Some studies found that positive experiences can lead to a relapse in drug’s addict just as much as negative experiences can.
In other words, you can have a bad and a stressful day at work and then relapse. And you can also have a good day where everything goes right and relapse. Weird, but there is an explanation.
There are 2 explanations, actually. The first one is that you are having a good day and a lot of good things are happening, so you want to celebrate. The second explanation is that, in fact, joy is as scary and as painful as misery is.
I would like to stick to the second explanation. Here is why.
We use some behaviors to numb the uncomfortable and painful emotions.
It’s not about the behaviors themselves; we can use anything to numb our feelings.
For some people it’s drugs. For other people it’s porn. For some people, it’s social media. For some, it’s partying. And for others, it’s just wasting time using anything that can help them do that.
In each case, the purpose is almost the same. We want to make an uncomfortable emotion go away.
Let’s give your favorite numbing method a name. Let’s call it: X. Whether it’s drugs, porn, or social media, or getting into new relationships, or whatever.
And let’s give the uncomfortable emotions you want to numb a name, too. Let’s call them: Y. Whether they are stress, loneliness, anxiety, depression, or whatever. Any intense emotion that you consider painful or uncomfortable.
Here is your mind’s logic: Feel Y? Do X to make Y go away. And it becomes a trigger; Y triggers X.
X will numb Y. But it will numb the rest of the intense emotions as well — Joy included.
Every time you feel any of the negative emotions, you numb them. The more intense they become, the more viciously you numb. And in the process, you even numb your ability to feel joy and other good emotions.
You become emotionally numb.
But still, this doesn’t explain how joy can be painful or scary that we try to numb it.
The Nature of Joy
Joy is a strong emotion.
Not only does it feel strong and intense but also it’s connected to your own self-worth — do I deserve to feel this good?
When you feel it, two things will happen. Or more accurately, two things will be triggered.
First, you will be feeling a strong and an intense emotion. Yes, it is a positive emotion but it is strong. Well, can you name other strong emotions? Exactly! The Y. Stress, depression, misery, dissatisfaction …etc.
To your mind, joy and depression are similar because they are as strong as each other. In one study, they found that people with traumatic experiences tend to fear success [source]. The argument is that the feelings of excitement feel similar to the feelings of the trauma they’ve been through in the past. The similarity lies in the intensity of the excitement. It’s so intense that it feels as intense as the original feelings of the trauma.
Joy is similar. It feels like the negative and painful emotions because it feels as intense as they feel.
Second, joy is connected to your own feelings of worthiness. Feeling it can make you question your own worthiness and whether you deserve to feel this good. Or, whether you deserve to get good things that make you feel joyful.
Of course, this is related to your already existed self-worth. The more you struggle with your self-worth, the more you will question yourself when you start feeling good.
This questioning will invite other emotions. Guilt (like, joy is a mistake), Shame (I don’t deserve happiness, I’m too bad to feel good), self-doubts, fear (this will not last and it will go away). This is what I recall right now. But, you get the pattern. It’s about believing that you are not good enough to feel good.
This combination makes joy a very difficult emotion. It’s strong and thus it triggers us to numb it just like we do with the other negative and painful emotions. And as if that is not enough, it brings our own worthiness into question when we feel it.
What Should You Do?
There is a lot to be said about emotional resilience and enduring difficult emotions.
You build your emotional resilience by sitting down with uncomfortable emotions. For instance, you have a stressful day and you choose not to numb those feelings of stress. You withstand them and feel them. Next time when you feel stress, you’ll be able to handle it more efficiently.
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) is a therapy used to handle the uncomfortable feelings and manage them better. You basically feel the painful emotion without fighting it. You feel it and accept its existence. And then, you make a commitment to do something based on what your mind is trying to tell you.
This is what you should do with joy, too. Handle it just as you handle an uncomfortable emotion.
Know that it’s going to be uncomfortable to feel like you are doing good. It’s going to be uncomfortable to feel that this joy and good things won’t last. Withstand this discomfort. Sit with it. Eventually, this discomfort will go away.
That’s for the first part. Joy is as intense as any other negative emotion. For the second part, joy is also connected to our worthiness. It can trigger self-doubts and guilt and shame.
Here you have to challenge the belief that you are not worthy of something good. I mean, REALLY challenge it.
Most likely, this belief was developed through a dysfunctional childhood in which the individual made feel like he/she is not good enough. This dysfunctional belief also got conditioned by the person’s actions in adulthood and also the environment in which they lived.
Challenge it as much as you can. Do good things to yourself on purpose and sit with the discomfort that follows. Understand that we are all somehow wounded and we all feel insecure about something in our lives.
Again, sit with discomfort and withstand it. Understand that it is going to be painful but you’ll endure the pain. You will prove to yourself that you do deserve happiness and good things.
Start by doing small good things to yourself. A new haircut, a healthy meal, saying “Fuck you!” to a bully, working hard on an important goal, pursuing something you care about, …etc. Feel that discomfort and withstand it. Build up from there.
This way, you are telling your mind that you do deserve those good things. Self-care can do wonders to the way you feel about yourself, though it might be painful at first to some of us.
Putting This Together: How I Personally Resist Joy
We often don’t allow ourselves to feel joy and happiness. We stop ourselves from doing good things to ourselves. We self-sabotage our own process in order not to feel joy and happiness.
One, because it’s intense and we are not used to feeling intense emotions; we numb intense emotions. Two, it’s connected to our self-worth and thus it triggers our self-doubts and our fears of losing the source of this joy.
That’s why many of us are afraid when good things happen to them. We’re not used to feeling intense emotions. We are afraid they won’t last. We question whether we deserve to feel this good (because we don’t feel that we are this good).
Becoming aware of this is the first step. I know that running away from pain has caused me a lot. And now I also know that running away from joy is causing me the same, if not more.
Many dreams I’ve put on pause in order not to feel any intense emotions, whether they were joy or disappointment. Deep down, I kind of felt that it’s going to be painful either I failed or succeeded.
So, it wasn’t only fear of failure. It was fear of success. The intense emotions and the constant questioning of whether I actually deserve joy or not.
The thought that I might succeed is as painful as the thought that I might fail.
This fear of joy caused me to never give it my all. I get excited about a new book or product idea, but afterward, I’m feeling bad and I do what it takes to numb those anticipated feelings of joy.
I remember finishing a chapter of my book once and then feeling very bad that I start numbing. I remember making a few sales and then feeling very excited and then quickly feeling very bad. I remember feeling like there is something wrong with me when I have a very productive day.
I can’t stand the strong and intense feelings of joy and happiness. I numb all the intense emotions using my own destructive means. And I feel that I’m too bad to feel that good; that these good feelings are not going to last and I’ll be hurt afterward.
Those are my confessions. Those are my flaws. At least, this is my best prediction for what has been a life-long series of self-sabotage and numbing to the point of feeling empty at times.
Know that joy is as scary as misery. Push through the discomfort. Understand that it is going to hurt at times. Small self-care actions can help you feel more worthy of joy.
But mostly, have some courage.
Just as you need courage to survive a shit storm of painful emotions such as depression, fear, disappointment, hurt, or misery, you need courage to be able to feel joy and happiness and fulfillment.