When something wonderful happens, do thoughts about what
could go wrong start racing through your mind?
“Foreboding joy” is a term used by Brene Brown in her book The Power of Vulnerability. In a nutshell, foreboding joy is “dress rehearsal for tragedy.” It’s preparing for the worst even when things are at their best. Things can’t stay good forever, so instead of getting your hopes too high you might as well desensitize yourself to disaster. Better to have your expectations met than be disappointed, eh?
According to Brown, “joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” When we allow ourselves to feel joy, we put ourselves in grave danger. We are out in the open, susceptible to all of the elements the world may throw our way.
The Fear of Showing Joy
I don't fear losing the joyful-circumstances or the joy itself, thought I am reluctant to expose that joy to others. I fear that other people don’t feel the same, and they will think I’m weird, ridicule me, or shoo me away.
My fear doesn't sound quite the same as Brown's definition of foreboding joy, but the essence is the same: joy is associated with being vulnerable.
Sometimes I feel I need a good darn excuse to reach out to others, such as an altered state of consciousness of some sort-- like a runner’s high! I am undoubtedly joined by thousands in this sentiment: just think of all the “social drinkers” out there, who like to use alcohol to “loosen their tongues” and relax at a party—or as an aid to their sex lives.
However, for me such an altered state is usually insufficient to connecting as I’d like to. This is basically why I don’t use drugs: I foresee that they will serve as a form of armor, rather than a means of removing armor. I don’t want to have the excuse of, “Hehe, I’m on drugs so I can do whatever I want! Oopsie!” If I’m going to stretch beyond my comfort zone I want to do so fully resolute and conscious. I don’t need to use some plant or tablet as a crutch.
A runner's high tends to lower inhibitions and instill some degree of humility in me. Interestingly, I started writing this before Cross Country practice, then during practice I did indeed end up with a high. Perhaps I planted a suggestion in my mind.
It was the painful sort of runner's high, however, which comes from immense suffering during a run. Basically I feel so bad that it’s funny, and I act like a smiling madwoman. I do not run very fast at all when I feel like this.
I really did bring it upon myself, however. With five 400 meter repeats (400 meters = 1 lap on the track = 0.25 miles) to go, I wanted it to happen. I'm certain this one was totally self-produced: I basically thought my way into it. So strange that I would deliberately produce a loss of control, eh?
Of course, I am far from being the only person who does this. Don’t we often do this to ourselves? Don’t we so often wish to abdicate our control to some outside force, so that we can just sleep through life without any trouble? Even if we say we want otherwise?
It is sad how I sometimes think that I must lose control and be an idiot to act as I want to socially. Sometimes I think, Maybe I should get drunk just once… Maybe that will be the door-opener. How many teenagers do you think have shared that thought process?
Honestly, I don’t think drugs would be the social-magic I occasionally hope they would. I imagine I might be even more afraid thereafter, though I can’t provide a rational basis for that. Plus, I think of how many countless teenagers started drinking for likely-similar reasons and are now trapped in fruitless cycle of frustration, disillusionment, and depression, and are ruled by low self-awareness and consequent confusion.
No, I’m unlikely to go down that path. I can’t say I’ve ever really wanted to anyway.
Fear and Joy
At the heart of foreboding joy is the belief that joy is dangerous and can ultimately cause you harm somehow, whether it is social rejection or the emotional pain of disappointment and coming down from the high.
But joy is by no means the same as some drug-induced or even an exercise-induced high. Certainly you can feel joyful when on a run, but the endorphins aren’t the only factor. Joy is the full reception and acceptance of everything around you right now. In other words, to be joyful is to be present.
Yes, there is wiggle room here. You can be joyful while considering the future or just from thinking. You can have some breaks in your present-focus. You don’t have to be at a crazy party or a Superbowl champion. You can feel joy pretty much anytime, while doing pretty much anything.
Consider even that joy is our natural state, and we merely have blocks to it. Common blocks include the beliefs that joy is dangerous and disaster is inevitable.
The biggest block is the king of all fears, and perhaps the only true fear: the fear of being afraid. This fear is crippling and paralyzing. I might be perfectly fine right now, but, oh god-- how will I be five minutes from now? Or even 10 years from now? I might be suffering! The walls might be melting off the framework, man! What the heck am I gonna do?!
Well… If you’re fine right now, then I’d tell ya to just keep being fine right now. Yeah, you probably are going to run into at least a few rough spots in your life, and maybe one is coming up in a few minutes. But chances are that when you’re there it won’t be quite as bad as you fear it will be. You’ll still be the same old self in that moment, won’t you? If your Self is fine right now in this moment, why can’t it be in the future, too—even if your experience is different?
“This moment” is the only one you’re ever in anyway. It is futile to fear some future moment because, even though your fear is future-focused, it exists in the present. The only place your fear is going to is right now.
Can you see how this fits into foreboding joy? When we resist joy we are future-focused, emphasizing all that might go wrong. We fall to our knees in fear of forces beyond our control and beg for mercy. We believe they control us, and mandate how we must feel.
We are thinking about all the terrible things that might happen, somewhere far off in time. Somehow what’s happening right now seems of lesser importance, even though it’s actually here. It’s as though the abstract thoughts in our minds are more concrete to us than all the stuff “out there” that we take in through the senses.
Of course, this would make sense. Our thoughts make up our realities, and your reality can only be filled with joy if you allow for it to. And that’s even if you did just win the Superbowl.
Joy has a direct relationship to growth. Being joyful indicates that we are growing, and it allows us to be our best. When I am joyful and I am not resistant to that joy, my social skills are at their sharpest, and my running is at its speediest. I become a cleaner version of myself, though not cleaned up in the sense of striving to have some polished public image. It’s not that it all. Rather, the joyful state creates more of a natural awesomeness.
How do we get to a state of joy? Joy occurs when we are pursuing growth. This pursuit does not have to be a spectacular feat. You don't have to appear impressive at all.
In fact, you could go so far as to say that some of life’s most joyful moments are the simplest. It may sound like a stretch, but I’ve experienced far more joy having fun with my friends and realizing how wonderful they are than I ever did winning any race. The growth there lies in my being vulnerable to others by expressing my love and gratitude. They weren’t doing anything stage-worthy: in fact, in those instances the other people are usually being vulnerable (i.e. by expressing deeper emotion) too.
I’ve had far more growth-packed 2nd+ place finishes than wins. Taking first easily was never as gratifying for me as putting all my heart and soul on the line against a worthy opponent—and losing, of course. When you Google search my name you see images of me with such people (I approve of this). Nowadays I experience more joy on long runs than in short races. Coincidentally, I learn and grow more from the long haul, too.
My Cross Country team won the National Championship meet this year. I was happier to help my friend get up off the ground, hug her, and tell her I love her than I was to hear that we won. In Indoor Track last year my speediest of friends raced the 3000 meter run for the first time, and I was more exhilarated to watch her do well than I could have been to hit that time myself (I know because I’ve done it). It was the first time I truly felt happy for another person’s success. The experience amazed me.
Of course, it can be even simpler than this. You might feel joy just from stopping to think of all the wonderful things in your life and feeling appreciation for them.
Exercising your capacity for gratitude is a form of growth. To be grateful is to consciously notice something and feel joyful about it. When you are grateful, you are cognizant of what is important to you. Gratitude enables you to go through life more consciously.
Simple Joy, the Joy of Life
Live consciously and in the pursuit of growth, and live right now-- not some days or years from now. Plan for the future, but don’t preoccupy yourself with all the things that might go wrong in that future. Typically the events we fear for either never happen, or they not nearly as terrible as we dreamed (nightmared?).
We are here to grow, and when we do so we move ever-closer to our natural state of being. Joy will elude you only if you elude life. When you live a real life, you can be nothing but joyful.