I’ve read countless articles that proclaim that sometime in your twenties you will actually start to appreciate your parents for all of the things they did that you never appreciated as a teenager. I’m starting to think those articles were right.
You might know that gratitude involves paying attention to the good things you have in life, but according to leading gratitude expert, Dr. Robert Emmons, it also involves recognizing that those good things are made available to you by someone other than yourself.
Appreciating a gift or a kind gesture seems simple, but what happens when we turn our attention to the things we worked hard to achieve? There can be something slightly uncomfortable about crediting other people for what feels like your own achievements. I’m not talking about success on a team project, but rather that goal you attained after hours of sweat, tears, and deliberate practice. In my case, this was a four-year degree.
The day before my college graduation, my family and I attended a reception for parents hosted on campus. Midway through, parents were called up to receive honorary degrees because, as the Master of Ceremony proclaimed, they earned these degrees right along with the children that they supported through college. Of course, these degrees were not going to get our parents a promotion, but they were a token of appreciation for the countless ways that parents offered support for those long and hard years of learning and growing up.
I’m going to be very honest right now. As I watched my mom beam with pride as she received her recognition, and later heard her gushing about it to friends, I felt anger. There was an overwhelming feeling in my heart that this was something I had done myself, without many of the resources most of my college peers had at their disposal. College was not easy, for the many reasons I imagine it’s not easy for everyone, and also for the very personal reasons it was not easy for me. I shared the experience of being far away from home for the first time, and being one of those top students in high school that suddenly found herself among a lot of other top students. You know, the moment you realize there are in fact hundreds of people who could be smarter than you.
Yet on most registration days, as my friends woke up excitedly to register for classes, my screen would flash a message along the lines of, you need to pay your bill before you can register for next semester. You, dear reader, are probably the first person I will admit this to: I failed an exam, and subsequently dropped a course because I could not afford vision insurance and could not see the blackboard well enough to follow the course material. I felt the very real emotions of feeling out of place that most minorities face in top-tier private schools. I was the first person in my family attempting to graduate from a college in the United States, and I felt very alone in the process of selecting colleges, making decisions about student loans, and being among students whose socioeconomic status was well beyond my own. There were things like difficult subject matter that I bonded with my peers about, and then there were many things that I stressed about in solitude.
So in that moment, which I felt at the time should have been all my own, I was not willing to share the spotlight with anyone. After all, I put in the hard work, I found tutors, and sometimes even therapists, all to graduate with a GPA that I could be proud of. Five years later, I’m reflecting on this moment, and what it means to be grateful.
I’ve grown up in a culture that values individuality and does not shy away from celebrating and highlighting personal achievements. We don’t walk into job interviews ready to give credit to mom for working extra hours to put us through college, and we’re bombarded with stories of how people rose to the top on their own hard work and determination. I value this concept of do it yourself.
Sometimes the dark cloud that hangs over sharing the credit for your good fortune is indebtedness, the idea that you now owe something to this benefactor, which can lead to resentment, instead of being able to bask in the glory of your own hard work.
So what is the value in recognizing that you’re not a one (wo)man island? Emmons describes gratitude as a “relationship-strengthening emotion.” Recognizing that the good things in life are partly owed to someone else, we feel connected, less isolated, and learn to feel comfortable with asking for help. I couldn’t agree more.
This month, I’ve started retelling my college story a bit differently. For a lot of high achieving students, myself included, college was the first time we failed at things and had to put in extra work. When I would receive these disappointing grades and spiral into feelings of uncertainty, I would call my mom. I would argue that she didn’t quite get how hard things were, but she would combat that she didn’t need to know about that, she knew who I was. She would remind me of all I had accomplished, and be so confident that I would make it out alright, that I would always hang up the phone believing the same. There were different strategies that ranged from tough love to just letting me cry it out. Knowing there was someone 377 miles away who so fiercely believed I could do it, made me do it. Mom would build up my confidence to the point that it would not matter if I was the only female or person of color in a science or programming class, I would walk in there ready to own the world. Payments were late, yes, but they were made. And if I had pushed past my guilt of costing my mom money to attend college, I know she would have found a way to pay for an update on my glasses prescription. After all, she did find a way to throw me an epic graduation party the summer I came home. I now know she couldn’t stop talking about that ceremony because someone finally gave her the recognition she deserved.
I don’t think people around me would say I’m an ungrateful person, but I know that I have grown in my understanding of gratitude. This month, I’m challenging myself to deepen my feelings of gratitude, especially around those good things that feel like they are mostly my own hard work. College was a big one, but I’ll continue to reflect on other narratives that I could rewrite from this lens of deeper gratitude.
To be honest, it’s very liberating to recognize nothing is accomplished solely on your own. I know that next time I’m in the weeds trying to accomplish a goal, I’ll be able to recognize and appreciate the support I have in the moment, and don’t need to feel alone in the struggle. I look forward to strengthening my relationships with those who are the under-appreciated cheerleaders.
As for that pesky thought of indebtedness, this might be the one time when “everybody’s doing it” is a valid excuse. When we all increase our gratitude in this way, we recognize that life and community work in a harmonious cycle of give and get.
I’d like to end this with thank you, mom.