Last winter I was a participant in the Living Brave Semester taught by the infamous Dr. Brené Brown. The coursework involved delving into her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. Each week we read portions of the chosen book and completed related workbook assignments. Overall, this was a wonderful experience that I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to examine vulnerability, resilience, shame and living according to your core values. I hope to be a part of her course The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting starting at the end of September. If you decide to sign up let me know! I’d love to chat with you about different topics as the course unfolds.
Anywho…one topic that has stuck with me is the idea of “foreboding joy”. What the heck is foreboding joy? Well, let me create a picture for you. Scenario One: You rock your little one to sleep, put them in their crib and gaze in wonderment. The love you feel for them is immense, overwhelming and all consuming. In a flash, you imagine something horrendous happening to them. Scenario Two: You have been trying to get pregnant and finally see those two little lines on the pregnancy test! You’re overwhelmed with joy and then suddenly imagine something going terribly wrong in utero. Scenario Three: Your marriage is wonderful. You love your job and look forward to going into work every day. Everyone in your family is healthy. You think to yourself, “Oh my God. Something bad is going to happen. This can’t last for long.”
Does this sound familiar to you? It sure does to me. I am a chronic foreboder of joy. It took Brené’s course for me to realize there was actually a name for it. Prior to that I had just chalked it up to my pesky anxiety disorder but it turns out it’s an actual thing and A LOT of people do it.
Ironically enough, joy is one of the most terrifying and difficult emotions we experience. Sounds backwards, right? Why is joy so terrifying? Joy is so terrifying because it leaves you completely vulnerable. I, for one, don’t like feeling vulnerable, and according to Brené’s research neither do a lot of you. We, as adults, have a hard time leaning into joy and experiencing it fully. We decide to (in the words of Brené) “dress rehearse tragedy to beat vulnerability to the punch”. Read that a few times to let it sink in. We basically imagine all the horrible things that could happen instead of revel in the joyous moment at hand. You might be thinking, “No way, I don’t do that. That’s just crazy.” So… you’ve never boarded a flight for vacation and imagined the plane plummeting to the ground? You’ve never entered a new relationship and then quickly imagined your significant other cheating on you? That’s what I thought. We’ve ALL been there.
But Katy, dress rehearsing tragedies and imagining horrible things happening prepares me just in case something bad DOES happen. I won’t be so shocked and disappointed if I always prepare for the worst. Plus, I’m not going to lean into joy because I’m scared it will be taken away! Not so fast. During her 12 years of research, Brené interviewed a man who tried to always stay even keel. He never got too joyful or excited about things. He lived life in the middle. He tried to prevent being devastated if something didn’t work out. In his 60’s, his wife of 40 years was killed in a horrible accident. His lifetime of staying ‘in the middle’ did not prepare him for that tragedy. His first thought after his wife was gone was that he wished he would have leaned harder into moments of joy.
Okay, now that we know we try to ruin our moments of joy because we don’t want to be too vulnerable, how can we change?
- Realize you are a foreboder
Simply acknowledge the fact that you are in the midst of foreboding joy. I actually say to myself “You are foreboding joy.” Once I realize that I am in the midst of stealing joy from a beautiful moment, I can get back on track. I then say “enjoy the moment” over and over in my head. Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself!
- Practice gratitude
Practice makes perfect. The same thing goes for experiencing joy. When you realize you are about to forebode joy, practice gratitude instead. Be thankful for the moment instead of ruining it! One way to get really good at gratitude is by keeping a gratitude journal. When I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life I kept a little journal next to my bed. Before I went to sleep I wrote down 10 things I was grateful for that day. It put me in a great mood and also helped me sleep more peacefully.
- Embrace the Ordinary
Too often we go through life trying to seek out extraordinary moments. During Brené’s research interviews, she spoke with people who experienced horrific things (genocide, war, illness). When they looked back, they all said they missed the ‘ordinary’ moments the most. Seek out ordinary day to day moments and then practice gratitude for them (try the list mentioned above). Several years after I created my daily gratitude list, I looked over some of my first entries. I was amazed at how ordinary they really were (coffee, workout class, dinner with friends).
I hope this article spoke to you if you are someone who tries to rob yourself of joy. Remember to take time to be thankful, breathe and celebrate the ordinary.