I’d like you to do a little exercise before you delve into this article. Read the instructions below, do the exercise and then come back to the article when you’re finished. Are you in? Great!
Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth to center yourself. Then, think about all of the wonderful things in your life right now, no detail is too small. Let your mind fill with all of the things that are good and wonderful for you – family, friends, health, work, finances, recent experiences, a recent purchase, etc. Settle into the thoughts and let them evoke a warmness inside of you that may even bring a slight smile to your face. See how long you can hold onto that warmth and goodness before it dissipates. When it does, come back to this article.
Now that I am aware of my mind’s tendency to cut short the feeling of joy I’ve learned to notice when it happens, no longer rolling with it, but calling it out – ‘Oh there you go again Shanna.’
So how’d it go? How long were you able to let the feeling of joy inhabit your body? A few seconds, minutes, hours? Maybe you’re even picking this article back up after a full day of walking around joyous (you go girl!)? If you’re like most of us you were likely only able to hold the emotion for a few seconds or minutes before your mind started to sabotage your “feel good” feelings by focusing on all that could be better in your life, current problems or even flat out fabricating worst case scenarios for you to ponder.
As a psychologist, I see this frequently in my work in the wellbeing space with clients. And I have personally been working on combatting this tendency pretty much most of my adult life. Whenever I try to hold the feeling of joy for an extended period of time, my mind conjures up things to worry about or reminds me of challenges I or my family members face. Many sisters report similar experiences.
In this fourth decade of living, I am learning to unapologetically seek out the things in life that bring me joy and minimize the things that don’t.
I’ve heard this tendency referred to in different ways. In social psychology researchers refer to it as a negativity bias, the tendency of our minds to give greater weight to negative experiences. Or an “upper limit problem” a phrase coined by Gay Hendricks in the book The Big Leap. Hendricks describes it as a preset max joy threshold we all carry, that when we exceed it our minds are triggered to recalibrate to our threshold.
What we view as protecting ourselves may rob us of pleasure
But for Black and Brown women, it’s not just psychological, we have to also bring into consideration the sociological. I shared some thoughts on this in a TEDx talk in 2019, detailing my default to walk around with a defensive posture. A posture constructed by: 1) racial stereotypes that keep me vigilant about how others engage with me, 2) fear of raising Black children in the U.S., that keeps me alert and proactive about my children’s life experiences and 3) gender stereotypes that I’m constantly having to push against to achieve professional goals. While I do understand that this defensive posture is harmful, because it suppresses my maximum joy threshold, it’s a form of protection for me and those I care about.
So what can we do about it? How can we increase our joy threshold in spite of the reality we live in? Here are a few suggestions:
Practice feeling joy. A form of meditation called metta or loving kindness encourages us to focus on holding loving thoughts for ourselves and then extending those feeling to others. If you struggle to feel joyous for yourself, sometimes using yourself as a conduit to hold joy for others can help. You start by reaffirming all of the joyous things you have or want in your life: “May I be happy”, “May I be healthy”, “May I be safe” and then you start to affirm those same things for others. Or you can simply be intentional about holding joy in your body throughout the day for micro moments. Through practice we can raise our joy threshold by making the feeling a regular and recurrent part of our days. These practices have helped me immensely.
Notice when your mind sabotages your feelings of joy. Now that I am aware of my mind’s tendency to cut short the feeling of joy I’ve learned to notice when it happens, no longer rolling with it, but calling it out – “Oh there you go again Shanna”. Once I notice, I’m back in power and I can decide to reconnect with the feeling, instead of going down the negativity bias rabbit hole.
Seek out joy. In this fourth decade of living, I am learning to unapologetically seek out the things in life that bring me joy and minimize the things that don’t. I front-burner myself as much as possible, even while being a mother, wife and small business owner. By being intentional about seeking joy we normalize the experience, give ourselves permission to feel it and collect plenty of content for meditative reflection.
Sis, I just want you to know: you are worthy of joy. And you deserve to feel it not just for a few seconds or couple of minutes but all of the time. Make the decision today to increase your joy threshold.