I used to stand over my two kids while they slept, and just as a profound sense of love and joy washed over me, I'd imagine horrible things happening to them: car crashes, tsunamis. "Do other mothers do this," I'd wonder, "or am I unhinged?" I now know from my research that 95 percent of parents can relate to my constant disaster planning. When we're overwhelmed by love, we feel vulnerable—so we dress-rehearse tragedy.
Though I study scary emotions like anger and shame for a living, I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It's as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we're setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven't happened doesn't protect us from pain. Ask anyone who has experienced a tragedy; they'll tell you there is no way to prepare. Instead, catastrophizing, as I call it, squanders the one thing we all want more of in life. We simply cannot know joy without embracing vulnerability—and the way to do that is to focus on gratitude, not fear.
The good news is that joy, collected over time, fuels resilience—ensuring we'll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.
Stop the train.
The next time you're traumatized by "What ifs," say aloud, "I am feeling vulnerable." This sentence changed my life. It takes me out of my fear brain—i.e., off the crazy train—and puts me back on the platform, where I can make a conscious choice not to reboard.
Recently, when a turbulent flight caused me to start planning my own funeral, I remembered something I'd learned in my research: Joyous people are grateful people. So I used the fear alarm in my head as a reminder to feel grateful for my kids, my husband, and my work. Even more effective: Speak your gratitude aloud to others, or write it in your journal.
Start a practice.
I believe joy is a spiritual practice we have to work at. For me, that means appreciating everyday moments: a walk with my husband, fishing with my kids on the Gulf Coast. It means not living in fear of what I could lose, but softening into the moments I have.
Brené Brown, PhD, researches vulnerability, shame, courage, and worthiness at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
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