Foreboding Joy

Repost from 2017

Recently, I was listening to an audio recording of Brené Brown, Ph.D. As many of you know, she researches and speaks about issues of shame, vulnerability and wholehearted living. In this recording, she was discussing what she calls “foreboding joy.”  “Foreboding” is not a word we hear all that often, so I looked it up in the dictionary. I wanted to know the exact meaning so that I could better understand how she was using this phrase.

Here is what good old Merriam-Webster says forebode means: “to have an inward prediction of, foretell or predict.”

So, when Brené talks about foreboding joy, she is talking about two very different emotions that many of us often experience simultaneously. There is that delicious moment when things feel so good, and your heart swells with warmth and joy. Then, right on its heels is that feeling of foreboding; the thought of “uh oh, this feels too good, something bad is going to happen,” and you are filled with the conviction that at any moment, the other shoe is going to drop.

The point that Brené makes is that joy is one of the most difficult feelings for us to allow ourselves to feel, because it automatically makes us incredibly vulnerable. When we allow our hearts to fill with the indescribable feeling of joy, we become vulnerable to the possibility of it being taken away, our hearts being crushed, and our hopes dashed on the hard ground of despair.

No one knows this feeling better than betrayed partners. For those who have experienced betrayal, there is an up close and personal understanding of what it means to have your joy, trust, and hope blindsided and stolen from you in a second. It is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad feeling.  

Of course, the natural response to this type of experience is to try to protect yourself from ever having it happen to you again. The problem with this is that to protect yourself from further pain or betrayal, you must make a terrible deal. You must bargain away your joy, trading it for the false promise of safety.

For betrayed partners, foreboding joy can look like maintaining a permanent state of hypervigilance. It’s making the often unconscious decision that the best way to protect yourself from ever experiencing the shock and devastation of betrayal again is to assume that betrayal is coming- that it is right around the corner, and that you need to stay prepared at all times for that other shoe to fall right on your head.

When you are assuming disaster, you cannot experience joy. You cannot be vulnerable. These are two dichotomous states: one lights up the fear center in your brain and says wall up, mask up, arm up, get ready to protect and defend. The other lights up the pleasure center in your brain and says relax, open up and feel the warmth, happiness, pleasure, and contentment.

Staying in a state of disaster preparedness robs us of our ability to feel joy. This is a dilemma for betrayed partners. The level of trauma experienced by betrayal is real and life-changing. No one wants to go through it again. And for the partners who stay in their relationships, they are living with the person who betrayed them. They are risking with the same person who they risked with before and were incredibly let down. In this situation, foreboding joy can feel like the only thing that makes sense.

What I am about to say next, I say only to those partners who are a good way down the road of healing. If you are early in the process, have only recently discovered betrayal and are still reeling from it, please disregard the rest of this post. The last thing I want is for you to feel that you need to be more vulnerable, or take more risks in your relationship. That is not what is needed early in the process.

However, for those of you who might have traveled a bit down the path of healing, and who are in relationships where the person who betrayed you is making big efforts to repair the damage, what I want to say to you is this: beware of foreboding joy.

Most partners I have worked with were blindsided by the betrayal in their relationships. They were invested in their marriages, growing closer to their partners, and working toward building a life together. Betrayal came at them like a tsunami and washed way the life they thought they had. Experiencing this kind of trauma imprints your mind and creates a commitment deep inside you to never put yourself in the way of that kind of harm again. Which, of course, means never letting yourself be vulnerable again. Which (and here is the tragic punch line again) means never opening to joy.

Where I see partners get stuck in foreboding joy is that they stay focused on the things that are still not going right in the relationship (I am not talking about things like continued acting-out behaviors here; I am talking about things like continued dirty laundry on the bathroom floor). They stay focused on what is frustrating, or what is not getting better, and they keep bringing those issues to the front and center of the relationship.

A common example of this which I witness frequently in couples therapy is when one partner has been asking and asking for a certain type of emotional connection with their spouse. The spouse finally gets it, shows up in spades, and provides the emotional connection that the partner has been longing for. As the therapist, I’m sitting there with the hallelujah chorus ringing through my head, thrilled for them both and relishing the moment. And then… foreboding joy. The partner will not pause to take in what has been offered, not allow it to come in, soften her, and touch her heart. Instead, she jumps straight to the next issue on her list of problems in the relationship. “Ok, I hear that, but I really want us to also talk about what we are going to do with his attitude toward my parents.”

Fortunately, I have been around the foreboding joy block a few times. I know to catch this moment, slow it down, and help the two of them unpack what has just happened. Most of the time, for the partner, fear is what is happening. Often unconsciously, but significant nonetheless. Fear that if she allows herself to open up and receive what her spouse is offering, to let her heart be moved and her spirit to soften, she might get hurt or be disappointed again. It feels safer to beat disappointment to the punch than to risk the vulnerability of experiencing a moment of meaningful connection with her spouse.

For betrayed partners, there comes a decisive moment or string of moments when she must decide what she is going to do with vulnerability and joy. Is she going to live the rest of her lives playing it safe, foreboding joy, and avoiding risks? Or is she going to begin to risk again, opening herself up to being vulnerable, welcoming joy in and learning to let her heart be accessible to those she loves?

Here’s the real deal truth of the matter: playing it safe doesn’t keep you safe. Life is going to keep happening no matter what. So, the best option, the option that will bring you the most benefit, is to go ahead and risk again. Cautiously. Moderately. No need to fling yourself off the cliff without a parachute. But to take the risk is to ensure that you get to experience a life that includes delicious, wonderful, toe-tingling moments of joy. It seems worth it to me. 

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