Foreboding Joy

The word “joy” has come up increasingly in the last several years. We have the tidying up movement talking about items that spark joy, we have positivity and religious movements talking about choosing joy, and somewhere in between it seems to have become a buzzword. We talk about chasing it, choosing it, finding it, sparking it, and more, because let’s face it, it sounds nice. It sounds a lot less pretty to talk about the mess that comes along with it.

As researcher BrenĂ© Brown puts it, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” We might not think about it that way when we see it on a cute T-shirt, but the statement rings true. Acknowledging that we are feeling joy means making ourselves vulnerable, because it means that we might lose it. Instead of soaking up the brief moments when life is going well and we are genuinely happy, we immediately begin preparing for the next attack, rehearsing it in our minds in an attempt to make ourselves more ready. Brown calls this sensation “foreboding joy,” because we are simultaneously experiencing both emotions, predicting all the things that can go wrong and feeling blissfully happy. It’s a sort of mental game we play to try to protect ourselves, but it doesn’t actually make the bad things that happen in life easier. It just means the moments in life that are full of joy are also full of fear.

It isn’t always a conscious choice, or even necessarily one we notice. It’s the little whisper in the back of our minds that says “isn’t this great… what if something happens to ruin it though? Are we ready? We better not get too attached, because this feeling is going to go away.” It’s the tiny but mighty irrational fears that threaten to overtake the best moments with fears of the worst.

I would love to write about the magical answer to stop foreboding joy in its tracks, but I don’t have it. If you figure it out, let me know. Brown outlines some helpful practices in her books and her interview for Oprah’s network, but it’s far from a fast fix. Especially if someone is raised to believe that the world is a scary, dangerous place, it’s a hard habit to break. Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just stay away from the emotional highs of life to avoid the inevitable fall, but that would make a pretty boring, monotonous life.

There are plenty of people out there who, without labelling it as such and possibly without even knowing it, advocate for living a life foreboding. They spend nearly every moment preparing for the next disaster, whether that looks like an apocalypse, a recession, or an unfaithful partner. In addition, they want you to live the same way, not because they want to prevent your joy but because they want to protect you from the pain of loss. You may find yourself doing this to your loved ones, trying to keep them from getting hurt by not letting them get caught up in the moment. I know I have, more times than I would care to admit.

The problem is, foreboding joy doesn’t keep the bad things from happening. It doesn’t make painful life events not hurt. It just means that we miss out on the beauty of better days, better hours, better moments. Constantly fearing high-pain days won’t keep them from happening, it will just prevent making the most of low-pain days. Worrying that loved ones may become ill will not keep them healthy, but it will prevent enjoying good health when it is present. Living life in fear of things going wrong doesn’t keep them from going wrong, it just keeps us trapped in fear when things are actually going right.

For one, I’m tired of living in fear. Shit will hit the fan, people will leave me and I’ll have to leave them, career paths may change, my symptoms could all but disappear or become unbearable in the next 5 minutes, but none of those things will be prevented by fearing their potential appearance. So right now, I’m enjoying my pup’s zest for life, the smell of potato leek soup filling my home, and the start of a new book, without fear or apology. This is a moment of joy, and I am embracing the vulnerability that brings.

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