The most difficult emotion we experience

most difficult emotionThere’s a moment I sometimes have when I drop my girls off at the school gate.  They walk away, school bags dwarfing their back view – and my heart quickens.

Cortisol floods my system as I briefly deliberate, whether they will be safe for the duration of the day.  Or if I will ever see them again.

Similar to the times when I would creep into their bedrooms at night to check on their breathing, or the occasions when my husband is running late and I find myself visualising a car crash.

I used to think that it was the sign of an anxious mind, keen to catastrophise.  But with closer observation, I noticed that there was a pattern.

It always occurrs when life is at its peak.

My relationship is going well. My kids are healthy and beaming, and I’m left wondering how I managed to get so damn lucky!

Snap. I’m scared that soon it will all be taken away.

It’s not surprising then, that I found myself nodding in recognition at a recent talk by Brene Brown, where she asserted that the most difficult emotion we experience as humans, is Joy. Fear of Joy.

The Fear of Joy

Calling joy “terrifying” may seem strange, but Dr. Brown explains that the fear stems from having our joy taken away.

“How many of you have ever sat up and thought, ‘Wow, work’s going good, good relationship with my partner, parents seem to be doing okay. Holy crap. Something bad’s going to happen’?”

To illustrate this point, Dr. Brown shares with Oprah a poignant story about a man she interviewed who admitted to her that he never allowed himself to be too joyful about anything in life. Then his wife of 40 years was killed in a car accident. Dr. Brown remembers him saying, “The second I realized that was gone, the first thing I thought was, ‘I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy. Because that did not protect me from what I feel right now.’”

When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. Joy becomes foreboding: ‘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.

By imagining the worst, that it will all be taken away at any moment, we spare ourselves from the vulnerable and at times fragile nature of life, while at the same time disconnecting from the joy and beauty of our experience.

The antidote?

Practice softening into Joy and Practice gratitude.

Be grateful for all the large and small positives in your life.  Notice them. Feel them and go through your day looking for more.

Try not to dress rehearse tragedy, or if you do – acknowledge why you might be doing it.

That’s what I’m going to do. Care to join me?



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  1. says

    Yep, hubby is always telling me to stop worrying until it happens. That was a great post Kirri, a reminder that gratitude and being in the moment is more important than worrying about what COULD happen.

  2. says

    As a teenager I felt so happy with life, but even then I believed that I could sense that it would come at a price. And many years later when my husband and I couldn’t conceive, I considered that to be the payment (crazy right?!) . I think we also need to be careful about creating “the aweful thing that’s going to happen” by our thought patterns.

  3. says

    Beautifully put, Kirri. I used to be a catastrophiser and not be able to appreciate the here and now. Learning to ‘catch’ myself being happy was part of the way forward. My parenting journey has been pretty intense – low lows and high highs. I try and lean into it, feel the emotion of each and then the reward of experiencing the joyous moments is so rich.

  4. says

    Very honestly shared Kirri.

    My version of this is not really any particular bad thing happening, but more that *something that I had not thought of* surprising me and happening out of the blue to take the good thing away or to delay it. Such as PayPal blocking my access to my funds and needing to verify my identity because my balance with them reached over a certain amount. “Ah, abundance! …. Ah, crap”.

    Seems we are mirroring each other again!?

  5. says

    I’m a HUGE worry wart. Over the little things, over the big things.
    But I do try to counterbalance that with trying to find one good thing that’s happened throughout each day – no matter how miniscule and irrelevant it is to anybody else.

  6. says

    I care to join you. I see this problem over and over and just wrote about it myself today! So what people need to hear. Or ego so badly tries to convince us that it is protecting us, but really it is making us suffer! <3

  7. says

    Kirri, I love this so much. Firstly, I’m so grateful for coming here and always go away feeling nourished. Secondly, I know this ‘fear of joy’ too well. I think it’s been exacerbated by trauma. Nearly losing my life has made me fear losing my life even more. It doesn’t even make sense. Surely I should be embracing all the joy (and I do) – but I also live in fear. I’m taking note of your antidote. So so hard when our heart fights our logic.

    • says

      Sure it makes sense Deb – You HAVE almost lost it all. It makes sense that you would go into a fear response more often than someone who haas not experienced such trauma. On the other hand, I imagine you would also be more open to noticing the gratitude and the joy….Hopefully in time, you can practice leaning into those moments more and more – and that will become your default response x

  8. says

    That’s so interesting. I have those moments of fear, too, but it had never crossed my mind that it could be fear of joy.

  9. says

    yes yes YES This is EXACTLY me Kirri. I always worry when I have nothing to worry about that I should be worrying about SOMETHING. Or when things are going really well, I cant help but think I dont deserve this, someone is going to take it all away from me. I have never been able to put it into words before – Fear of Joy… it makes total sense. xx

  10. says

    Yep, this is me too. I think the fear of disappointment is completely underestimated too. Work in progress… xx

  11. says

    Great post Kirri – I remember reading that anecdote from Brene Brown about the man who lost his wife and leaning into joy. But we always need reminding to fully feel it, without foreboding. X

  12. says

    My mum was recently telling me of an experience where she was standing in the playground (she is a teacher in HK) looking out over the harbour. The sun was shining and she was overcome by tears – she couldn’t figure out why. I told her, Mum – that was joy. It was so foreign that she didn’t recognise it.

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