The Up-Regulation of Joy

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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.

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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.

    For those of us whose therapists have become stand-ins for a “good enough” parent, it makes perfect sense that we would benefit from feeling that the therapist is genuinely happy for us. In my own therapy, it’s my therapist’s expressions of emotions that have been some of the most healing of moments for me. Since my own parents’ reactions to me were, shall we say, out of the norm, having my therapist react the way a “good enough” parent might deeply affects me. It shows me that I’m worth another person’s feelings of joy or sadness, that it’s something I really should have gotten from my parents, and that it’s okay to allow others to feel things on my behalf – perhaps even okay to expect them to.

    I feel very fortunate to have a therapist who is secure enough with his skills and boundaries to be able to share some of his emotions about me with me. I’d venture to guess that your clients feel fortunate as well.

    And you did rock that interview!

    Thank you for listening to it! I think this idea that we are stand-ins for the parents who weren’t good enough — it makes many therapists uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit with what we were taught about “professionalism.” I think therapists become more relaxed as they age and grow more emotional over time.

    Great post! Up-regulating joy is something that happens regularly in sessions with my therapist. I often find that experiencing personal joy is difficult for myself, yet through thoughtful and timely expressions of joy for and about me, my therapist has modeled it is not only ok to feel that way, it is also part of a very human element.

    The best part of learning how to do this…I can now pass it along to others by acknowledging with genuine pleasure, joyful experiences in their lives. This helps me remember there truly is joy out there, and by sharing in someone else’s joy, ( Yalom refers to this as the ripple effect) my own sense of self joy is magnified.

    I’m glad that you are experiencing this with your own clients. Are you finding that it is deepening the contact?

    “coming from my psychoanalytic background, this feels highly unorthodox and is a far cry from the so-called “blank screen.”

    I am so happy to read that some blank screens can show such capability to evolve into humans within their work environment :)

    Actually the “blank screen” is one of the most important factors that make me feel reluctant to applaud clinical psychology in its entirety. I am more drawn towards practices where real human beings interact with each other, and I am especially fond of transactional analysis.

    (This comment is just bits and pieces of unfinished thoughts, please take it as such. )

    The problem is that once your analyst displays affection or emotion, it unlocks excruciating needs and desires that can never really be fulfilled. We can’t go back in time, or find new, loving parents as adults. It’s simply too late. However, the praise you described in your post sounds safe, and seems like it could only enhance your relationship with your client.

    I still think it’s a fine line. This is where excellent training comes in, I suppose.

    Dear Dr. Burgo,
    You are such a lovely person! I’m so happy for you that you were able to enjoy joy. Thank you for sharing your experience. My therapist used to do this with me. We never discussed it but I believe her joy for me was how she truly felt at the moment. I could sense her love for me and genuine happiness in my experience. I in turn do this spontaneously now with my son and husband. I miss my therapist terribly as she died unexpectedly in 2010. I found your blog a year ago and find your posts insightful and comforting. I’m very grateful.

    Maybe in Latin – Spanish speaking countries everyone is a bit more uninhibited and expresses joy much more freely than in other societies. This lack of inhibition, including that of the therapist, allows us to express our patient´s triumphs and successes in a more acceptable and normal manner, and so I, personally, do give a “good pat in the back” and express joy when someone acknowledges their own joy and achievements. Their mothers or present relationships never did, so they appreciate it when their therapists do. Being in touch with your emotions is good any time. I certainly agree when you say “we could all use a lot more joy up-regulation in our lives”!

    I think a more all-encompassing concept would simply be empathy. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. It’s a human need to feel like we’re not in it alone, whether in bad times, or even good. It’s important that our emotions matter to others, especially when the other person is part of an important relationship to us. Likely, for your client, their relationship with you was an important one.

    By the way, I’m enjoying your “Why do I do that?” book. Thank you =)

    Thank YOU, John. I get what you’re saying about empathy, but there is this one small difference — that you would enter into and then INTENSIFY the other person’s experience. I think this is important, too.

    “Yay!” What a relief to move from the orthodoxy of practice to being authentic. As you too may apparently feel, being a real person in an authentic relationship with your clientmay in and of itself be that secret ingredient to our clients’ transformations.

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