Foreboding joy is defined as a dress rehearsal for a tragedy. It is the “Holy crap!” moment that you experience when you realize that work is going well, your parents are doing okay, your children are happy, and you have a good relationship with your partner. Often the following thought is, “Something bad is going to happen”. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown says, “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding”. In this moment, you may think that “I am not going to allow myself to enjoy my happiness, because I am scared. I am scared that it’s going to be taken away”. Therefore, experiencing joy or happiness can make you feel vulnerable, and these emotions can be terrifying. This is not a self-sabotaging behavior where you actively engage in actions that interferes your daily or life goals. In foreboding joy, there is a subconscious emotion behind joy, which is fear or anxiety, and often is a little bit of both.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about how among all emotions, including shame, guilt, and frustration; joy is the most terrifying emotion. If you are a parent, it’s likely that you stood over your child while he or she was sleeping, and thought, “I love you, and I didn’t know it was possible” and then in that split second, pictured yourself that something horrific happening to your child, “What if something would happen to you?” If you are experiencing foreboding joy, you may feel like throughout your whole life, you never got too excited or too joyful about anything. While this may signify any underlying mental health condition like depression, it is often because you focused on staying right in the middle of hopefulness-hopelessness scale to protect yourself. This way, if things didn’t work out for you, you wouldn’t be devastated; and if they did work out, it was a pleasant surprise.
What Do Joyful People Do?
Now you are aware that feeling joy and happiness can be terrifying emotions. If you are feeling in this way, starting to routinely practice smaller doses of gratitude can help you to cultivate joy. When joyful people look at their children, they may also experience fear or anxiety, but they don’t say, “There is this fear about joy, so I am going to dress for tragedy”. What they say instead is, “Yes, I am scared and I’m going to practice gratitude”. You may want to achieve great things in life and strive for excellence. When you achieve your goal, or accomplish something, before focusing on “What’s next?”, I suggest you slow down. Enjoy the moment of achievement and accomplishment. Try to give yourself credit for your accomplishments. Healthy striving tells you to celebrate, honor and practice gratitude. Make a habit of writing 3 things down that you are grateful for at the end of each day and keep a gratitude journal.
I want to share some of the common concerns that may be preventing you from sharing “the positives” in your life with others:
I’d like to share the positives in my life with my sister, but she has too much going on in her life. I don’t want to rub my happiness in her face.
Happiness is only real when it is shared. This is a memorable quote from the movie and the book Into the Wild. If there is a positive sentiment override in your relationship with your sister, your sister is not going to search for a malicious intention in what you have just shared. When you share your happiness, she is not going to think that “She is rubbing her happiness in my face”. She’ll be genuinely happy for you, and while she is struggling in her own life, hearing good news from you will brighten her day as well. Keep in mind that happiness is one of the most contagious emotions! However, if there is a negative sentiment override in a relationship, your sister won’t give you the benefit of doubt. In this case, she may think that you are being malicious or inconsiderate, and you are trying to rub your happiness in her face as if you don’t know what she has been going through. But keep in mind that, she is not reacting in this way because you shared your happiness. This is not about you! She is acting in this way because there is a negative sentiment override in the relationship, and it is about the relationship dynamics itself.
Being confident about my happiness is a strange feeling. It makes me feel vulnerable like “What if my happiness won’t last”, so what is the point of sharing my happiness with my loved ones?
In addition to experiencing foreboding joy, one of the other reasons is that you may be coming from a culture of humility. It may be easier for you to be aware of your weaknesses rather than strengths. Your cultural upbringing probably taught you that even though you are a confident person, choose humility over confidence instead. When this is the case, it is easier to share “the negatives” of your life with others, rather than “the positives”.
In the past, things were going great, and I was happy. I feel like whenever I was truly happy, something bad happened. Now I am scared to feel happy.
This thought process is understandable because what you may be experiencing is “learned hopelessness”. A few things to keep in mind may be extremely helpful:
- Correlation does not mean causation: “I just bought a house and on the same day my friend died”. This is a horrific coincidence, but the fact that you bought a house didn’t cause your friend’s death. It is a horrible correlation that two things are happening at the same time, but one is not leading up to another.
- Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people: You deserve to be happy. Universe is not punishing you for being happy. Universe is not against you. Keep in mind that bad things can happen to amazing people.
- Try to see the universality in your emotional pain: When you tell yourself, “I don’t understand why this is happening TO ME”, you will feel isolated and lonely in your experience with pain. More helpful statement can be, “I am having difficulty understanding why this is happening.”.
If you are experiencing foreboding joy or struggling to practice gratitude, please contact me.