Fearing Joy and Dress-Rehearsing Tragedy
I’ve written other posts about happiness – mainly dealing with the idea that I wasn’t sure I deserved it. After all, happiness isn’t owed to any of us. The older I get the more I realize that happiness many times requires a conscious effort on our part.
But it never occurred to me that happiness and joy were something to be feared. I mean, really? Isn’t that what we all want? What is there about joy to be scared of?
Well…it turns out…a lot.
I was listening to Oprah’s interview with Brené Brown on SuperSoul Sunday when she talked about how joy is the most terrifying feeling we could possibly have.
I used to stand over my two kids while they slept, and just as a profound sense of love and joy washed over me, I'd imagine horrible things happening to them: car crashes, tsunamis. "Do other mothers do this," I'd wonder, "or am I unhinged?" I now know from my research that 95 percent of parents can relate to my constant disaster planning. When we're overwhelmed by love, we feel vulnerable—so we dress-rehearse tragedy. I sat in my car completely stunned. That was me. Time spent with my parents has always been clouded in my mind with, “What if I lose one of them?” A new client acquired is immediately followed by, “But what if I mess up?” or “What if ALL of my clients suddenly abandon me at once and I have no income?”
Don’t even get me started about the fear I feel surrounding my kids, who are happy, healthy, and do their own laundry.
I’ve been “dress-rehearsing tragedy” my entire life.
Of course, this would be a lot less complicated if I’d never actually experienced tragedy. One might say that I’m justified in worrying about that mythical shoe dropping because it actually has before. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, there were times during my marriage when I fearfully thought, “What if something should happen to him?”
And then it did.
Here’s the problem. All of that worrying about what I would do, how I would feel, should something happen to my husband didn’t actually help or prepare me for when it really happened. I mean, it’s not like I left the hospital thinking, “Thank GOD I spent all that time worrying about this moment. It’s really going to cut back on my grieving time!”
The only thing all of that worrying did was take me out of moments that I should have been fully feeling. I should have been enjoying holding his hand as we took our kids for a walk instead of worrying about losing him. I should have loved creating a home with him rather than spending time worrying about what I would do if he died. I even should have stayed in the moment when he told me he’d never liked my chicken parmesan, rather than thinking, “REALLY? Then why don’t you just go?”
Okay, that last point was reaching a little. And I do make a good chicken parmesan, no matter what he said.
Loss and Joy
I think people who have experienced loss either really get this or they really don’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from other widows about how they’ve possibly found a new love but are fearful of really investing in the relationship because they’re terrified of losing that person.
I get it. When you’ve been brought to your knees by grief it’s hard to imagine risking your sanity again. It’s hard not to be scared, therefore, it’s hard to experience true moments of joy without fear. And we can’t help but visit that place in our minds sometimes – that’s a very real thing.
It’s just no place to live.
Okay. So now what?
Brené Brown’s recommendation is this:
The next time you're traumatized by "What ifs," say aloud, "I am feeling vulnerable." This sentence changed my life. It takes me out of my fear brain—i.e., off the crazy train—and puts me back on the platform, where I can make a conscious choice not to reboard.
She also recommends finding a moment of gratitude in the midst of your panic. And that’s a good suggestion. Who am I to question a PhD who lands on an Oprah show?
But here’s my thought: As with so many things, I’ve realized that the root of my issues comes from not being in the moment. Fear, in many cases, is thinking about what might happen which means that I’m living in a future I can’t predict anyway. Recognizing that I’m having a moment of fearful joy means that I need to stop, shift gears, and completely focus on what’s happening right now.
After all, I now know that being fearful in a moment of joy doesn’t buy you any more time or peace of mind than just being present and enjoying it.
It just robs you of the moment.