Armor-piercing gratitude

I suppose it’s natural that right now – in the midst of my “30 days, 30 acts of (expansive, unabashed, downright mushy) gratitude” challenge – I’d be interested in exploring gratitude from every possible angle. I’m like that. During my year of fearless love, it seemed that every conversation I had, every article and book I read led me back to the subject of love. By the end of 2011, I believed (and still do) that love lies at the heart of every meaningful thing we do in this world.

So, given my total preoccupation, you can imagine my nerdy excitement when Brene Brown dedicated quite a bit of space in her new book Daring Greatly to the psychological links between vulnerability, gratitude, and joy.

As it turns out, we humans, in our attempts to be invincible, have many armors we wear to shield ourselves from vulnerability because, let’s face it, vulnerability is at best extremely uncomfortable, and at worst terrifying. One of the ways we protect ourselves, according to Brown, is to lace our joy with a deep sense of foreboding, a nagging, underlying notion that this is just too amazing to last.

For example, we might fall in love with someone that makes us feel heard and valuable and gorgeous and tingly, and instead of throwing ourselves headlong into the happiness of feeling all those things, we start (consciously or unconsciously) preparing ourselves for the ending. We may love madly but, in the pauses, we imagine our new love losing interest in us, leaving us for someone else, even dying.

We imagine the worst thing that can happen and in imagining that thing, we believe we are protected from the emotional devastation of being blindsided.

In other words, we hedge our bets, tempering our joy in the hopes that our potential heartbreak won’t hurt as much. We dull our present happiness intentionally because along with the wonderful, we see an unavoidable truth: this could all slip away in an instant.

I think most of us – maybe all of us – have done this. I did it big time right after my first son, Dillon, was born. I hadn’t intended to get pregnant, hadn’t even decided how I felt about having children… at all… ever. When my pregnancy was confirmed (four times), I panicked. I cried. I cursed my body for betraying me. I considered terminating the pregnancy every minute of every day and during every sleepless night.

Until I didn’t.

By the time I gave birth, I’d fallen in love with the boy I was carrying, but I was wracked with guilt and a terrible certainty that I would be punished for my initial reaction. For at least the first year of my son’s life, every single moment of parental joy was laced with foreboding. I imagined a million terrible scenarios, all the ways there are to lose a child.

Eventually I let go of my guilt, realizing that I had to if I ever hoped to have a healthy relationship with my son. But that instinct to hold back, to not surrender completely to our joy exists for all of us. So I read with enormous interest when Brene Brown wrote about the superpower of gratitude. <– Those are my words. Here are hers:

Even those of us who have learned to lean into joy and embrace our experiences are not immune to the uncomfortable quake of vulnerability that often accompanies joyful moments. We’ve just learned how to use it as a reminder rather than a warning shot… For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.

Gratitude, therefore, emerged from the data as the antidote to foreboding joy… Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy… If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.

I love that – a real-world, boots-on-the-ground, practical application of gratitude. Instead of thinking, “This is too perfect; I’m too happy, too blessed,” think, “I’m so out-of-this-world grateful for this moment.”

In any given moment, your good fortune – the great news, the electrifying turn of events, the forces of love that every day find their unwavering way to you – are an invitation, not a warning, a reminder that this is your one and only life; the worse thing you can do is hedge your bets and live it halfway.


  1. Christie on January 18, 2013 at 1:11 am

    Well, you really got the flashlight out and beamed it right into all the dark areas of my heart and soul! Yep, this post was written just for me…well me and all the rest of j’s tribe of love warriors :^)

    Thank you for sharing your words and Brene’s words, these particular words are what I most needed to hear at this particular moment!

    You can turn the flashlight off now, or at least shine it in another direction please. I am getting ready to go to sleep now and I need to cover up the exposed bits, they are a tad bit chilly…very grateful but chilly ♥

    • j on January 18, 2013 at 9:13 am

      You’re welcome! I don’t think I hold back on joy very often anymore, but I do think that shifting our focus from what we lack (attention, free time, money, external validation) to what we have (love, love, and did I mention love?) alters our insides a bit, changes our perspective. It’s only been a couple of weeks, but this focus on gratitude keeps me from spinning up my insecurities and doubts. Most of the time, switching my focus works almost like meditation. It calms me the hell down.

      I hope you slept! xo

  2. Clare Flourish on January 18, 2013 at 7:49 am

    There is enough and we are enough. There is so much beauty and joy in the every day. There is no reassurance in the fear of what might happen. There is reassurance, though, in imagining really bad things happening and knowing I can deal with them. I needed quite a way out scenario before I thought it would be too much for me.

    • j on January 18, 2013 at 9:20 am

      There’s a whole body of research on that, the benefits of pessimism – imagining the worst because a) it helps you prepare for that if it happens and b) you tend to only be pleasantly surprised.

      It doesn’t work for me because the worst I can imagine almost never actually happens, so I waste time expending mental/emotional energy on something I didn’t have to deal with at all. Energy I could have spent doing something more positive, more beneficial to the world.

      That said, one of my literary heroes David Rakoff wrote a whole book, HALF EMPTY, that explored the benefits of pessimistic thought, and I absolutely loved it.

      • Clare Flourish on January 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

        It was not pessimism, but a thought experiment.

        What would I do if my house burned down? Well, I have savings, I have friends, I am able-bodied and sufficiently intelligent, I could cope. Even strangers will help, I think, in the immediate crisis. I do not think my house will burn down, but imagining something pretty bad and realising that I could cope with it helps me to reduce more nebulous fears.

        • j on January 19, 2013 at 8:24 am

          The research I’m talking about totally supports what you’re saying. It may not be exactly the same thing but defensive pessimism, which I think is similar to what you’re calling a thought experiment, is all about managing your anxiety by imagining (and preparing for) bad outcomes. It’s the “preparing for” part that I don’t do… which probably mitigates the positive effects. 🙂

          In any case, I absolutely believe that you can be positively effected by negative thinking sometimes.

  3. Nancy on January 18, 2013 at 9:13 am

    J, this is so powerful. I never cease to marvel that we are on a similar path in many ways — and we have the same times of awakenings at the same times. I am grateful for what Christie calls your flashlight!


  4. Nancy on January 18, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Oops…same types of awakenings at the same times. I’m grateful for my internal error auditor, even if she is late some times. 😉

    • j on January 18, 2013 at 9:24 am

      i can’t remember if I shared this on my blog before, but I once told someone that, in the spirit of that Seinfeld episode where the gang all decides to say “You’re so good looking” whenever someone sneezes (rather than “bless you)”, she should read every typo as a secret code for “I adore you.”

      That’s how all typos on this site shall be treated. 🙂

      I love that we’re on the same trajectory. It makes the words we share much more meaningful. <3

  5. Ann Marie Gamble (@amgamble) on January 18, 2013 at 9:24 am

    The example of caring for children is a good one: real harm can be done by preparing for the worst instead of hugging the present. I had different specifics, but I also decided “this is the kind of parent I’m going to be and the kind of parent-child interaction I’m going to have” (and then had to read up on how to do that and refrain from flinching as the babies who hadn’t been privy to that history leaped in).

    Generally, being around babies has been opening for me. They’re starting from now, and while it’s instructive for them to hear about why the elderly relatives are all tensed up about certain situations, the kids don’t have those reflexive responses. We can look at this situation fresh.

    • j on January 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

      So true. I think one of the most important things I wanted to do as a parent was not pass on my wounds.

      I don’t remember a time when I had a healthy relationship with food (though I’m closer now than ever before). Having battled through an eating disorder during most of my adult life, I was grateful when I had boys. Although I know that body image issues and eating disorders can and do happen with boys, it is far more common with girls, and I was really nervous that I would unconsciously model the attitudes and beliefs that led to years of struggle for me.

      With our kids, we mostly get a clean slate. As you say, we can look at old landmines with fresh eyes… maybe even resolving some of our issues in the process.

  6. Al Riske on January 18, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Knowing that our joy can end as easily as it began reminds us to be grateful for each moment.

    • j on January 18, 2013 at 10:09 am

      Yes! Although that isn’t always our first instinct. Like so many worthwhile things, it might be more a practice than a constant state of being.

  7. Pam on January 18, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Love the post.

    I’m good at enjoying the joy. In fact, as I get pretty petulant when things aren’t trending pleasant-to-delightful for me, I guess I look at trouble and strife as some kind of misdirected delivery. :p

    Now, when I know something’s coming down the pike (like my mom’s open heart surgery) I am way too good at spinning out all the possible ways it will suck for me and everyone else concerned. Way too good. I can angst myself into quite a state, alas. I just don’t have a habit of going there when things are grooving along.

    • j on January 19, 2013 at 8:37 am

      Thank you on the post-love. I loved writing it.

      I think I’m just like you in that I’m definitely a “dive headlong into joy” person, but I do spin myself up with worry over potentially problematic situations.

      Oh, and launches. In my head, in the middle of the night, opening my own Etsy store was analogous to launching a rocket into space, or crossing the expanse of the grand canyon on a tightrope. (Note: during daylight, it was more like… you know… launching an Etsy store.)

      Thinking about your mom. xoxo

      • Pam on January 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

        Yes, I’ve had a bunch of middle-of-the-night/wee-hours-of-the-morning instances of decisions and problems seeming impossibly huge of late, so I have an idea of the launch angst. It turned out to be a lovely launch! xoxo (Thank you for the Mom-thoughts!)

        • j on January 19, 2013 at 5:53 pm

          You helped the launch be lovely. xo

  8. Chris Edgar on January 19, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Hi J, I can definitely relate to that sense of being unable to contain how incredible my life seems sometimes — there’s a feeling that I need to retreat from the incredibleness in order to keep myself from exploding or something like that. It was quite a revelation to see that this is what actually holds me back from getting what I want in most cases.

    • j on January 19, 2013 at 6:12 pm

      That’s a really good point, Chris. I think pulling back from our happiest moments means we pull back from our biggest, truest selves. Are we ever more authentic than when we are all lit up and seized with joy? If we never let that part of ourselves shine, never get that naked for others to see, than we never open ourselves fully to the opportunity that that kind of authenticity (and intimacy) brings.

      So glad you pointed that out!

  9. Marcie on January 19, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    WOW – I can’t say I’ve ever really considered the flip side of joy..the foreboding and fear. But – when I do stop to think and examine – I see how it’s always there. Thought-provoking and inspiring. Thank-you for this!

    • j on January 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      I know. I love her phrasing – the quake of vulnerability that accompanies joy. It’s that, exactly. A trembling realization that the moment is precious. Leaning into that is actually a brave and hopeful act.

      Thank YOU, Marcie. xo

  10. KjM on January 19, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Armor-piercing Judy, more like. You, as long as I’ve read your posts and far longer presumably, have this ability to reach deep into the heart of…well, your readers as much anything else.

    I, no more than most I’d guess, know the ‘this is too good to be true’ feeling, the holding back, the tempering of joy with a hedged bet. My father was like that, though he knew he was, and deeply understood how that might limit what should not be limited. He was the most conscious man I’ve ever known.

    My mother, on the other hand, was wide open. Her heart sang.

    I’m an odd blend of the two. But I get my bedrock optimism from her, and it informs much of my life and my journey through it.

    I hadn’t thought of things in the terms used in your blog, or in the book by Brene Brown, but yes, I know the joy of letting a slow smile steal across my face when I let myself be grateful for some or other circumstance in my life. And there are so, so many that trigger that smile.

    I’m learning to live slowly. To savor. To experience.

    “That’s a crock,” they say.

    “No,” comes the reply, “life’s more a crockpot.”

    Wishing you well from here in the heartland.

    • j on January 19, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      Oh, Kevin, how I love the way you think, and then express those thoughts. I’m liking the metaphor of a crockpot, the slow cooking, the ease if you choose to let it be easy.

      And I love your description of your mom! I will think I’ve done something incredibly right if, someday, my boys describe me as wide open with a singing heart.

      But wait! The heartland! Did you move, or are you being metaphoric?

      • KjM on January 19, 2013 at 8:20 pm

        No, not being — in this anyway — metaphoric. I really am in Kansas City, MO now. I drove here in early January and live in a city for the first time in my life. a new experience.

        And landlocked. I was once before, when I lived just over the border from Geneva for two year back in the 80s. But still new-ish as an experience.

        A new phase. New things to experience. I’m enjoying it.

        Oh, by the way, do you remember that blog post I wrote once about spending the night by my father’s bed in ICU? Easily Mused is putting a literary magazine together (EM-Dash) and they’ve selected that as one of the essay pieces for their inaugural issue.

        I think Dad would be pleased.

        • j on January 20, 2013 at 6:49 pm

          Of course I remember that post; I loved it! Yay for Easily Mused! Clearly, they have great taste. I’ll have to check them out. I definitely want to know when they launch!

          Your dad would absolutely be pleased and proud. (So am I!)

          I have to watch for homeland haiku on Twitter. 😉


  11. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on January 21, 2013 at 11:07 am

    J, this might be my favorite post you’ve ever written. I am a practical, “boots-on-the-ground” (as you put it) person at heart, and as much as I enjoy philosophizing about such concepts, I appreciate even more when they can be tied to a solid, useful practice. I *love* this: “Gratitude, therefore, emerged from the data as the antidote to foreboding joy.” I will be attempting to practice this antidote in my own life in the future. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • j on January 22, 2013 at 8:45 am

      Thanks, Annie!

      I’m practical too. I use the term “boots on the ground” because I like that imagery – I’m more a love warrior than a goddess, no doubt about it. The goal, I think, is to make the gap between what we believe and what we actually DO be as tiny as possible. And DOING is key.

  12. Becky on January 23, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    I mean really, yes!
    I’ve spent, no I spent (past tense) so much of my life, for as long as I have memories, waiting for that other shoe to fall. I think, maybe, sometimes because I waited with such force or abundance or something, that I might have actually made the other shoe fall — self-fulfilling prophecy and all. Not to mention the vibe your giving to others.
    Getting away from that is never as easy as “just do it” and all those other slogans, but when you force yourself to be grateful (and yes, when you’re a perpetual worry-wort you must force yourself), then, in time, you have a new self-fulfilling prophecy — the one that lets you accept the happiness and be grateful in those moments, regardless of what the next moment might be.

    • Becky on January 23, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      You’re — not your. I blame thick thumbs and not wearing my glasses.

      • j on January 24, 2013 at 8:38 am

        I think you’re so right about how the vibes we give off can create self-fulfilling prophecies. We attract what we put out into the world, which all by itself is a good reason to force ourselves to be grateful and present… until we don’t have to force it anymore.

        Excellent point. And my lack of glasses caused me not to even notice your typo. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

  13. Joanne Marie Firth on January 25, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    I missed this post and I am glad I found it. Learning to embrace happiness fully will probably take me the rest of my life. Like many, I wait for disaster to strike, in the midst of my happiest moments.

    I shall try to “surrender to joy” every day. I thank you for the reminder.

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