Recently I was working with a client on joy. The idea, I explained, was to figure out what puts us in a state of joy and spend as much time there as we can. We don’t need to settle for the idea that life has to be miserable. Interestingly, she replied “I’m afraid to feel too much joy”. When I asked what that was about, she replied “Joy causes bad things to happen”. This was not the first time I’ve heard this from a client. The gist of the argument goes something like this: I was feeling great, joyful, happy, then something bad happened and I crashed. So it’s better to not get too high because then I don’t crash as far. Indeed, my father had a saying about this: when we were having great fun as kids and being extremely rambunctious, he would caution, “You’re gonna cry yet tonight!”…the idea being that high emotional states somehow must lead to distress.
The typical dynamic that creates this pattern involves a child who is enjoying something, emotions are high, and then something “bad” happens which causes that emotional state to plummet. In the case of the client mentioned above, she was 2-years-old, playing outside in the yard, and the next door neighbor man coerced her into his house and molested her. Children are very concrete thinkers and come from a perspective that whatever happens, it’s about them. In other words, whatever occurs is somehow linked to something they did, said, thought. Kids have a way of linking temporally contiguous events together such that if Little Johnny sneezes and two cars crash in front of his house, he assumes his sneeze caused the crash. The child who was molested made the assumption that because she was having a joyful time, that caused the man next door to molest her. Now, at 47-years-old, she knows intellectually that isn’t the case, but the wounded part of her continues to avoid joy in order to avoid perceived danger. The client remarked “The abuse was such a shock, so devastating that my child self automatically linked them together”.
We then talked about uncoupling that inappropriate, unhealthy link. Having done this work for over 20 years, I knew enough to ask “So what do you stand to lose by uncoupling the joy from the abuse?” The client immediately remarked, “I lose predictability! If the joy caused the abuse, then I can protect myself from further harm by simply avoiding being joyful”. Indeed, this client has spent the intervening decades keeping herself as emotionally flat as possible. Her fear was she would again be extremely vulnerable to harm if she let go of this idea.
We talked about the things that are different in her life now: the coercion and manipulation that worked on a 2-year-0ld are not going to work on a 47-year-old, she now has a very heightened awareness of abuse dynamics, she has the ability to yell, run, make a phone call, ask her husband and others for help if she’s in a compromising spot, etc. I also explained to her that scholars in the area of shame have articulated the creation of shame feelings occurs when one goes rapidly from feelings of extreme happiness and joy to a negative emotional state such as fear, anxiety, or sadness. The plummet is what the researchers speculate creates the feelings of shame. Shame tends to be a hallmark of abuse survivors.
I reiterated that her joyfulness did NOT cause the abuse; the perpetrator next door caused the abuse. She then exclaimed anxiously, “If I didn’t cause the abuse with joyfulness, then I have no control! Anything can happen at any time!” I then used some deeper techniques to tap into the wounded child’s fears, create safety for her, and release the old beliefs. Afterward the client felt much lighter and freer. She planned to go enjoy a massage, then go home and play with her children so as to practice being joyful.
So I invite you to explore your own willingness to feel joyful much of the time. If you notice any resistance to that idea, explore the possibility that you may have experienced that plummet from extremely positive to extremely negative emotions as a child and then “protected” yourself from that by disallowing joy in your life. Recognize this pattern and decide if you are willing to rethink it so that you can allow your life experiences to contain more joy. Here’s wishing you a joy-filled life!