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Foreboding Joy: The Scary Side of Happiness

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

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Have you ever experienced happiness but thought to yourself, “When is the other shoe going to drop?”. Let me just say, that you are not alone and many people feel just the same. While happiness may be something that people strive for, it can also be scary to experience when there is a possibility that your happiness can be taken away. This feeling can be explained by the term: foreboding joy. Author, Dr. Brené Brown coined this term and described it as the feeling when joy is quickly followed by worry and dread. Those who experience foreboding joy usually think with “But what if…” statements and tend to fall into catastrophizing thought cycles. Catastrophizing is a type of cognitive distortion where one thinks in terms of worst-case scenarios.

Dr. Brené Brown mentions how foreboding joy is a way for people to protect themselves against vulnerability. If someone doesn’t experience their joy, they won’t feel disappointed when the joy goes away. What does foreboding joy look like? Take a look at some of these examples:

  • You just got a new job, but your foreboding thought is “But what if it doesn’t last and I get fired?”

  • You just started a new relationship with your partner, but your foreboding thought is, “But what if they discover my insecurities and break up with me?”

  • You just took a test and think you did well, but you still worry, and your foreboding thought is, “What if I failed though? I won’t be able to graduate.”

Experiencing joy can leave us feeling vulnerable. Dr. Brené Brown stated that those who experiencing foreboding joy, turn joy into a test of despair, as if they are preparing for tragedy. For these people softening to joy may be uncomfortable and scary but if we allow ourselves to do so, we can cultivate hope and build up our resilience. Now, how do you face this feeling and begin to experience joy? Here are some tips to do just that:

1. Acknowledge the Joy in ordinary moments

  • Feeling happy seeing your Partner reading a book and drinking their coffee on a Sunday morning

  • Hearing your child giggle in their room while playing

  • Receiving texts from your parents with emojis that don’t make sense

  • Embrace these opportunities to build resilience.

2. Be grateful for what you have

  • Celebrate what you have. Be grateful for it and share your gratitude with others

  • Honor the good, not the bad

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3. Cultivate self-awareness

  • Understanding when and what brings on this feeling of foreboding joy may help when it comes to your negative thoughts.

  • By recognizing when you are going down that catastrophizing path, see what other paths lie ahead.

  • Mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation could be helpful to build up self-awareness.

If you would like to learn more about foreboding joy, check out Dr. Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. Or check out her TED talk titled: The Power of Vulnerability

Wrote by:

Gwendolen Anderson

Mental Health Counselor Intern

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