Try to remember a time when you experienced pure uninhibited joy. Uncontrollable laughter, not caring who’s watching, giddy with excitement joy. Dig deep. In this memory, are you a child? In this memory, are you an adult, but doing something childlike? I will tell you about a specific memory I have in a moment, but first I want to talk about something I find entirely fascinating, which is: fearing joy.
I ask if your memory is of childhood, or of you doing something childlike, because most children don’t have the same apprehensions as adults. When we are children we don’t worry about much and are more likely to experience life without fear. So, children experience the feeling of joy more freely than adults. Don’t worry, adults can feel joy too. In life, we grow up, and we see things along the way that make us fearful and cautious. The brain is immaculate and fascinating, and it does what it does to protect us, help us learn, and help us grow, but let’s be honest, it can also be frustrating (anxiety, fear, depression, SHAME, I’m looking at you). I first heard of this idea of fearing joy while listening to The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. Brené Brown is a research professor in The Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston. I highly recommend checking out her work. You can do that -here-. She studies shame, fear, and vulnerability. (Basically, all the topics I love so she has quickly become my obsession.) So much of what she says is amazing, but what I especially love is her concept of joy being “foreboding.” Joy can be another space of vulnerability because it can be taken away so easily. As we experience life’s obstacles, our brain begins to fear joy. Throughout time, our cautious brain enters us into a state of constant disappointment where it thinks it’s protecting us from heartbreak. This is great, however, our brain is also putting us in the same pain it is trying to protect us from: unhappiness. Nothing like some good counterproductive cranial activity, am I right?
Somewhere along our journey to adulthood our brain has learned, from our experiences, to shelter us from emotional pain. In some cases, this includes stopping us from experiencing the joy we so desperately crave. To simplify, our brain is an overprotective parent. Let me live my life, Mom!
My mission is to break down these barriers inside my mind (and hopefully to get you to think about breaking down yours) and learn not to be afraid of things like failure, shame, and let-down, (and while we’re at it, VULNERABILITY) because there is joy in this life too, and we should go after it head first. Of course, not everyone is afraid of joy, but I bet if you went into the caverns of your mind, you would be able to think of at least one example of when you didn’t let yourself be happy. Maybe that moment when you didn’t do something because you, “know how this story ends.” Fear of commitment ring anyone’s bell? Moving on.
I was in my early twenties when my twelve-year-old sister passed away. She had an autoimmune disease that I truly thought she would overcome. Up until the moment when she took her last breath, I wholeheartedly believed that a miracle would happen. I sincerely believed, until that last breath, that she would wake up and come home. Her death devastated me. It broke everything inside of me and for months afterwards I was in a deep dark place. In those months I began to believe that I would never smile again. It sounds so dramatic thinking about it now, but I truly thought that my happiness was gone and should be gone, because how could I possibly be happy without my baby sister? What is the point of having joy when it can be so easily ripped away? In my jaded mind, I believed, that I could win this game of emotions by thinking, “if there is no joy, then there is no joy to take.” I never wanted to feel that let down again. Thus, began my life, living in a constant state of disappointment.
Joy became foreboding to me. I was apprehensive to feel happy emotions because I didn’t want to feel those moments of happiness leave me. If I felt even the tiniest bit of joy, I shook it away because 1. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be happy and 2. I knew that in the simplest of seconds I could lose everything and feel that awful feeling of having all my happiness disappear again. Somehow, I believed that by not being happy or joyous, I could protect myself from the feelings of distress. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and pain will still happen, even when we think we can avoid it. The great thing is, once we become aware of what we are doing, we can begin to change. Slowly, but surely, we can begin to allow joy back into our lives.
We experience appreciation all the time. It doesn’t have to be a tragedy that makes us feel like something bad will happen if we let our guard down, or in this case, the feeling like when we experience happiness, we will become vulnerable to defeat. Life is littered with disappointments. Maybe you were so excited thinking you were going to get a promotion, but in the end, it went to someone else, and the next time you are up for a promotion you don’t get excited because you “know where that got you last time.” Welcome to the constant state of disappointment. Maybe you were on top of the world when you got accepted into your dream college only to realize that you can’t afford it. You don’t apply to any other colleges because you’ve “been there done that,” and you can’t stand the thought of being let-down again. Maybe you spent all day looking forward to the most perfect lasagna only to pull that beauty out of the oven just to drop in on the floor. Now you say you are never making lasagna again because, “the universe is against you.” MAYBE you are a minority in a room full of people that don’t look like you and for the one millionth time, your voice isn’t heard. Does that stop you from speaking? Does that make you feel small? ALL these things can make you feel like joy is fictional and life is full of let-downs. Yes, life IS full of let-downs, we all know this, but also, joy is real, and we don’t have to stop experiencing it. The bad things will inevitably happen, life will kick you in the face, but joy should not be foreboding. Joy, and the pursuit of joy, should be our greatest pleasure.
A snowy night about a year after my sister’s passing, my friend invited me over to do what girls do, and we decided to go outside and have a snowball fight. I was running around and playing in the snow. I was laughing so hard that tears were freezing around my eyes. I was 21 years old, but I was playing, having fun, and experiencing joy. I hadn’t experienced this amount of joy in months. I wasn’t thinking about anything other than the moment I was in. This moment where I was running through the snow, throwing snow at my friend’s face. In that moment, I looked at my friend and I said with the glee of a six-year-old, “this is so much fun, thanks for inviting me.”
My friend and I still laugh about this today because that moment was so unexpected for her. I think in her mind we were just friends hanging out, passing the time, doing something childish and fun on a Friday night. To me though, it was something more. It was an escape from my miserable reality. It was pure and innocent fun that wouldn’t leave me feeling awful the next day. My world was still turned upside down but, in that moment, I felt a glimmer of the joy I had been missing. I felt a level of happiness that I once believed was gone inside me forever. That moment was everything to me and I keep that moment inside my mind as an example of the joy I am capable of. When I am having a tough time, I remember that moment and calibrate. I am capable of more joy than I let myself believe. You are capable of more joy than you let yourself believe.
It’s still a challenge for me to allow myself to experience joy. Even though I have moved past the initial pain of losing my sister, I look at all the injustice in this world and I think, “how can I be happy when all this is going on around me?” Also, it’s difficult for me to feel joy when I know that many others are experiencing heartbreak, depression, feeling like they are not enough, or worse. Is it fair to experience happiness when so many people are not? Yes.
Let me tell you what I always tell my mother when she is being unreasonable, “you are no help to anyone if you are dead.” TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. It is impossible for us to do any good in this world if we are not taking care of ourselves first. We can’t give if we have nothing to give and that is why self-care is so important for us all. Life is full of heartbreaks and injustice, and stories that will break our hearts, but this life is also full of joy if you let it in. I want to be able to experience those moments of joy without apprehension, uninhibited by fear and self-loathing. I want to run around like a child and laugh, because that is pure joy and having joy in your life is an amazing balance to all the pain this world gives us. We deserve to experience joy. You deserve to experience joy.