As I enjoyed my family over Thanksgiving, I encountered what Brené Brown calls “foreboding joy.”  We were in the middle of having Thanksgiving dinner, and I was looking at my children with such gratitude and appreciation. But then in the middle of this joy I had a sense of fear that something bad could happen to them.  This is called foreboding joy. Brené Brown says “when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.” I was feeling joyful about my wonderful children and I was looking forward to spending time together as a family.  Then all of a sudden, a voice of fear came up.

How often has each of us looked at our family with so much love that suddenly in the midst of this joy, we imagine something awful happening.  Instead of allowing ourselves to feel joy and happiness, we end up experiencing fear. All of these feelings come from the same place, vulnerability.  What we ended up doing is dress rehearsing tragedy. By imagining the worst case scenario, we think we’re protecting ourselves from our worst fears.

Unfortunately, this does not work.  If someone in my family gets hurt, or whatever tragedy I imagine does happen – a dress rehearsal will not protect me from loss and pain. In the interim, I have missed the chance for joy, presence, and happiness. How many moments have we each lost because of this?

This feeling of foreboding joy happens during work, when we are with our family, or anytime we are in a moment of happiness.

What is the prescription? Brené says the solution is to lean into the vulnerability of these moments – to feel the flutter of fear when we’re feeling deep love or worried that the other shoe might be about to drop.  We need to use that feeling of the fear as a reminder to practice gratitude.

Here are some practices to help us lessen the grip foreboding joy can have on us.

  • Notice it. Foreboding joy often happens automatically.  Step 1 is to notice it. By bringing our awareness to us, we can choose how to handle it.
  • Ask.  Ask yourself what am I dress rehearsing? By doing this, we can understand and acknowledge the fear that is holding back the feelings of joyfulness.
  • Connect. Connect with others and share the feelings of foreboding joy.  Chances are, they feel the same thing. Wondering and being curious together allows us to embrace our common humanity and it will loosen the grip of fear.
  • Practice tough gratitude. This is not the happy-go-lucky gratitude. It is the gratitude that comes when we are scared something horrible may happen. It is when we need to dig deep to find the energy and intentionally direct it to gratitude. Brown’s research supports the fact that we fight foreboding joy when we give thanks.
  • Ease into joy. Like slowly stepping into the cold ocean in the heat of August — we need to slowly walk into the cold water. Each time we fight foreboding joy with gratitude, it takes courage. As we lower our toes into the cold water, we are choosing to live with the tragedy and the triumphs that come with feeling joy.

We need to look at our children and when we feel the fear creeping in, notice it and then practice gratitude. By acknowledging how much we have to lose, we will find the joy of the moment.

We can’t prepare for tragedy, but we can be grateful for the joy we are experiencing.