Source: M.T ElGassier/ Unsplash
One of the things that has defied satisfying explanations in psychology since at least the 1800s is the resistance to and/or avoidance of positive emotions and experiences.
It is so clear to the human species that we desire and actively seek out pleasure. So how and why is it the case that sometimes things like joy become the very things that we avoid the most?
Researcher Brené Brown has termed this “foreboding joy” and describes it as when,
You’re afraid to lean into good news, wonderful moments, and joy—if you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop” (Atlas of the Heart, 215).
Many of us know this experience well, but again, why? What, exactly, is the source of this joy aversion?
One possible explanation is trauma: an unbearable emotional experience that stamps your world with indelible meaning. If you’ve had trauma in your life, here are eight reasons you might avoid joy and any other positive emotions.
- Hypervigilance: People who have had trauma can sometimes get stuck in hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is the elevated state where you find yourself constantly assessing potential threats that surround you, even when you are in a safe place (e.g., at home, in a restaurant, etc.). If trauma has taught you that the world is a dangerous place, you can get tricked into thinking that staying hypervigilant is the only way to be safe. Since feeling joy automatically lowers that state of fear, it can also make you feel more vulnerable. This vulnerability in a world that already feels scary makes joy intolerable and so you avoid it.
- Emotional Numbing: Since trauma involves unbearable emotions, a very common coping technique is emotional numbing. The emotions are too intense to bear, and so we numb them in order to cope. The problem is that we are not very good at numbing emotions selectively, so we end up numbing our emotions across the board. This results in a dampening of positive emotions as well.
- Emotional Confusion: Trauma can disrupt your ability to accurately interpret and respond to your emotions. Feeling an intense emotion can become upsetting, even if it is a positive emotion. This confusion can make positive emotions in general feel like triggers, resulting in the avoidance of them.
- Fear of Loss: If you’ve had trauma, you likely know acutely how precarious joy is. Positive emotions are intense and they can be dashed in an instant. The experience of it could automatically lead to the thought “Oh no, this is going to end. Better to avoid it than suffer the pain that will come from losing it.” This seems most likely to be the source of waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop thinking. We move into expectation of danger or tragedy as soon as we experience something positive in order to brace ourselves against potential loss. “At the very least,” we think, “we won’t be caught unawares this time.”
- Conditioning or Association: We have known since 1920 when John B. Watson did his famous Little Albert experiment, that fear can be conditioned quickly. If you experienced a positive emotion in a situation that later turned traumatic, this can create strong associations between positive emotions of any kind and subsequent negative events. So that could lead to an unconscious avoidance of joy and or positive emotions because you’re afraid they will turn into traumatic situations.
- Guilt and Shame: Though it is deeply unfounded, survivors of trauma often feel guilt or shame (this can also happen in grief) when experiencing joy after a traumatic experience. This might happen in the case of survivor’s guilt, which can literally be the guilt of surviving when someone else in the situation did not but can also arise when someone close to you experiences something negative and you do not. It can also happen in the later stages of grief, where you start to feel normal again and then feel guilty at the thought of forgetting or moving beyond your lost loved one.
- Self-Worth: Trauma can profoundly impact your sense of self-worth and identity. This is because it is common after trauma for people to internalize a belief that they are fundamentally damaged or broken. This makes it very difficult to lean into the experience of joy because it feels like something you should not be entitled to.
What can we do about it if joy feels impossible, unattainable, and even dangerous? I’ve developed a practice with my clients that I call tiny little joys—which is a practice where we scale the positive emotion of joy way down to a much less scary version and aim to notice very small things that are already in our lives that bring us joy.
This can be as small as a soap bubble, or a rainbow spilling across the living room floor. By engaging in this practice throughout the day, one can engage in a level of joy that feels less extreme or disruptive.
This practice is adapted with an eye to Peter Levine’s concept of pendulation in trauma healing, whereby gradual exploration of distressing sensations is done in small, manageable doses, allowing the nervous system to process the material without becoming overwhelmed.
If we know that diving into positive emotions is too disruptive for the nervous system of someone dealing with trauma, a tiny little joy practice makes the dose of joy smaller and more manageable.