Joy: The Terror

Yesterday I was lucky enough to witness a young father with his two little kiddos, a girl who looked five and a boy about three. They were headed to the library walking through the parking lot. The kids both had hold of Dad’s hands and all the sudden the little girl started to skip. Her joyful skipping made me immediately smile. 

My first thought was, “Why do we stop holding each other’s hands when we walk across busy traffic areas?” My second, more lasting thought was, “What happens to joy?” I thought about so many of my clients as well as people in my personal community who struggle to find, cultivate, and embrace joy. I often observe how challenging it can be for people to be joyful, especially enjoy lasting joy.  

What I have witnessed in people’s stories is how somewhere along the line, people hit deep disappointment, loss, and sadness that challenged the joy they were experiencing. Perhaps the loss was so devastating they never wanted to feel that horribly again and so they learned to protect themselves from pain by avoiding pleasure.

Brene Brown, author and researcher, explains how joy may be the most terrifying emotion and this concept can be difficult to understand. As she describes joy in the attached segment, she gives examples of being in joy and simultaneously being flooded with fear. This is a common occurrence. Our internal voice or inner critic will yell loudly or sometimes whisper, “This isn’t going to last,” “You can’t count on this,” “You are fooling yourself,” or perhaps, “You are a fool to believe that you deserve this.” This is a protective ability we engage in order to predict the end of joy and also try to prevent being disappointed, sad, and vulnerable. As Brown says, “We are trying to dress rehearse tragedy, so we can beat vulnerability to the punch.” 

Brown explains that in those moments of fear, joy becomes foreboding. This is the same protective mechanism I was referencing earlier. Holding on to or leaning into joy is joined with the fear of joy being taken away. So what do we do in those moments of fear? We must move into gratitude.

In her research, Brown found that people who are able to live in a place of lasting joy, practice gratitude regularly. Turns outs gratitude works most efficiently when it is practiced regularly. When we daily, and throughout the day, search for things to be grateful for, our life will feel more full. A great way to honor this practice is to start a gratitude journal. Create a ritual around writing down the events, people, experiences, and places in which you are grateful. Try a gratitude journal for a month and monitor your experience. I’d be willing to wager that you will be on the road to allowing more joy into your life.