What If You Didn’t Fear Joy?
“Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy.” Milton Erickson
After getting up early each morning to swim, bike, and run for months, I had done it. I’d completed a triathlon. Jolene and some of my training friends were at the finish line waiting for me. It was an intense day of overcoming obstacles and pushing myself to achieve something I had never done before. I expected to feel the joy of accomplishment. The reward for all the work.
And I did for a brief time.
But then a thought began to creep in. My accomplishment wasn’t worth celebrating. It was only a sprint triathlon. Not anything close to an Ironman. Who did I think I was? Even within my age group, I’m nothing special. Just another name on a list. I started telling myself with increasing despondency that my cheap bike and poor swimming ability would never allow me to accomplish anything worthy. I’d just embarrass myself if I even tried.
My small amount of joy dissolved. I needed to get back to training and try for something bigger or just move on to something else entirely.
Research into the area of joy and vulnerability has shed light on what I experienced following my first triathlon. It turns out that it is what many others experience in the aftermath of accomplishment. The type and degree of accomplishment doesn’t seem to matter. Whether big or small, work or recreation, our experiences give us a glimpse of joy for the accomplishment but are then overrun by our negative evaluations.
Brene Brown in her book, Daring Greatly, talks about foreboding joy, where we catch ourselves feeling joy but quickly turn to prepare for imminent disaster. We think to ourselves,
“work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking around the corner.”
Foreboding joy is a habit we develop over the course of our lives. After experiencing the raw pain of disappointment a few times, we begin to build emotional shields to prevent that pain in the future. We learn, perhaps unconsciously, that the pain of sitting in self-selected disappointment is easier than feeling disappointed after an experience of joy. According to Brown, our experiences teach us that “softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability.” But we decide the cost of vulnerability is too high. Rather than pay the price of vulnerability we cut out the experience of joy and ease into disaster readiness. Unfortunately, then we’re left wondering why we don’t have more joy in our lives.
Imposter phenomena was first described in 1978 by psychologist Pauline Clance. People with this syndrome “experience intense feelings that their achievements are undeserved and worry that they are likely to be exposed as a fraud.” It has become a common experience reported by entrepreneurs. In a review article published in 2011, authors Sakaluku and Alexander found that
“Impostor fears interfere with a person’s ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being.”
Anyone can experience impostor syndrome. It’s not limited to business leaders, creatives, or athletes. Although the specific cause of the impostor syndrome is individual, the feeling in response to achievement is the same no matter who experiences it.
There is an insidiousness that makes impostor syndrome particularly painful. Continued success does not alleviate or remove fear as you might think. Instead, according to Fiona Buckland in the Guardian,
“external success heightens rather than soothes the effects, as sufferers believe they are only ramping up the confidence trick they are playing on everyone.”
We hold to the belief that we’re impostors and are not entitled to joy.
Lastly, we distance ourselves from embracing the fullness of joy by minimizing the value of our accomplishments. We put in the work, follow through on the plan, and after accomplishing the task we shrug, “it was no big deal.”
We’re taught as children to not be boastful or prideful. We are told to demonstrate humility. We aren’t taught, however, how to navigate the middle ground. How do we experience pride and joy for our accomplishments without falling into the trap of self-aggrandizement? In an effort to stay away from boastfulness we take away the value of our own accomplishments. In the process, we are selling those accomplishments, and ourselves, short.
“in our view, humility is not about underestimating or downplaying your accomplishments or positive characteristics.”
Minimizing what we have accomplished does not make us humble — it contributes to reducing feelings of self-worth and keeps us from experiencing joy.
Opening up space for joy
We can avoid these pitfalls. We owe it to ourselves to celebrate our success. We have earned them. Allowing yourself to experience the fullness of joy can increase the likelihood of finding success again.
Marianne Williamson captures this. She frames it as an injustice to minimize ourselves. Not only are we denying our own experience of joy, but we are also denying the world our gifts. She states,
“your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
By seeing how I pull myself away from the experience of joy, I also see the opportunity to change. It is the power of self-awareness. The more we learn about ourselves and the oftentimes hidden habits and patterns of behavior that run in the background of our minds, the more opportunity we have to interrupt them.
I can show the courage to allow the feeling of joy time to soak in. I can give the experience of joy the space to grow and brighten my being. Just as important, I can prepare for the inevitable foreboding, fear of being an imposter, and a tendency to minimize crowding in without allowing those thoughts to claim my focus or steal my joy.
My practice is to walk the path of joy a little more today than I did yesterday.
Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” . Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. doi:10.1037/h0086006
Sakulku, J. (1). The Impostor Phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75–97. https://doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6