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I have a client, we’ll call her Stacy, who got a really difficult assignment from me recently. I asked her to sit with joy.
You may be wondering why that’s so difficult. I mean, isn’t that what we all want? Isn’t that why people hire life coaches in the first place? To find and feel joy?
Let me explain. The women that come to me for help are serious go-getters. They are extremely good at doing things for everyone else, but putting themselves last. They do one project and are on to the next. They set enormously high expectations of themselves which they can rarely reach (and if they do reach them, it’s at a huge cost and mostly because it matters what others think of them) if they ever reach the expectations at all. They struggle with perfectionism, people pleasing, isolating, and the need for certainty and control.
And why do they act that way?
They act that way because the other way of being— standing up for themselves, being imperfect, saying no, letting go of outcomes— all require being vulnerable. And being vulnerable has an unstable outcome, and possibly a painful one (like failure), so they just don’t. They do what they know to stay safe. In their minds they protect themselves. Vulnerability is just not a way of being for them.
So, what does this have to do with joy?
Brené Brown tells us that in her research, she learned that joy is the most difficult human emotion to lean into and feel. Why? Because we’re usually waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re so familiar with the feelings of disappointment, failure, and even grief, that to fully embrace joy is too much of a risk. It’s like allowing ourselves to climb a ladder– we expect to fall eventually off that ladder, so the more rungs we climb, the more it will hurt when we do fall. So, it’s safer to just climb a couple rungs, or none at all, since the pain is inevitable. We make up that we can control the amount of pain we’ll eventually feel by controlling the amount of joy we let in. In essence, joy is the most vulnerable emotion to experience.
I mean, raise your hand if you rehearse tragedy? The minute something great happens, we think about the disintegration of it all? Like assuming a new relationship is going to fall apart like the last one. Or we make excuses for great things happening in the first place? Getting a promotion, for example, you might think, “Well, as soon as somebody better comes along or the economy goes to shit again I’ll get sacked.”
To sit in the joy and happiness is extremely uncomfortable for most. So incredibly uncomfortable that we just avoid it altogether.
So, back to Stacy’s assignment. A typical high-achiever/perfectionist/control addict, I gave her a challenge. I asked her to email 15 people she knows that care about her and ask them to tell her in just a few sentences, why they like her. What is about her they love?
Her response? You would have thought I asked her to clean out the underground sewer system. She admitted the thought of that make her physically sick to her stomach. When I asked how she would feel if one of her friends asked her to do that for them, she said she’d be more than happy to oblige. But, to a) reach out and ask, then 2) read the kind and loving words about her was so incredibly uncomfortable. It was a one-two punch. To lean into the joy and love was hugely vulnerable.
And you know what the underlying issue also is? Worthiness.
Who am I to have all of this love? Who am I to deserve all these people in my life that love and accept me for who I am? What if they knew I really struggled sometimes? What if they knew how really imperfect my life is? Would they still love and accept me?
Does any of that sound familiar? It probably does, because I know most of us are singing that same song. And it’s easy for me to sit here and tell you you’re worthy as you are and all that beautiful, important stuff, but babe, the real work is sitting in it. Sitting in that uncomfortableness where our brains are telling us, “THIS IS UNSAFE! RUN!” but the reality is if we don’t sit in that vulnerability of joy, we can’t experience it. Joy doesn’t exist on a surface level. Joy is in your bones and in your cells. It’s to feel like your heart may burst. It’s to feel it and get to that place of uncomfortableness and sit with it longer. To recognize those thoughts of rehearsing tragedy, making excuses, wanting to push it away and instead choosing to stay with the joy.
I invite you to look at your own life and ask yourself if you are really feeling joy, or are you pushing it aside because it’s too risky? This is your choice. You can stay “safe” or you can choose joy. It’s entirely up to you. Uncomfortable, but still your choice.
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