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May 27, 2024

Stop with the Foreboding Joy.

The world often feels like it’s teetering on the edge of chaos, and finding moments of genuine joy can be both a blessing and a burden. We’re conditioned to believe that happiness should come with a caveat, a whispered warning that reminds us of past pain or the suffering of others. This phenomenon, beautifully articulated by research professor Brene Brown, is what she terms “foreboding joy.” It’s the fear that accompanies moments of happiness, the nagging sense that something bad is just around the corner, waiting to snatch away our newfound bliss. Here, we explore how to access joy authentically without the fear.

Many reasons exist that makes joy feel inaccessible. Sometimes, especially as women of color, we have simply had it rough for so long that it feels impossible that rest and happiness could be ours, even for a moment of time. Women of color are often the providers in their families from young ages, providing monetary and nurturing value. We are used to being taken for granted–never getting the promotion, the big break, the recognition. Simple pleasures are how we get through life. We might find a smile in a cheap bottle of wine, a cigarette, or our favorite candy bar. After a while, we scarcely we believe we deserve anything better. Which makes it all the more shocking when something better comes. We begin attending therapy and bettering ourselves, but do we really believe the better day is coming? When the joy comes, when we wake up without the worry and unhealthy habits, we might feel uncomfortable, and the cold prickle of foreboding joy on our necks.

Brown describes foreboding joy as “the paradoxical dread that clamps down on momentary joy.” It’s that voice in our heads that says, “Don’t get too comfortable,” or “This can’t last.” It’s the protective mechanism our minds employ to shield us from disappointment or hurt. But in doing so, it robs us of the full experience of joy. How often have you found yourself hesitating to fully embrace a happy moment, afraid that acknowledging it might somehow invite disaster? How many times have you caught yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, unable to revel in the beauty of the present for fear of what tomorrow might bring? If you’re anything like me, the answer is probably too many times to count. But here’s the thing about foreboding joy: it’s a thief disguised as a protector. In our efforts to shield ourselves from pain, we inadvertently sabotage our own happiness. We become so preoccupied with what might go wrong that we forget to savor what’s going right. And in doing so, we allow our fears to dictate the terms of our joy.

Of course, the phrase “this too shall pass”, rings honest and true. What if we give into joy and it gets taken away anyway? The truth is that tomorrow is never promised. What we do know is that change is inevitable. The moment we get comfortable is the moment that the rug gets pulled out from under us. However, this is the beauty of the human experience. We are constantly growing and evolving. We want to stay away from false optimism, as being a human is tough. So how do we break free from the grip of foreboding joy and learn to embrace happiness without reservation? How do we reclaim our right to experience joy in its purest form, untainted by fear or apprehension? The answer lies in cultivating gratitude and practicing vulnerability.

Joyful black woman with curly hair.

Gratitude and Vulnerability

Brene Brown, in her groundbreaking research on shame, vulnerability, and courage, emphasizes the transformative power of gratitude. She writes, “I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.” Gratitude is the antidote to foreboding joy. It’s the practice of acknowledging the goodness in our lives, no matter how small, and allowing ourselves to fully appreciate it. Research continues to show the benefits of gratitude. Perhaps it is because a thankful heart allows us to focus on the positive without being falsely optimistic. We think of the real things in our life that we can be grateful for. Even on miserable days, small moments of gratitude can lighten the mood to make hard situations feel more manageable. On joyful days, gratitude pushes us to be fully present, sinking into the beauty of the moment.

But gratitude alone is not enough. We must also learn to embrace vulnerability – to allow ourselves to be seen, to love with our whole hearts, and to fully engage with the world around us. As Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves up to the full spectrum of human experience – the highs and the lows, the joy and the sorrow. We acknowledge that life is inherently uncertain, but that it is also brimming with beauty and possibility. And in doing so, we liberate ourselves from the constraints of foreboding joy. But embracing vulnerability requires courage – the courage to show up, to be seen, and to love with our whole hearts, knowing that we may get hurt in the process. It’s a willingness to lean into discomfort and uncertainty, trusting that our capacity for joy far outweighs our fear of pain.

Choosing Joy

So how do we begin to embrace joy without the caveats? How do we silence the voice of foreboding and allow ourselves to fully experience the richness of life? It starts with awareness – recognizing when foreboding joy rears its head and choosing to respond with gratitude and vulnerability instead. Practice gratitude daily, taking time to reflect on the blessings in your life, no matter how small. Keep a gratitude journal, noting three things you’re grateful for each day. Cultivate a mindset of abundance, focusing on what you have rather than what you lack. But don’t stop there. Challenge yourself to lean into vulnerability – to open your heart to love and connection, even when it feels risky. Share your joys and sorrows with trusted friends and loved ones, allowing yourself to be seen and supported. And above all, be gentle with yourself. Breaking free from the grip of foreboding joy is a process, and it won’t happen overnight. But with practice and patience, you can learn to embrace joy without the caveats, and experience true happiness in its purest form.

What about Therapy?

As previously mentioned, cultivating this mindset is a difficult process, especially when struggling with trauma and anxiety from times when things went abysmally wrong. Practicing gratitude and vulnerability cannot erase the hard things that have happened, and that is not what joy is about. Additionally, arriving at joy is the result of having given into the healing process for extended amounts of time. If you’re struggling to have joy at all, you’re not alone in that. Be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge if joy has been systemically removed from your life.

Therapy can be extremely beneficial in creating goals in your life to move towards joy. Often, this process can take years, especially when the client has been through a lot of trauma. Once a more joyous life has been established, then the client can begin working through the fear that it could all be taken away again. The therapist aids the client in re-framing negative thoughts, sorting out what is joyous and what is stemming from a place of fear. Healing is a lifelong journey. It is never complete. We are always moving through new emotions and situations. But true joy is possible amidst the pain. Click here to schedule a free consultation with us and choose joy: Reach Out for Support | Contact Us | WOC Therapy