less than thoughtful. My tendency is to just “get away and don’t go back”…but then I think of how that person might/probably will continue a certain way of saying something or interacting that continues to do potential harm to others. Sometimes it’s a matter of people who are overly direct in their opinions and ideas…and who might benefit from softening their language/opinions etc. I like the structure you suggest for giving feedback… This “topic” has been much on my mind, due to an interaction that I felt a bit bruised by…so I appreciate reading your ideas and insights about it. Thank you.


  8. Thanks Grace ( you are so aptly named!) I, like so many of us carry that unresolved anger at not standing up for ourselves or our children… bullying will only stop when we kindly stand up and correct these incidences throughout our lives, you give so many examples of the best alternative to not doing anything in that first moment, thank you ❤


  9. Yes! This is so true. After complaining about the treatment and poor breastfeeding advice from paediatricians when in hospital with our first child, I was thrilled to discover the changes we had said needed to be made had been put into place by the time our second was born.


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