Inside: You don’t have to hunt for joy, manufacture it, or figure out how to lead a stress-free “perfect” life. You can ALLOW joy to live alongside whatever else you’re experiencing. You can WELCOME it into the messiness of your life in every season. You can learn to expand your capacity for joy.
Without vulnerability, there is no love, no belonging, and no joy.Brené Brown
You don’t have to hunt for joy, manufacture it, or figure out how to lead a stress-free “perfect” life. You can ALLOW joy to live alongside whatever else you’re experiencing. You can WELCOME it into the messiness of your life in every season. You can learn to expand your capacity for joy.
Learning to expand our capacity for joy – to hold space for joy and allow it to live in our lives alongside whatever else we’re experiencing – isn’t only about joy specifically, though. The benefits are further reaching.
It’s really about expanding our ability to experience and not run from all emotional experiences. It’s about living resilient, present, empowered, showing up fully to life in every season (within our capacity), navigating grief or trauma or other stressful life transitions with better outcomes, and ultimately reconnecting with and befriending ourselves.
To paraphrase how one reader put it (thanks Belinda), it’s about climbing inside our life and feeling it all.
Expanding our capacity for joy or for other emotions is also not ONLY about emotional experience. Our emotions don’t live in isolation. We have embodied experiences: we experience life through the wisdom of our mind, emotions, and body. And what’s more, we have a nervous system wired to keep us safe and alive that is always at work gathering information beneath conscious awareness, deciding if we’re safe or unsafe, and impacting the ways we engage in life and relationships.
In order to live self-aware and on purpose, and walk in greater freedom, we need to reconnect with our true selves and bring awareness to what’s going on in these bodies of ours. We need to befriend ourselves and this includes befriending our nervous system.
To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
HOW DO YOU DEFINE JOY?
“Emotions are centered in subjective experiences that people represent, in part, with hundreds, if not thousands, of semantic terms” (source).
I believe that in order to make meaning, we must grapple with a term or idea, and move it from head (intellect), to heart (emotions), deep into our embodied, lived experience. Only then does it truly become particularly useful to us, as wisdom and understanding that lives rooted in the body.
It’s important therefore, to clarify what each of us means by JOY. To consider for ourselves what that might look like, sound like, and feel like in our bodies and lives, in the season that we’re in.
The dictionary defines joy as a feeling of great pleasure and happiness (source) or the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation (source).
By these definitions, it seems that joy is simply a gradient of happiness. A more intense experience of happiness, pleasure, delight, and even serenity. This is also how most emotion wheels represent joy. As a gradient or spectrum. There are many variations of emotion wheels; here’s one from the Junto Institute:
Like many people, though, I’ve often considered joy to be a deeply rooted inner state of being, mostly independent of external circumstances (which is why joy and pain can coexist), while happiness is a an outward expression, more fleeting, and more connected to external circumstances.
This way of thinking about joy works for me – it helps me make room for joy in my life even in the midst of heartache, pain, or uncertainty. But ultimately, what matters most, is how I experience it in my body and if it serves me.
How do you define joy?
JOY IS THE MOST VULNERABLE EMOTION AND OTHER REASONS IT MAY BE HARD FOR YOU TO ACCESS JOY
Depending on the source, we come hardwired with 6-8 or more core emotions. In 1980, American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik proposed that there are eight primary emotions that serve as the foundation for all others: joy, sadness, acceptance, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation (Pollack, 2016). In a 2017 study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, researchers identified 27 distinct emotional states that humans experience (source). Still other sources propose that humans have access to 34,000 distinct emotions (source).
Something no one one disagrees about is that joy is one of our most basic emotions. So we know it’s a human possibility, yet not everyone experiences joy.
Emotions are nuanced and complex; they are not states that occur in isolation. Rather there are gradients of emotion and these diverse feelings are deeply inter-related (source). While the primary emotion of joy may not feel accessible to some, they may comfortably experience the secondary and tertiary emotions of happiness or contentment, hopefulness or delight. Or as they become attuned to their mind-emotions-body they may notice discomfort with higher intensity emotions (like joy) and prefer to spend most of their time in lower intensity positive emotions: contentment, peace, serenity, tranquility and ease (see the mood meter). This may be their unique “happy place” or set point.
Further reasons why some people either struggle with feeling joy or avoid it is a sense of unworthiness, a fear of becoming too happy only to crash again, or guilt that it’s selfish to experience joy in the face of all the suffering in the world. If this feels familiar, you can learn to shift these narratives.
And then there’s the grief and pain of allowing ourselves to taste joy and savor life when we’ve lost one of our most beloved people. Joy in the face of profound loss can feel wrong. It can be triggering to our nervous system and send us into panic. It takes time and space for healing and learning to live around our grief and it helps to know that joy can never cancel out grief, but they can coexist, side by side.
People with alexithymia, severe depression, or anhedonia may not have access to emotions / positive emotions. People who feel unsafe or don’t have their basic needs met, may not be able to access positive emotions as they’re focused on survival.
I recently watched the film Ode to Joy on Netflix (a sweet film) and learned about narcolepsy with cataplexy, a neurological condition affecting 1 in 2,000 people worldwide. Cataplexy involves “striking, sudden episodes of muscle weakness usually triggered by emotions such as laughter, exhilaration, surprise, or anger” (source). In the film, the main character experiences cataplexy when he experiences joy so he adopts myriad strategies to limit joy in his life. No doubt there are many more contexts that make joy inaccessible that I’ve yet to learn about.
Trauma and medical conditions are not the only reason we might have trouble accessing high intensity emotions like joy. If it doesn’t feel safe in our nervous system, we can be triggered (either mobilized or immobilized) when we experience certain emotions, and this will motivate us to run, numb, reject, avoid, or even shut down. Being human can be hard work and real life is messy so it makes sense that we try to keep ourselves safe, consciously or not, by avoiding disappointment, avoiding getting our hopes up. It’s vulnerable to feel. And joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience (source).
In a talk that Dr. Brené Brown gave at the University of Minnesota, “she described the ways we try to sidestep the shaky feeling of vulnerability. We emotionally “armor up” each morning when we face the day to avoid feeling shame, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. The particular armor changes from person to person, but it usually revolves around one of three methods: striving for perfection, numbing out, or disrupting joyful moments by “dress rehearsing tragedy” and imagining all the ways that things could go wrong” (source).
If we want to open up to joy and other beautiful life experiences rather than armoring up, we can learn to expand our window of capacity. Join me for a WORKSHOP and learn some habits that will help you expand your capacity for JOY!
We heal at the speed of safety.Linda Thai
WHAT’S A WINDOW OF CAPACITY and Why does it matter to me?
When I speak of expanding our capacity I’m referring to expanding our window of capacity (oftentimes called window of tolerance).
“Each of us has a specific threshold for stress and trauma. Stephen Porges, PhD and founder of Polyvagal Theory, describes this threshold as our Window of Tolerance. The wider your window, the greater tolerance you have for stressful events and demanding situations. The narrower your window, the lower tolerance you have for stressful situations and hardship. The width of your window is not fixed, though, and it’s been shown that persistent stress and trauma shrink your window, while safe connection and healing widen your window of tolerance” (source).
I’m not only interested in enlarging my capacity for stress and trauma. I want to widen my capacity for JOY, excitement, delight, curiosity, for stretching and risking and becoming my healthiest and most integrated self. This is the crux of what I help others do through my work – open up to the truth that joy and pain live tangled up together in a messy and beautiful life, learn to love ourselves well and feel safe in our bodies and our lives so that we show up wholeheartedly to life, engaged and on purpose, in every season.
We all have limitations, boundaries, and an emotional and energetic bank account. We can’t pour out if we’re dry/spent/burnt out. We have seasons of life where our window of capacity is smaller or broader. This is part of the human experience.
Some seasons of life are about treading water, holding the fort, not rocking the boat, keeping your head above water, one courageous step and then another. Other seasons are about simplifying, letting go, releasing to make space for doctors visits, friend chats, tending to family, making meals and extra rest. And some seasons are about starting again, shedding old skins, writing a new story, about self-trust and joyful possibility and expansion.
After years of worry, advocating, working hard to love and affirm and keep my son alive, after two years of deep grief and making my world smaller to accommodate PTSD and severe panic disorder, I am ready to open up once more to joy and adventure. I am hungry for the vulnerable, exciting, unpredictable experience of joy.
Regardless of personal preference, though, a healthy nervous system is not always calm or serene. We’re meant to be able to mobilize in the face of danger, to feel enough activation to motivate us to go to work and feed our bodies, we’re supposed to get angry when a boundary is violated or in the face of injustice. We are wired for resilience, to be able to adapt, flex, and respond appropriately to stimuli and then rest, replenish, and return once more to our optimal zone of arousal – our safe and social place where we thrive and show up as our true selves.
If we try to avoid all stress, to never challenge ourselves, to create a safe and orderly bubble for ourselves (which really doesn’t work anyway), we decrease our window of capacity. We become more rigid, less able to respond to life’s stressors, less resilient when the big storms of life come. Likewise, if we’re always in a state of activation or chronic stress, we’re always pushing, hustling, striving, or we’ve been navigating trauma, loss, or major transition, our window of capacity will be smaller with good reason.
As we expand our capacity for joy or the full gamut of human experience, then, we focus on gentle stretching not stressing of the nervous system. We take it slow and steady, mindfully, compassionately, to increase a felt sense of safety. We heal at the speed of safety, encourages my somatic embodiment instructor.
When we are mindful of our suffering and respond with kindness, remembering that suffering is part of the shared human condition, we are able to cope with life’s struggles with greater ease. We create a loving, connected, and balanced state of mind and heart that helps to reduce psychopathology while simultaneously enhancing joy and meaning in life.Kristin D. Neff & Andrew P. Costigan (source)
JOIN ME FOR A pre-recorded WORKSHOP AND expand your capacity for joy!
Clearly, in a two-hour workshop we’re not going to vault from sadness to joy or despair to elation. I’m definitely not into spiritual bypassing or relying on positive thinking. I believe that sustainable, life-giving work takes time. I ALSO believe in the life-giving power of saying yes to showing up as we are and starting where we’re at and the power of consistently taking one purposeful step and then another. One tiny seed, planted and watered over time can put down strong roots and sprout lovely shoots and change our life. Doing this work in brave community makes the journey easier.
JOIN ME IF…
- You want to take a simple and intentional first step to help you begin carving new path forward in your life
- You want to learn one of the biggest joy-destroying myths we’ve been conditioned to believe and a more honest and hopeful alternative
- You want to get curious about what JOY looks, sounds, and feels like in your body and your life and learn how to feel more comfortable with a wider range of low intensity and high intensity positive and “negative” emotions
- You want to learn how to practice self-compassion to create a sense of safety in your body and your life; learn a bit about your nervous system and what happens when you experience different core emotions and what you can do to thrive
- You want to feel empowered and walk away with 5 simple and powerful habits that you can apply to your life immediately to help expand your capacity for joy (or all emotional experience)
GO GENTLY: THERE IS NO OFFICIAL ARRIVAL POINT
There’s so much more to this process of befriending ourselves and our nervous systems or learning to expand our capacity for joy than I’ve shared here. If I had more energy (or capacity) to keep writing, I’d want to tell you about the gift of both/and and shifting away from a binary belief that life is either good or bad. We are good or bad.
I’d love to share with you how curiosity and compassion create a sense of safety so that we can begin to open up to new hopeful possibility. I’d definitely love to talk about the importance of giving ourselves permission to feel and how nobody else can do this work for us. And I’d want you to know that I’m here walking with you, practicing, showing up through really hard things to say yes to the fullness of life.
Instead, I’ll end with this simple truth: there is no actual arrival point. We’re all in progress. We’re all always in progress. This is a beautiful reality. Life will continually invite us into growth and stretching (we don’t have to go hunting for hard things any more than we have to hunt for joy) whether we feel open to it or equipped for it, or not.
When I remove the expectation or urgency around arriving fully healed and “perfected” one day at some imaginary finish line, the pressure eases. I don’t have to hustle or gobble up all the information at once. I can breathe, allow myself to be here in this moment without wishing any of it away. I can look around my life and witness the beauty, the wisdom, and even the joy that lives here, waiting to be noticed, in the midst of this ordinary day.
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