Much has been written about the importance of gratitude for your mental well-being. Focusing on what you are grateful for is an excellent way to avoid negative cyclic thinking and to put struggles into a wider perspective. In addition to identifying areas of gratitude, it is also helpful to recognize areas of struggle. Not to dwell on them, but to acknowledge them, understand them, and process them so that they do not linger in the background as the wallpaper of your life.
An old spiritual tradition from St. Ignatius is the practice of noting Consolations and Desolations. While originally designed as a spiritual practice, this can be a very effective technique for increasing resilience and maintaining mental health. Simply put, this habit involves, at the end of the day, reflecting back on your day and noting examples of consolations (gratitudes, positive experiences, life-giving moments) as well as desolations (struggles, negative experiences, life-depleting moments). Having a balanced review of your day can help promote an honest and realistic approach forward.
For those who are more likely to dwell on negative experiences in their day, reviewing desolations can be validating while identifying consolations can help them avoid the temptation to stew in negative thinking or pity. On the other hand, for those who avoid conflict and default to people-pleasing, reviewing desolations can be an opportunity to acknowledge conflicts or disappointments and work through them. For the conflict-avoiders/people-pleasers, reviewing consolations can provide an authentic experience with gratitude instead of a shallow optimism designed to glaze over tension.
If you find yourself feeling some resistance to engaging in either reviewing consolations or desolations, ask yourself what you are concerned might happen. If your concern is that your overly optimistic view must be maintained in order to avoid complete negativity or avoid being hurt by confronting conflict, remind yourself that exaggerated fears are designed to convince you that you are powerless. That fear is not protecting you, but instead it is impeding you. On the other hand, if your concern is that your overly pessimistic view must be maintained in order to avoid insincerity and naïveté, remind yourself that pessimism is a defensive posture. Ask yourself what your pessimism is protecting you from and remind yourself that you are capable of confronting that fear and living a more authentic and honest life.
Shawn Healy, PhD
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