From the minute the couple walked in, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. They sat in my office, tense and tired.
"He doesn't care..."
"She's too demanding..."
And finally, "I wish he would tell me that he appreciates me. He takes me...and all I do for him...for granted."
Gratitude. Appreciation. Hakaros HaTov. It seems so easy, so deceptively simple. You would think that words of gratitude and appreciation would constantly fall from our lips as we look around at the benevolence of the people in our lives. So many thoughtful actions, so many caring words and deeds, so many acts of compassion and kindness...the list is endless. And the benevolence of a spouse? The list doubles and triples. The words of gratitude and acts of appreciation towards a spouse should flow so naturally and easily.
But it certainly wasn't the case with the couple in my office.
Why do we find it difficult sometimes to appreciate others? What is it about appreciation and gratitude that changes our seemingly logical response to another's benevolence into an emotional struggle that we often lose?
There are many reasons, but I think one of biggest reasons is this: On some level, perhaps way back in the far recesses of our minds, we believe that we are entitled to many things. Entitled to wonderful and helpful spouses who will take care of us, make us happy, and meet all our needs. Entitled to close friends who will always be there for us and never let us down. Our lives are full of expectations and, on some level, we demand that those expectations be met.
And when someone does what is expected, or even demanded, of them, it can be difficult to appreciate them and show gratitude for what they have done. After all, aren't we entitled to it?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler points this out in Strive for Truth when he says "When demands begin, love departs." We need to focus on the expectations that our spouses and families have of us, not on whether or not they are living up to our expectations of them. Our thoughts should reflect, "What have I done for you," rather than "What have you done for me?" The former makes for a happy and fulfilling life while the latter quickly leads to disappointment and resentment.
The couple continued...
"...but she doesn't understand what my day is like. She needs to realize that I am exhausted when I come home. She has no idea."
"Well, he doesn't appreciate what it is like to run a household and take care of the family..."
Often, we are under the misconception that we must be completely understood in order to be appreciated. And to some degree, this is true. We need to feel that the other person empathizes and cares in order to identify with what we are going through. However, it is not necessary for them to fully experience what we are doing, for them to totally put themselves in our shoes, in order to appreciate what we have done.
And quite frankly, no one will never wholly experience what we are going through. Each of us is unique and no two people deal with the same situation in exactly the same manner.
But we want them to try to understand. And, by the same token, we have to try to understand the needs of others, to try and relate to what they are going through. This is the reason why it is so important to listen as your spouse describes her day in painstaking detail. This is why it makes your husband feel like you support him when you care enough to hear how his difficult meeting went. We don't need to fully understand what someone else is experiencing in order to show our appreciation. However, we do need to recognize their need to be appreciated, and respond accordingly, keeping in mind that sometimes the greatest act of appreciation is simply listening.
"...and I just don't feel like appreciating her. It is probably the right thing to do, but I just don't feel like showing her or telling her. The appreciative feeling isn't there."
"And you are waiting for the feeling to be there before you appreciate her?" I asked.
There is a story told of a Rabbi who was approached by a couple with a troubled marriage. "What should we do, Rabbi," they sighed, "We just don't feel like being nice to one another." The Rabbi replied, "A person can be nice to another person without a feeling. What is the difference if you feel like being nice or not? Pretend you feel it and act nicely to one another. Go through the motions. Buy each other presents. Tell your wife to relax one night while you take care of dinner. Greet your husband at the door when he comes home from work and tell him how glad you are that he is home. Act nicely to one another, be appreciative of the other person, and you will see that the feeling will follow. Your overall relationship will improve considerably."
This is a wonderful lesson that is both practical and intuitive. Act as if. Would you like to be a nice person? Act nicely to others. Do you want to be a grateful person? Show gratitude. Are you trying to be more appreciative of those around you? Act appreciative to everyone you see. It is not necessary to wait until you feel grateful or nice. Show gratitude, act nicely, and the feelings will follow. You will see immediate and dramatic results in all of your relationships.
"...but how are the kids supposed to learn to be appreciative if they don't see you showing appreciation?"
"They do see it. And if they see it at home, then they see it at school..."
Let us not forget the impact our behavior has on our children. Have you ever said, "My children have no appreciation for anything I do?"
Appreciating others is a skill that anyone can learn. It usually does not materialize on its own. We have a responsibility to our children and families to help them learn to appreciate others. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to instill an "attitude of gratitude" and in this way, our children will learn to see the positive and good in everyone and everything around them.
For example, as holidays approach, appreciating those around you can become more and more challenging. You may feel overwhelmed and overworked. (You probably are, in fact, overwhelmed and overworked.) Keep in mind that appreciation takes on many forms. A thank you, a present, or a caring, listening ear are all helpful ways of showing appreciation. Remember not to wait until you feel nice to act nicely. Act as if, and the feelings will follow. Look for opportunities to teach your children to be appreciative of others.
And remember, no one has ever complained about being too appreciated.
Rabbi Dovid Hochberg, LGSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and can be reached at 443.677.8561 for consultation. Visit his new website, www.jewish-parenting.org, for parenting guidance and his brand-new ebook, "Dear Rabbi: Questions and Answers for Today's Teenagers."