During a difficult season of our marriage, my husband and I began the deep work of healing which involved a significant investment in our mental health. Recently in one of our sessions with our therapist, we did as we always do: We checked in with how we were feeling.
“How are the two of you checking in today?” asked our therapist. Our hearts sank as we had to admit something very difficult for the both of us, something we were too hesitant to put into simple words – that things were going well. Almost too well.
Over this two-year process of counseling, we had many difficult conversations that ripped our hearts apart, dug deep into the weeds, and required us to face the messiness of our past. It often felt like recovering from open-heart surgery. But as time went on, we became familiar with these conversations and eventually leaned into them with little-to-no hesitation. We became comfortable with the full spectrum of our emotions – or so we thought.
During this recent session of counseling, however, we faced our therapist’s familiar question but with a terrifying emotion that we felt nervous to admit: joy. We both felt much unease and reluctance as we shared that life was simply going well. It felt too good to be true.
As we proceeded to defend our current joyful state by prefacing that maybe there was more we weren’t seeing or perhaps doom was sure to follow, our therapist gently asked us, “Have you ever heard of ‘foreboding joy’?”
Sounds paradoxical, right? How can an emotion that we all desire to feel in life be led with such an ominous word as foreboding before it?
Research professor Brene Brown explores the phenomenon of foreboding joy in her book Daring Greatly. She says that Foreboding Joy is “when something good happens, our immediate thought is that we’d better not let ourselves truly feel it, because if we really love something we could lose it. So we shut down our ability to completely enjoy so that we can also shut down our capacity for feeling loss.”
We created a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from the unforeseeable. I became conditioned to prepare myself for bad news as soon as good news came my way. I would not allow myself to fully experience joy without also preparing myself for loss.
But by taking this preventative approach, what I was really doing was robbing myself from truly experiencing joy.
Maybe the same is true for you too. When good news comes your way, is your initial reaction to begin talking yourself down?
Brown says that joy is perhaps the most vulnerable of emotions. Joy requires us to be fully present. But are we too focused on preparing for what may come next that we do not allow ourselves to let joy truly sink in now?
It makes sense that we would participate in this self-sabotaging behavior. As humans, we are built to avoid risk and lean toward safety. Allowing ourselves to experience joy takes risk. We do not know how long it will last and we do not know what comes next. But when it comes, trust that you are allowed to have it. Foreboding joy doesn’t have to win.
We cannot be fully present if we are focusing all our thoughts on what has the potential to rob us of our joy. We have to create a new pattern in our brains that helps us focus on the good and push against the powerful force of negativity.
Here are three ways to push against foreboding joy:
• Name your feelings. Talking about feelings is like strengthening a muscle. The longer you go not conditioning, the weaker that muscle will become. In order to become aware of when foreboding joy is creeping in, we have to be able to identify and name the emotions that are causing it.
• Let go of control. Control is rooted in fear. Ask yourself what you’re afraid will happen if you lose control. The majority of the time, what we’re afraid of is out of our control. It’s important to remember that the only person you can control is yourself. Outside of that, take the pressure off yourself and surrender to the process.
• Notice and celebrate the good things. Practicing gratitude is one of the best techniques for combating negative thought processes. A daily practice has been shown to rewire your brain to be more naturally grateful over time. Consider starting each day by jotting down three things you’re thankful for. This doesn’t have to be elaborate either; there’s nothing too small for you to be thankful for.
Joy will not always look perfect. There will still be difficulties and struggles throughout our lives. However, joy can exist even in the midst of hardships. We just have to be willing to recognize it.
Take today to appreciate the full spectrum of your emotions. Be honest with yourself when you are hurt, sad, anxious, excited, hopeful, and so forth. The first step toward progress is by taking an honest inventory of your emotions. But in the midst of that honesty, it’s okay to take a deep breath and be grateful too. Allow yourself to soften into the joyful moments. Joy exists all around us.
Annalee is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in central Florida. She holds a bachelor of science in journalism/public relations and a master’s in business administration, and currently works as a managing editor for two city magazines. In December 2012, she married her husband Michael who serves as the Stewardship Pastor at Grace City Church, a Hillsong Family Church in Lakeland, FL. When she’s not writing or teaching a barre/Pilates/yoga class, she’s usually running with her husband, conquering her Goodreads yearly reading goal, watching a 90s rom-com, or hanging with her dog, Finn, on the porch of their historic bungalow.