I’ve been facilitating several women’s leadership programs this month and one of the themes that’s bubbled up is – what I’ll call – the shadow side of joy. The women I work with are at the top of their game, running incredible companies, leading organizations through industry-wide change, expanding families, giving back to their communities. They are brilliant and kind and generous. And wow.
Most of the programs I run are centered around taking space for a day or two. This space allows for some time to reflect and reset before traveling down the next stretch of to-dos. The fascinating thing I’m observing is that the minute they take this pause to consider how “well” things are going, they freeze. They become scared, uncomfortable, and even withdrawn. It is extremely hard for them to sit with the good for a beat.
In the past, I would have attributed this to overachievement. There’s no time to pause, let’s move onto the next mountain to climb. Tons to do. Let’s keep reaching for impact, achievement, and motion. What I’m realizing, however, is that it’s much deeper than an addiction to overachievement. It’s much darker and more raw. It’s actually a sheer dread that if I stop for too long to acknowledge and appreciate what I have, it might prompt the other shoe to drop. It might trigger something bad – a sickness, a loss, a failure.
Growing up Greek, I am all-too-familiar with waiting for the other shoe to drop. Our entire culture is haunted by the evil eye – don’t ever talk about what is good in your life because you will be doomed and it will be taken away. Guaranteed. (That’s the unedited version. The edited version looks like wearing a little blue charm around any part of your body that warrants jewelry. But believe me, there is an entire heritage of fear bundled in that blue stone – it’s not for decoration). This entire mindset of waiting for the other shoe to drop presupposes that there is only so much good we can handle in our lives – and once it’s reached the cap, good luck and brace yourself. The tragedy in all of this is that we never get to actually experience joy. We work for joy our entire lives and when we sense it’s right around the corner, the dread kicks in. I don’t deserve this, what if it’s taken away, what if I lose everything, what if he gets sick, what if something happens to her, I can’t survive without them, I can’t be that lucky, I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There is no scarier emotion than joy. Because allowing yourself to feel it utterly and completely is also an acknowledgement that it can’t always be this way. I wish I had a magic bullet leadership tool for this one, but I don’t. I, too, struggle with a propensity towards action so that I don’t have to sit with the discomfort that it’s not always going to be like this. And it suffocates me.
What I do want to offer is an invitation. While this waiting for the other shoe to drop syndrome may be the very tangible shadow side of joy, we do have a choice. The ups and downs of life are part of the human experience. And I wonder if we can spend the ups in gratitude, presence, and appreciation rather than in despair, worry, and angst. Rather than doubling-down on the downs, I wonder if we can be where we are. Perhaps even open ourselves up to the possibility that sitting in joy may actually bring forth more of it. I predict that joy can beget more joy because we learn to build a muscle of accessing it, sitting in it, celebrating it, and knowing what the heck to do with it when it arrives. While it’s scary to ponder what we might lose, I think it’s much scarier to never actually live and appreciate what is.
I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like would have an opposite, which I would like.Coco Chanel
From Theory to Action
Make a list of everything that is good in your life. I want a nice, long list. Really sit with the people, places, experiences, and emotions that arise on this list. Don’t just write them – feel them. What do you appreciate? Why? How has this person shaped your life? How did that experience unlock something for you?
Notice any discomfort as you add items to your list (worry, angst, regret, remorse, etc.) and quietly redirect yourself back to that space of love, appreciation, and honoring. Just like waiting for the other shoe to drop is a mental and cultural habit, amplifying joy and creating resiliency around joy is a habit.
Give yourself a few minutes each day to access joy – through memory or live experience. Rather than worrying about its transience, focus on its presence in that moment. You are actively expanding your cap for joy.