Foreboding joy is easy. Experiencing it is not.
We are all piled into a cable car; Andy is in my lap, when I begin to imagine the cable snapping and the car crashing down the side of the mountain. Quickly, I think to myself, “What would I do? Would I throw Andy behind me, in between the seats, so that my body and the bench would protect him from the breaking glass and inevitable collision?” I am satisfied: “That is a good plan.” Then, I catch myself, and I giggle out loud. Yes, this thought sequence actually happened in one of the most beautiful places in the world, on one of the most amazing trips I have ever been on.
Just moments and hours before, Andy, Nora, Brian and I were eating lunch and enjoying the ridiculous views around us. We were standing on a viewing platform looking over the city of Interlaken, Switzerland.
When you are there, it is as if you are standing at the edge of nature’s most magnificent triumphs. We were surrounded by the Alps. Directly in front of me was a mountain range so imposing that no army has ever dared to pass. Mountains began covered in trees, then rose to only rock, and eventually the highest peaks were covered in snow, the tops piercing the clouds. Below us, there were lakes and rivers the color of emeralds.
It was truly amazing. Every moment of this trip has been one I hope to remember. I wish I could bottle up the feeling of overwhelming beauty, peace and resounding joy I feel when looking around and taking a moment to be truly present.
Then, without warning, I find myself thinking crazy thoughts. This is not uncommon for me. Vulnerability researcher Dr. Brene Brown calls it "foreboding joy" when we don’t allow ourselves to be perfectly happy and joyful because, “I’m scared it’s going to be taken away. The other shoe’s going to drop…what we do in moments of joyfulness is, we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.”
She writes that, “When something good happens, our immediate thought is that we’d better not let ourselves truly feel it, because if we really love something we could lose it. So we shut down our ability to completely enjoy so that we can also shut down our capacity for feeling loss.”
Do you ever do this? Admit it. I know you have caught yourself doing this from time to time. And if you are a mom like me, you probably do it all of the time unconsciously - always planning for the worst. I think most of us do; it is human nature to let our minds take over rather than just be present, be vulnerable and feel joy.
We all have stories like this. I have many.
On our way from Lake Como to Interlaken, we were on the car ferry, and Andy was in my arms, laughing: we were all excited for our road trip to Switzerland. Then, without warning, I thought to myself, “It is very windy outside today, and the bus on the boat seems to be weighing the ferry down. What if the ferry tips over? What should I do? How will I protect Andy? What if Brian or I get sucked under the boat and trapped or a car pins us down? Who will know to bring Andy to the U.S. Embassy?”
Or the time I was sitting on the balcony of our hotel in Lucerne, enjoying a glass of wine and looking at the beautiful lake below with Brian. Andy was asleep. I suddenly began to wonder how we would escape and grab Andy in time if there was a fire in the building.
Or when we were letting Andy run around a piazza in Rome to get his energy out, and I thought, “What if he gets too far away from me and someone grabs him? I can’t run after him, or my defibrillator will go off. Is Brian close enough to him? Could he catch the person?”
I could go on and on, but I will spare you the craziness. When I say these thoughts out loud or write them down, it makes me laugh because they are absolutely absurd! It’s seriously funny, but when this happens, what can we do? How can we stop ourselves from denying ourselves joy?
I have found that when I catch myself doing this, which is more often than I would like to admit, I have to stop and tell myself to pause. Being aware and mindful of what I am doing has been the first step. When I recognize the craziness, I usually start laughing.
Then, I tell Brian what I was thinking about, and the two of us laugh together. This is how I pull myself out of it. I share the absurdity, and then I can move on and continue to enjoy the present moment.
Dr. Brown suggests that another way to stop the absurdity is to practice gratitude. I have found this to be beneficial as well. (link: https://www.precisionpt.org/single-post/2017/07/03/Kates-Plate-Gratitude text: I practice gratitude on a regular basis). On this trip, I have spent seven days of my meditation on gratitude. At home, I write what I am grateful for on a sticky note every day and throw it into my gratitude jar. Others keep a gratitude journal or a gratitude token in their pocket to remind them to be grateful.
What do you do? How do you stop the absurdity? Did you even know you were doing it?
I know it can be funny, but it can really put a damper on your happiness. Especially if you don’t recognize it for what it is. Start by making a habit of catching yourself in these moments. Once you have caught yourself doing it over and over, you realize how common it is. Then, have a plan to get to the other side so you can actually enjoy what you are doing. The feeling will happen - but hopefully by recognizing it, catching it and having a plan, you will be able to find more moments of happiness.