11/28/2013 04:38 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2014

Do You Create Obstacles to Being Truly Grateful?

During this week of Thanksgiving you have received a bounty of advice to be grateful and give thanks. For those of us living in the developed world we know we should be grateful. We know that we have electricity and heat available to us at the flip of a switch, and food and shelter within relatively easy purchase. And we know that if we have basic health, we have wealth.

We know this intellectually. But if you have basic material needs met but feel dissatisfied with your progress in life it can be hard to truly be grateful for what you have. You focus on the gap between what you want and what you have, the gap between what you thought you'd have at this point in your life and what you do have. And the gap between what you have and what you see others having.

Gratitude comes from a conscious direction of your attention towards appreciating what you have. It then gives way to a physical feeling.

If you know you should be grateful but don't feel it as you think you should, it's because you have mental stress which deflects attention away from gratitude. Here are three ways you might create gratitude-deflecting mental stress and what you can do about it:

1. Doubt

When you are not confident in yourself you will 'get in your own way' and interfere with your progress in life -- and then you will focus on the gap not on gratitude.

Generally when you are not confident in yourself you direct your attention to managing other people's perceptions of you as a way of dealing with your own self-confidence issue. You might seek other people's approval or reassurance as a way of boosting your self-evaluation (e.g., if you can get your boss to tell you that you're doing a good job, you might believe you are worthy of the position). You might exhaust yourself trying to please others and try to feel needed by them instead of putting that time and energy into growing your own skills and self-appreciation. You might try to motivate yourself by endlessly criticizing yourself.

Or you might not take action in order to prevent others' disapproval ("If I don't speak up in the meeting with senior management they can't criticize me; if I don't take a risk on a new project I won't have to worry about if I'm going to fail; If I don't pick up the phone to call a prospects I can't be rejected by them.")

In these ways your attention is on managing what others will think about you instead of directing your attention to making progress in your own life or to what you feel satisfied about or rewarded by in your own life. All the time and attention you put into managing other people's perceptions is diverting you from building skills and deepening relationships for your own life progress. And then if you are not as far along as you perceived you might have or should have been, it might feel hard to feel grateful.

2. Expectation

Many of us are driven by expectations imposed by ourselves or by others. Expectations are an inner picture or standard imposed by ourselves or others. When you are driven by expectations, you relentlessly direct your attention towards evaluating where you are in relation to them. You are constantly running a mental scoreboard about where you stand.

If you don't see yourself living up to the expectation you will become fearful because you anticipate having to deal with the consequences of potentially disappointing yourself or someone else. And if the expectation on you is for perfection -- and therefore "unrealistic" -- then you will always feel pressure to push more and continuously worry that you are falling short. Expectations are such a strong way of framing our purpose in life, that often once you do reach a goal you might immediately create a new standard that keeps you living in fear of not meeting it.

3. Choice
We are living in an age of overwhelming choice. We have a dizzying array of options in everything from what buffet food to put on our plate, what type of laundry detergent to buy, and which career to choose.

We are Spinners -- dipping our fingers in handfuls of projects trying to be all things to all people. We are Slashers -- we are an author/speaker/blogger. We are Seekers -- we seek an edge by reading blogs, books, magazines, attending seminars, listening to podcasts, etc. We have 10 role models and even though we are only one person we want to experience the success of all 10 of them.

We are hard pressed to avoid comparing ourselves with others. Yet when we engage in such social comparison, it makes us less happy and satisfied with our lives (recent research indicates the longer one spends time on Facebook, the higher the likelihood of believing we are less happy than others).

And there has been recent handwringing that we are exacerbating this tendency by the way we raise our all children to receive across the board praise and feel entitled to rapid progress regardless of merit (see Frank Bruni's recent op-ed in the New York Times).

Note the theme in all 3 of these kinds of mental stresses is the gap between what you have currently vs. what you want. Between who you are vs. who you could be. This gap creates stress because our desired level of achievement feels out of our control or a long way away. It pressures us to push more and be fearful of that uncontrollable factor: what others will think.

To respond to such stress, we use the part of our nervous system that overfocuses on the problem or threat and we overlook what is going well. Our focus on the problem or conflict will prevent us from taking a step back to notice the bigger picture matters such as who and what we are grateful for.

It will be easier to feel grateful when we direct our attention to the things that we CAN control. When it comes to doubts, we can build our own skills and belief in ourselves. It seems more expedient to try to get others to give us a quick compliment, but the long-term solution is to develop the confidence and competence to accomplish our own goals and then feel proud of them. When it comes to expectations, we can decide what we really want rather than carry out the legacy others put on us, or communicate with others to change the effect on us. And rather than envying others' success, we can put the time into finding the one path that is the intersection between our best talents and the best way of contributing those talents to others (for practical techniques how to have more control over your doubts, expectations, and choices, see my book Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident and Productive When the Pressures On).

When you find yourself caught in the grip of the mental stress of doubt, expectation, or social comparison, you can take a moment of pause and then consciously put your attention on the things (big and small) for which you are grateful. Ironically when you do this, the mental stresses evaporate, and you will be motivated to take actions that will help you get more of what you want.