The Most Terrifying Emotion is Joy: Foreboding Joy

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I listened to a podcast episode a couple weeks ago where Oprah was talking to Brene Brown. I’m sure that most have you have heard of Brene Brown.  She is an author of a few really popular books that I have been meaning to read for forever.  Hopefully I’ll get around to reading her books someday soon.

Towards the end of Oprah and Brene’s conversation, something that Brene talked about really stood out to me so I wanted to write it down. When I heard this, it felt like another piece to my puzzle of something internal that I have been trying to figure out for a long time.

Brene talked about foreboding joy.

I looked up the definition of foreboding and it means fearful apprehension; a feeling that something bad will happen.

This is what Brene said…

“You know what’s tricky? As someone who studies shame and scarcity and fear, I will tell you that if you ask me, what is the most terrifying, difficult emotion we experience as humans, I would say joy. I often ask parents, I’ll have 5000 parents in the audience or something and I’ll say “raise your hand if you’ve ever stood over your child while he or she was sleeping and thought to yourself “I love you like I didn’t know was possible.” And then in that split second, picture something horrific happening to them. How many of you have ever sat up and said “work’s going good, good relationship with my partner, parents seem to be doing ok…holy crap. Something bad’s gonna happen.” So what is that? You know what that is? When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding – “I’m not gonna feel you. I’m not gonna soften into this moment of joy. Because I’m scared its gonna be taken away. I’m scared the other shoe is gonna drop.” When we lose our tolerance to be vulnerable, joy becomes foreboding. So what we do in moments of joyfulness is we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.

Yesterday, I am on the plane. I’m taking pictures. I’m tweeting them out. I’m taking pictures. The plane gets down the runway. It has to come back because something’s wrong. I was like “I knew it!” I called Steve and said “let me just tell you something. I know that because I’m fixin’ to meet Oprah, that I’m gonna die. And at my funeral, you better say “she was gonna be on Super Soul Sunday.” And Steve was like “foreboding joy! foreboding joy!”

I interviewed a man who told me “my whole life, I never got too excited, too joyful about anything. I just kind of stayed right in the middle. That way, if things didn’t work out, I wasn’t devastated. And if they did work out, it was a pleasant surprise. In his 60’s, he was in a car accident. His wife of 40 years was killed. And he said “the second I realized that she 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.

We’re trying to dress rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch. So you know what happens? This is what the joyful people do. This is what I learned from them. In those moments where they are looking at their children, or their partner, or something great?…they get that shudder too. But you know what they do? They don’t say “ooo… there’s that shudder of terror about feeling something joyful. I’m gonna dress rehearse tragedy.” They say “I’m gonna practice gratitude.”

So I just sat on that plane, on that runway, saying “I’m grateful. I’m grateful. I’m grateful.” And I was faking a little bit. I am grateful, but gratitude is a practice. It is tangible. You can see it. It’s not an attitude of gratitude. It is a practice.”

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Isn’t that fascinating?  Brene considers the most terrifying and difficult emotion that we experience to be joy.  Joy!  I never would have put that together!  But I can definitely see some truth in what Brene describes.  I too, notice that I have a bad habit of not allowing myself to truly, fully lean into the moments of joy in my life.  It’s scary to lean in all the way.  There is fear behind that moment of joy.  In those truly joyful moments you feel like you are on top of the world.  And when you are at the top, it feels like there is only one direction you can go – and that’s down.  So it’s easier to just not allow yourself to lean into the moment.  It’s easier to try not to notice too much that you are on the top of the world.  Leaning into joy leaves you very exposed and vulnerable.  It’s easier “dress rehearse tragedy” and mentally prepare yourself for the fall.  It’s easier to not allow yourself to be fully vulnerable.

But how sad.  How sad it is to go through life with all of these joyful moments right before our eyes but we are too afraid to open both eyes so we just squint a little or keep one eye closed.

This reminds me of a post that I wrote a few months ago about owning negative emotion and really being willing to experience negative emotion.  Opposition really does make up the sweetness of life.  If I am not willing to fully experience negative emotions, then I am not going to be able to fully experience joy.  I’m just going to be foreboding joy every time I’m faced with a joyful emotion/moment out of the fear of having to feel the negative emotion that could come after.

Something that I admire about my kids is their ability to really lean into their feelings – both positive and negative.  When they are sad, they really feel it.  And when they are joyful, they really feel it.  They don’t think about what might come after.  They just lean in and embrace their current experience.  I want to be more like that.

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I think that this ability to really lean into joy comes down to trusting God.  Trusting that He has a plan for each of us and that plan is perfect.  Everything is going to work out exactly as it should.  And we can be grateful for that.  Grateful for a loving Heavenly Father who watches over us and grateful for His divine design.  Grateful for the moments of pure joy and also grateful for the moments that don’t feel like joy at all in the moment, but will become moments of joy in the future as we will be able to look back on them and see God’s hand in our life and how He was guiding us to exactly where we needed to be.

This reminds me of a talk that I listened to this morning by Elder Ronald A. Rasband called By Divine Design.  I would recommend checking it out. 🙂

7 Responses
  1. Celeste

    LOOOOOOOVE Brene Brown AND Oprah! Love their interviews together- seriously can’t get enough. All of Brene’s books have changed my life and I think about them daily. Seriously- her shame stuff? Amazing.

  2. Emily Christofferson

    love this. also, seriously. brene brown is a game-changer. my favorites are rising strong and daring greatly. brilliant.👏🏼👏🏼

  3. Lazula

    In this very moment, I am especially grateful that I found your article. I‘m carrying the emotion of „foreboding joy“ with me since I was a child! I hope that I can learn more about it and how to free myself from it to finally fully enjoy my wonderful life. God bless you 🙂

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