You know this feeling, it comes with all the old stories that go something like “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is…”
But what if you stopped challenging your own happiness and let yourself actually feel it? Believe it or not, that “feeling it” can be one of the scariest things to do.
When fears about the worst case scenario cloud the sweetest mundane moments
It’s rare that I get to spend time with my parents without the kids around, but we recently spent a special afternoon together, just the three of us. My parents recently have been through a lot: surgeries, falls, cancer. But, about a year after all that, they are doing well and are pretty healthy overall.
As I visited, I found myself laughing and enjoying my time with them, but at the same time, I felt the nagging worry: “what would happen if…?”
What if they fell? What if cancer comes back? What if something bad happens and I’m not right here to help?
The good news is that this was a nice, uneventful visit when we simply got to enjoy each other. There was no reason to talk about the worst case scenarios because it was enough to simply be content in one another’s company.
And then, not two days later, my mother-in-law experienced some health issues that put her in the ICU for a week.
Boom. There it is. It was like my “I knew things were going too well” thoughts were being satisfied. Fortunately, by the time I’m writing this, she’s on the other side of the crisis and doing much better.
But it just goes to show, right? Life is uncertain and unpredictable and all we can expect is the unexpected. In light of this, how can we ever feel comfortable in those sweet mundane moments?
There’s a name for this feeling: foreboding joy
If you ever feel a sense of dread when everything seems “too good,” you’re not alone. I’m more familiar with these tingles of fear than I’d like to admit. I know I’m especially prone to sudden pangs of worry when I watch my children happily head off to school. I’m lit up by their smiles, but I also fear for safety or start to stress about what would I do if something ever happened to them.
The fear that the good times can’t last and that something bad is bound to happen? Yep, that’s foreboding joy.
Why do we feel like we must protect ourselves from joy?
I have been talking to my clients a lot about this feeling lately because it really is universal. It seems like humans are programmed to feel like any happy or joyful moment will have to end, quickly and badly.
This painful little phenomenon is so widespread that renowned researcher Brene Brown has made it an important part of her work. As I talked about in my recent post on bravery, I am immersed in all things Brene Brown as I work on my Daring Way™ certification, and she helps us understand foreboding joy as a kind of an “armoring up.” We protect ourselves from disappointment, and, in doing so, we also keep ourselves from feeling too happy or joyful.
So, while keeping our emotions in check in this way does make us feel safer, it also keeps us from rising and from feeling the real joy. It can keep us from living fully, taking risks, and thriving. Fear and worry end up in the driver’s seat and they get to dictate how we experience both the wonderful and the difficult parts of life.
You don’t want fear to take over your life, but sometimes you can’t see any other way. I get it. It can give you vertigo when you think of all the things that are out of your control. I can buckle my kids in safely and my husband and I can utter the daily “drive safely” to each other on our way out the door, but there are no guarantees.
The only guarantee is that if we live in that place of fear it can consume us.
What do you do about “foreboding joy” in the season of joy?
During the holiday season, we hear the word “joy” everywhere. We see it on cards and decorations, commercials for the latest toy. It’s a feeling that we all aspire to, and yet, it’s completely elusive for many of us.
Joy seems this elusive because of the discrepancy between what our expectations and wishes are during the holiday season and what the reality actually looks like.
A friend of mine who lost her mother describes comparing this year’s Christmas to years past. She says “No Christmas feels as sweet as it used to without my mom around. When I do catch myself feeling the joy that is ‘supposed’ to be part of the holiday, I start to worry about whether someone might be missing next year.”
The holiday season brings with it so many chances to revisit grief and anxiety and other unresolved emotions. If you start to really let those feelings take over you’re likely to doubt the truth of the good feelings you might also be having.
The thing is, protecting ourselves from the joy, keeping the magic at arms length, doesn’t help or keep the pain away. It only keeps the joy away because, again, you can’t control the unexpected twists and turns. No amount of worrying that your loved ones will stay healthy is going to keep them that way. The one thing worry guarantees is that you’ll enjoy the time you do have with them a lot less.
Good news: there’s an antidote to foreboding joy during this or any time of the year
So what can we do with the very difficult and very real feelings of foreboding joy?
In a recent post I took a deep dive into the life-enhancing practice of gratitude and offered a few ways to create your own gratitude practice.
If you are able to meet your sense of foreboding joy with the practice of gratitude you can stay
grounded in the positive feelings and really feel them.
And so, if you find yourself looking at your family’s faces glow in the candlelight or the strings of light on the tree this year and you feel a little spasm of “what will happen when we don’t get to do this?” just pause for a moment. Understand that you’re protecting yourself from your biggest fears and, in doing so, you’re also taking yourself out of the perfect little moment in front of you.
Take a deep breath, say thanks for what you have, and give yourself back to the joy that wants to fold itself around you. Taking time, even a few minutes to practice gratitude allows you to open the door to joy.
If you find that you’re struggling with anxiety during the holidays or at any time, I’m here to help. Please call Be well Counseling to schedule an appointment.