Self Caring

When You Don't Hear "Thanks"

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Who thanks you for all you do? And when the answer is "nobody much," then what?

Some interesting new research on gratitude out of Florida State finds that saying "thank you" to a loved one can improve your attitude about the relationship, especially if it's rocky, because forming the thankful thoughts makes you see the person in a more positive light. What a simple way to strengthen bonds!

Too bad caregivers so often go without. At a point in dementia care, for example, the care receiver loses the social awareness and self expression to be able to give appreciation. And many a caregiver of all kinds contend with a so-called "lousy patient" "“ the critical husband who quibbles and quarrels his way though his convalescence, the mother who feels entitled to her children's help rather than grateful for it, and so on. Then there are the relatives"¦the siblings who don't seem to notice your efforts or simply criticize them, the kids who complain you don't do enough for them, the mate who feels neglected, the whole let-us-take-you-for-granted ball of wax.

That's not to say our loved ones don't ever appreciate our efforts. But it's a fair truism that caregivers go undernourished in the thanks department.

Sitting around waiting for it will only make you resentful "“ bad for blood pressure and mental health. Meanwhile, gratitude bolsters happiness by as much as 25 percent, and improves sleep, energy, and optimism, says "gratitude guru" Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at UC-Davis and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

So instead, take advantage of the science of gratitude in some small but meaningful ways:

  • Thank yourself "“ mentally. If nobody else is saying it, say it yourself. Look yourself in the mirror in the morning and remind yourself: Good for Me; I'm Doing a Good Thing. One woman once told me she patted her own back before she woke her mother up each day, a form of self encouragement that's funny to picture, but if it works"¦!

  • Thank yourself "“ concretely. The whole concept of self care is a kind of thanks-giving, being loving and kind to yourself because you deserve it, and especially so in the caregiving realm. Shower yourself with "presents": a daily half hour with your favorite crossword puzzle, fresh air, your favorite tea (using the good china).

  • Thank the loved one you're caring for. It's healing, those Florida State researchers say. Sometimes it's easy; many of us feel enriched by the experiences of giving care. Many more of us feel we're gaining valuable life lessons about meaning and purpose, time and tenderness "“ but magnanimity is hard enough to find, let alone choke out! And for caregivers in the toughest spots, say a 24/7 caring bind with little support and a cantankerous recipient? Try writing the person a "gratitude letter," Emmons says. It's okay to focus on thanking them for your past together if mustering gratitude about the present is too hard.

  • Thank those who help you. Family members might learn from your example if you express thanks for the little things they do (even if they seem pitiably little to you). And they might, in turn, be inspired to help more. Hired helpers who are thanked will give you better results.

  • Say it even when you don't totally feel it. Interestingly, expressing gratitude more regularly even if you kind of feel like you're just going through the motions can lead to the genuine emotion, says Emmons.

  • Keep a (bear with me!) gratitude journal. At the risk of sounding Oprahy, writing down one thing to give thanks for every day really can improve mood within just a few weeks, according to Emmons. Best: Write down things that directly come from someone else. The chance to give back? The door held open while you pushed a wheelchair? Chocolate from your best friend?

  • Thank small. When nobody's thanking you for the big things, look micro for things you can praise. Even your loved one's weak smile counts. And when there's not so much as a smile coming forth, head back to the mirror. Smile at yourself. Yes, it might be hard. Even silly. Go ahead and force yourself -- a sad smile is okay. When your brain sees a smile, it registers happiness.

I realize that giving yourself a smile is an anemic kind of thanks. It's certainly not the same as having it showered upon you by grateful kith and kin. But it's something that works -- and slightly easier than contorting to pat yourself on the back!