The Up-Regulation of Joy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My client Ari got married this past weekend. Given his family background, and in light of a gloomy prognosis for his future made by a former therapist, it was a major and moving event. And yet, in our sessions leading up to the ceremony, Ari seemed “dispassionate,” as I expressed it to him. I found no evidence for the joy I expected him to feel. I tried to help him connect with his happiness, while suggesting some reasons why he might find it difficult to rejoice.

During the session, I felt moved on his behalf though at first I didn’t say so. Then, toward the end of the hour, Ari said, “Trying to help me connect with my joy is not the same thing as telling me you’re happy for me.” Words to that effect. I can’t remember exactly how we got to that point, why my feelings about him mattered at that moment, but it really caught my attention. He needed to feel my joy on his behalf.

This is an issue that has been pressing on me for some time. Thanks in part to a therapist-client who stresses it in her own practice, I’m coming to realize that clients sometimes need you to enter into and “up-regulate” their joy. This term comes from affect theory and the role mothers play in either reducing or intensifying the expression of different affects, positive and negative. In the psychoanalytic vocabulary of my training, we refer to “containing” emotions, helping clients to bear with and understand their feelings, which sounds so neutral compared with the idea of entering into and turning up the volume on a particular experience.

I spent the remaining minutes of that session trying to communicate what I felt, hoping it would help deepen his experience of his own joy. I’m not sure how much it helped, given that I came late to the game.

Lately, I find myself saying things to my clients like, “I’m so happy for you! Given how hard you’ve worked, that’s so great that such-and-such happened, or you achieved X!” Or sometimes, I’ll cry out a very unprofessional “Yay!” It’s not simply an intervention “strategy” – it’s what I actually feel. Sometimes, I’m moved and tears will come to my eyes. You have to understand that, coming from my psychoanalytic background, this feels highly unorthodox and is a far cry from the so-called “blank screen.”

It makes me think of the way parents express excitement when their infants reach developmental milestones. I remember applauding, laughing, and giving great praise when my children rolled over or took their first steps. Growing children feel a sense of accomplishment and joy when they master a new challenge; their parents then step in and up-regulate that experience, intensifying the joy. I believe, and recent neurobiological studies have shown, that these expressions of joy within the parent-child relationship are essential for normal brain development.

Ari’s mother was (and still is) so hyper-anxious that I doubt she ever had much room to experience joy in his accomplishments. We’ve spent a lot of time lately talking about the ways her state of mind affected him as a growing child, how he was over-exposed and invaded by her anxiety, but we haven’t discussed this lack of joy. It seems a crucial point. With many clients who grew up in such emotionally deficient families, I’ve come to believe that a therapist feeling and expressing joy in their progress – which implicitly involves the acknowledgement of the affection and even love we feel for them – is an essential part of emotional growth in psychotherapy.

As a society, I think we have a problem with expressions of joy. Rather than up-regulating the experience, we tend to dampen it. “Settle down,” we tell our older children, or “All right, that’s enough now.” I’m not sure why joy is so threatening, but in later years, after all that rejoicing over early developmental milestones, we tend to emphasize restraint instead, down-regulating the joy. Too much joyful pride might be called bragging. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we criticize our children for being too exuberant.

After my radio interview the other night, dear friends who had listened to it live called to tell me what a great job I had done. They told me that I “rocked.” I had felt quite good about that interview – the best I’d ever done, in fact – but hearing their praise intensified my happiness. I had such a big smile on my face afterward! During the interview, I briefly talked with the hosts of that radio program about my personal difficulty in feeling joyful pride when I sold my book last year, and they were incredibly generous in stepping in to rejoice with me. They up-regulated my joy and helped me to experience it more deeply. So did my good friends who called me afterwards.

I think we could all use a lot more joy up-regulation in our lives.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

My Idea of Friendship

One day many years ago, my friend Ann told me she had scheduled an appointment with a surgeon to discuss whether to undergo a hip replacement. She and her doctor would be evaluating the results…

Belonging

Last weekend, our friend and next-door neighbor Gayle invited us to go with her to hear some live music at a local venue here in Grand Lake. We arrived after the band had already started…

The Everyday Narcissist Revisited

During the first year or so after I launched this site, my post about narcissistic behavior and the lost art of conversation was always a reader favorite. One of mine, too. I thought of it…

31 comments

    Love this article, and the explanations. The analogy of the therapist-client relationship to the mother-child relationship is beautifully done!

    It reminds me of those apocalyptic stories where the people learn through experience that anything good never lasts. It makes them afraid of crashing down from the happiness high, maybe because it’s too hard to deal with the unhappiness and the hopelessness that comes after the crash.
    I think we don’t want to up someone’s happiness out of fear that it will hurt them more when it ends. Maybe we attempt to have some control over future mood by downplaying the highs so the lows aren’t as low; we then project this desire onto others.
    I’m the first to avoid venues that may make me happy if there is a chance of failure and thus unhappiness. I’d say being happy is a display of vulnerability; like someone could decide to “pop your bubble” at any time and send you crashing down.
    Philosophically this makes no sense. If life is like a roller-coaster, keeping it flat makes it boring. You want it to go up, down, around corners, into loops… just not to the point where you’re puking all over other people.
    But yeah, you generally enjoy something less if you have nobody with whom to share your joy with.

    No, it makes perfect sense. According to affect theory, the interruption of joy (your bubble popping) is what produces shame, which can be excruciating. Being happy is definitely a “display of vulnerability,” as you put it, because shame is always a risk.

    Sometimes however, I don’t believe the praise that comes from others. I think that the person is just saying something uplifting because they know it’s what they think I want to hear. I don’t always trust praise given to me by others. I have to ask them why they believe in something that I don’t.

    This just seems to be where I’ve been this year. It’s been EXTREMELY difficult this summer. Pessimism all around :(

    I am glad that your radio interview went so well. Sincerely.

    I think it also has to do with the regulation and training of therapists. There’s no restriction on who can enter studies, so some of the training is to detach from emotions to play the role better.

    I think maybe the uptight adults are made anxious by joy. Scared of what will happen if they relax – though not scared of anything specific just knowing that letting go is scary somehow.

    This is the ‘morality’ of control – so common among psychoanalysts.

    Great post! I appreciate the fine line you therapists walk. Too little emotion from you makes us feel that you don’t care. Too much, and we’re worried about you instead of us. But I do think the “blank slate” is overrated. Genuine emotion here and there on our behalf can go a long way, particularly to those of us who have not experienced enough of it from important persons in our lives.

    I really enjoyed this article! It does feel nice when your therapist expresses joy for you. A few months ago I decided to take a step that I had been to afraid to do. It was huge for me and when I told therapist he said with joy, “That’s great I am so proud of you!” It was really great because I didn’t feel enough of my own joy and just how much I actually had accomplished. It was a great interaction and a great session just knowing how happy he was for me. Just as you stated just hearing those words or that someone is happy for you does intensify your joy.

    Joe,
    I was very impressed with your interview. As a student of psychology, with a good grasp of depth psychology, I have to commend you for keeping the focus on the tensions that we seem to be carrying individually as well as culturally.
    I heard you constantly keep the focus of the conversation with the hosts on the positive aspects of the process of therapy.
    More than anything, I am owning publicly that my bias against you because of some of the things I have read here was clearly a projection on my part and unfounded.
    I also agree that there is little support for expressions of joy. I think that it is representative of our inability to experience it as a rule individually. All I need to do is watch people with my minds eye and it is obvious. Some of my less than controlled studies of smiling at people in front of a local grocery store/national coffee shop when they walk in the store show a lack of joy endemic in our culture.
    More than anything, YOU ROCKED last Sunday.
    Warmly
    Jim

    You write, “It makes me think of the way parents express excitement when their infants reach developmental milestones. I remember applauding, laughing, and giving great praise when my children rolled over or took their first steps. Growing children feel a sense of accomplishment and joy when they master a new challenge; their parents then step in and up-regulate that experience, intensifying the joy.” I think that what you write about here goes beyond intensifying their joy. I think what you are describing is a parent enjoying their child which is really about being in a relationship where the child is delighted in and getting to see how just by being who they are they can be a joy. This is more than just experiencing their joy even more intensely although that also happens.

    For your patient I can imagine that the up-regulation is helpful but what may be even more important is the experience and the knowledge that you deeply enjoy him and that he is relatable in a joyous way. That may ultimately help him to experience his own joy in a way that feels deeply authentic and not just his joy but all of his feelings.

    I say all of this because this is what I’ve come to experience with my therapist. I know she enjoys me and this gives me a lot of confidence and is gradually allowing me to claim who I am.