When Joy Feels Scary: 6 Resilience-Building Practices

For: Psychcentral: Mental Health Library

After we’ve been given a “clean bill of health,” finished settling the estate, come home from war, or otherwise gathered up the pieces — it takes time for the dust to settle, time to trust the stillness. In these in-between spaces, when the word “survivor” feels both amazing and scary, foreboding joy (Brown, 2012) can eat our lunch.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown (2012) describes some of the ways that we try to shield ourselves from vulnerability. Along with strategies like perfectionism and numbing, foreboding joy is a common way that we try to fend off our human-ness, our susceptibility.

Foreboding joy can happen when we feel intense positive emotion. It says, “Don’t go there; at any moment the other shoe may drop; this could all be gone in an instant.” Afraid to risk the vulnerability of feeling joy, we instead try to “pre-grieve” or as Brown would say “dress rehearse tragedy” with the hopes that this will soften the blow should the worst happen.

I’m so grateful to be coming out on the other side of cancer. My doctor said, “We got it all; you’ll have one final reconstruction surgery this fall; keep taking your medication for the next 5-10 years, and you’ll be good to go.”

Yes, good to go. I smile and nod at the doctor, but before I’ve finished nodding, my thoughts and emotions have travelled far and wide:

Beginning with intense positivity…
“YES!!! HOORAY!!!! Oh good gracious, thank the Lord!! What a huge relief. I’m so grateful they got it all.”

Followed by a foreboding joy…
“But, what if I relapse?” Fear grips my gut and anxiety washes in as I picture my children watching me get sick again. My husband becoming a single parent. I feel myself recoil from life, numbing the joy of the good medical news so maybe it won’t hurt as much if I do end up relapsing. I play small, live as though the worst is going to happen.

There’s nothing like suffering to amplify foreboding joy. When we walk through the pain of a shoe dropping, we often wait with even greater expectancy for another to fall. We know what’s possible. Suffering puts us in touch with our vulnerability even more acutely.

Over the past several weeks there have been a lot of “first-time-since-cancer” moments when I’ve wrestled with foreboding joy. Grateful for Brown’s (2012) research putting words around experiences of foreboding joy and highlighting the role that a gratitude practice can play in combating this, I’m thankful to have known about these concepts ahead of cancer. But during my most intense struggles, times when I felt paralyzed as scenes of a potential future relapse played in my head, I longed for more.

With time, some helpful practices emerged. And while foreboding joy hasn’t gone away all together, I am grateful for the way that these practices have been helping to loosen its grip:

1. Notice it and name it. Foreboding joy often happens on autopilot. If we can bring it to our awareness, we have choices about how we want to handle it.

2. Get curious. Ask foreboding joy what it wants to say—what is it trying to protect? There might be some wisdom in the hesitation that often accompanies foreboding joy. We can invite our uncertain fearful parts to the table and listen to them, we just don’t want them to be the only voices at the table. Foreboding joy might also give us information about where our hearts would like to go—how they would risk and grow if they were free to do so.

3. Grieve. A friend recently asked me about my pain—said my eyes looked like they wanted to cry. “Yes, they probably do,” I answered… and that was all the permission they needed. I tell my stories of the past several months again and feel my way through. If we find ourselves “pre-grieving” an unknown future tragedy (foreboding joy), perhaps that’s an invitation to explore past griefs. The losses that did happen. Maybe if we can sit with the hard pieces of our stories and feel them through we’ll discover some courageous parts of ourselves that we can take with us into our future. We can risk joy more readily when we know how to grieve if we need to.

4. Connect. Connect with safe people and share about the places where joy feels scary. Wondering together at the mysteries of life, we hear our own vulnerabilities echoed back in another’s voice. We can embrace our common humanity and prevent shame from developing.

5. Practice gritty gratitude. This is not Pollyanna gratitude. It is middle-of-the-night gratitude, when we need to muster our energy, and intentionally direct our attention to the things that are gifts. It can feel “off” at first, put on or made up, but it is a muscle that strengthens with use and time. It is a weapon. Brown’s (2012) research supported this; we fight foreboding joy when we give thanks.

6. Ease into joy. Like slowly stepping into a cool lake—we feel our way in. Each movement requires courage. Aware that if foreboding joy festers, it will do its job; it will mute our emotions and narrow the range that we can feel (both the lows and the highs). As we lower our toes back into the water, we are choosing to live wide awake to both the tragedy and the triumphs. Risking again takes guts.

And the thing that I’ve been most excited about lately… When we risk feeling joy again after suffering we strengthen our resilience muscles. Joy can be slippery, but we get to keep our resilience. Let’s put that hard-won resilience in our imaginary backpacks and take it with us.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books