Listening to countless talks and speeches by shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown, and then sitting down and reading some of her books, I was really taken aback by some of her findings. I started to reflect on how I’ve been living my life and whether I wanted to continue living it this way. What did I get out of it? There are so many things that she discusses that hit me pretty hard, but the one thing that struck me the most was her analyzing the fear of joy.
When I first heard her speak of it, I was so relieved because I honestly thought I was the only one with this problem. This is something I’ve been battling for a long time and have discussed in my counseling sessions for years, trying to work through it over and over and still not fully understanding why exactly I am so afraid to feel happiness.
Depression, anxiety, pain and tragedy are not new to me. They are actually so familiar that I’d say I’m most comfortable when I am in the midst of them. That doesn’t mean they are joyful for me, but it means that these states are ones I know how to live in. I know these scripts, I know my reactions and I know how I am and who I am within them. Comfort and enjoyment are two separate entities that can blend together, but for me, they’ve always held space between one another.
In reading Brené’s books, I realized that my whole life has been spent foreboding joy. Why feel it and live in it when you know it will pass? I’m almost embarrassed to admit that this past summer was my first time immersing myself in joy completely. I was eating healthy, nourishing food because I could afford to; I was working full-time; I practiced yoga regularly; I participated in writer events and was introduced to a creative community that I felt I belonged to; I was learning how to expand my creativity with more visual projects like merchandising and I began to learn how to play the guitar. Everything was so good for once and I was on a high that I never experienced before. That is until I took a step back to look at all the good that was happening around me and thought, “Oh shit. Something bad is about to happen.” Because what we are made to understand is that when things are good, and especially when things are too good, that is a clear indication and a fair warning that something terrible is headed your way.
So then what do we do? We begin to anticipate the pain and dress-rehearse tragedy. We numb ourselves from feeling too much because that will make our future pain more bearable. We see it coming, so it won’t be as bad, right?
But here’s the thing: we cannot selectively numb. If we choose to numb ourselves from pain, we also numb ourselves from joy. Have any of you ever had a really cool opportunity and instantly told yourself to not get too excited about it? So if it doesn’t work out, you didn’t get your hopes up and if it does, it’s a pleasant surprise.
It’s easier to live in the neutral setting. It’s easier to numb. But you are also not really living. You’re not enjoying the best part of life: the highs and the lows. The lows that you grow from and the highs that you glow in.
What also happens is that you begin to guard yourself from the opportunity to connect. For instance, about a month ago, a boy asked me out on a date to go go-kart racing and deep down I was really excited about it. What a cool thing, right? But I told myself not to be because it probably wouldn’t work out or it could be a disaster or blah blah *insert excuse here*. So when a really good friend of mine came to me with her excitement and asked if I was looking forward to it, I shot her down. I told her it wasn’t that big of a deal. And then, when it didn’t happen (long story short, he canceled), and she asked if I was okay, I said I was fine because it wasn’t that big of a deal. Yes, I didn’t let myself get excited and I didn’t let myself feel disappointment, BUT, I also missed out on a chance to connect.
When you feel that excitement and share that with someone, and then you feel disappointed, you share that with them too. One of the best parts of life is to need and be needed. In the midst of our vulnerability comes this beautiful opportunity to connect with someone else. But the numbing takes that away, too.
Numbing is avoidance; it is our distancing from our own humanity and the humanity that allows us to connect with one another. Anticipating pain doesn’t make future pain non-existent, it just causes this sort of pre-suffering.
As Brené says, we’re trying to dress rehearse tragedy so that we can beat vulnerability to the punch. But is giving up and numbing a worthwhile life to live? And instead, in those moments of joy when we get perspective on all the good around us, what if we were to practice gratitude instead of anticipating pain to come?