The Risks of Joy

This past week, one of my clients returned from an exotic vacation and told me he’d felt almost nothing during the trip. He took no pleasure in any of his adventurous activities, and when there was a guide involved, my client felt preoccupied with the impression he was making upon the other person rather than focusing on the adventure itself.

In another session this last week, one of my clients told me about several interactions in which she had wanted contact with other people, wanted to feel that they were genuinely interested in her, but when they actually did ask her a question about herself, she replied in a terse, closed-end fashion that shut down their interest.

The issues coming up in these two sessions strike me as similar. Both of my clients had a hard time entering fully into an experience that would have given them pleasure. I see it as a problem with joy and the risks it involves. Opening oneself to the possibility of joy also means exposing yourself to potential disappointment and shame.

Both of these clients struggle with shame. The first suffers from shame-based social anxiety so severe that he tries to make sure no one ever truly “sees” him; instead, he exerts control over his entire demeanor and presents a fully regulated, scripted personality to convey the impression he wants. On an unconscious (and sometimes conscious) level, he feels defective and damaged; he will do just about anything to avoid coming into contact with the shame at his core. As a result, he seems detached and unemotional. Although he can’t often admit it to himself, he feels profoundly lonely.

The second client has a much more vivid emotional life. She feels a great deal of anguish about how she appears to other people, whether they respect her or see her instead as incompetent or even worse, boring. She has close friends with whom she can be herself; but with acquaintances, she feels inhibited and on guard, constantly preoccupied with the impression she is making. As a result, she easily comes across as shy or reserved, not truly open to intimate contact.

All this reminds me of my own family, divided into two different camps I will call the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, of which I am the foremost proponent, get excited about and anticipate future experiences; but as a result, we are sometimes deeply disappointed when things don’t turn out as we had hoped. The pessimists believe that one shouldn’t get too excited about the future because chances are you’ll only be disappointed. Better not to get excited in the first place than to experience such pain.

The pessimists in my family sometimes strike me as joyless. It’s true that they don’t experience the kind of pain that I do when I’m disappointed, but they don’t enjoy their successes or satisfactions as fully as I do, either. Opening yourself to the possibility of joy means accepting that painful disappointment may be your lot instead. This is one of the themes of my first book – that you can’t pick and choose which emotions you’ll allow yourself to feel, and when you dampen or suppress one, you tend to restrict your entire emotional range.

Both of my clients lead fairly joyless lives. They find it nearly impossible to open up to the possibility of joy because they are terrified – not so much of disappointment as of experiencing shame. My female client badly wants meaningful human contact but fears meeting rejection (and shame). As a result, she hides her interest and thus thwarts the potential joy of feeling deeply connected to and known by other people.

My male client is more heavily defended. For the most part, he has completely repressed the part of him that wants joyful human contact, and as a result, he leads an existence without the possibility of joy. He seems resigned to a life without intimacy; helping this client to reveal himself to me, to fully become my client and let me care about him, has been a major challenge.

The joy-shame connection has its roots in the early mother-infant relationship and is best understood in terms of affect theory. We come into this world primed for joyful interaction with our caretakers. Enjoyment-joy is one of the nine genetically built-in affects; when it is interrupted – say, when our joyful interest in mother is met with indifference or worse – shame affect is the result. If babies have that early experience again and again, when attachment between infant and mother goes badly awry, core shame is the result and the complex of emotions around enjoyment-joy shuts down.

In other words, the potential experience of joy threatens the emergence of shame and must be avoided at all costs. Heavy defenses against shame thus limit the opportunity to experience joy in life.

By Joseph Burgo

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


  1. This is an interesting, timely post for me. I am days away from giving birth to my second child. Whenever someone asks me if I am excited all it does is annoy me! I become really short and closed off to the person. By your description above, I am a pessimist. (Although I’d prefer the term realist!) I try not to look forward to things in case I am let down or disappointed. Although this obviously has its drawbacks, I would argue that I do feel joy. I experience moments of great joy in the moment that they are happening. I think there’s a difference between anticipatory joy and experiential joy. I wonder what you think about that distinction? Through a few years of therapy I have been encouraged to live in the present moment, not dwelling too much in depressing thoughts of the past and not worrying too much about anxious thoughts of the future.

    In my life I have suffered many disappointments and been let down by trusted people, mainly my parents. Trust is an issue of mine. I am aware that this is part of my schema and have strategies I can use to help me navigate life. Regardless of this I still refuse to anticipate joyful experiences with excitement. Instead I favour living in the moment and being level headed about all eventualities. My first experience of childbirth was traumatic and not one I’d ever want to repeat. Therefore, I am apprehensive about this next one, hopeful that it will be a more positive experience but more looking forward to the months that will follow when I have recovered from the major operation and our new family has settled into itself.

    I am not excited or joyful about what has not happened yet however. I know from previous experience that the joy will flood me when the moment comes.

    1. Interesting distinction and I think I might agree. I’d like to know what type of experiences typically floods you with joy and how much they result from your relationships with other people.

      1. Thank you for your reply Jo.

        Moments that have flooded me with joy…

        Holding my newborn in my arms and feeding her. I’ve never known so much joy and utter contentment. I know I will feel that again with this baby, although I’m not excited about it yet because I am also realistic in my expectation that I will be exhausted, sore, recovering, feeling all sorts of guilt and goodness knows what else about my first born not being my only child any longer.

        My wedding day – that was absolutely joyful. Regardless of all the many complex relationship complications going on in the background in both of our families, my husband and I thoroughly absorbed ourselves in the celebration of our relationship and love.

        I recently managed to get amazing seats at an awesome concert of a band I thought I would never be able to see live. Their concerts sell out in minutes and are very expensive. They are a mega-band from the 70’s and 80’s (most of my favourite songs of theirs were released before I was born) and so for me to be in the same room as them was completely overwhelmingly exciting and joyful… yet I did not ‘look forward’ to the gig, just in case they cancelled or something went wrong. I can hear that this reluctance to anticipate the joy is based in fear, but to me it makes perfect sense to protect myself from the disappointment and humiliation.

        On a smaller scale I feel joy when I spend time with my husband and daughter, go for country walks, watch a nice film snuggled on the sofa, do crazy dance moves along to cheesy pop songs. I feel a joyful satisfaction when I treat myself to a professional hair cut or getting my nails done (although I usually do these things myself, the fact it is a one off treat makes it special).

        I felt pretty joyful when you replied to my message 🙂

        1. Thanks for all the detail! It sounds to me like you have some small connection to the problem I’m describing, but not so much that it stops you from enjoyment. You’re just not going to get excited until you’re sure of it!

  2. The problem of joy seems to be an ancient one. The Stoics, Cyrenaics, and Epicureans also wrestled with responses to life’s joyful and negative events.

    My joyful events were coming home from Vietnam in one piece, the birth of my four children, the birth of my grandchildren, (and that seems to be an ongoing joy because my children say they’re not done with having children, yet), career success is a source of joy, and oddly enough, my divorce. The latter seems like an odd thing in which to find joy but it was a liberating experience…..although I didn’t see it that way at first.

    I think it depends on the expected outcome. Some things you should be pessimistic about and some things you should be optimistic about. Things can go wrong and things can go right no matter what the beginning looks like. We should enjoy life. It’s an adventure and a journey. It can be dull or exciting. You have to choose.

  3. You’re spot on. On revisiting your post I can see that the people you described couldn’t bring themselves to find/celebrate joy in the moment let alone in an anticipated one. I will happily sit between the two extremes. Thanks for your insight.

  4. Hi, Joe. I have been waiting for some time for you to post something other than about your book publishing 🙂 It was worth the wait.

    I would say that I am not so pessimistic, as I look for the good in most situations – even when they turn bad. But I am a realist. Being in business I have to anticipate that not everything is going to turn out the way I think that it should, so I always have to see the problems before they occur and come up with a plan B, or C.

    As far as feeling joy – I will admit that I have difficulty with that. My moments of joy are fleeting, my moments of depression have become my normal. I am often afraid to feel excited and happy about things because I know that it isn’t going to be around for long. I also fear that if I allow myself to feel joy and happiness that I am turning my back on my depression, letting my guard down allowing it the opportunity to strike again.

    I have become very guarded. There have been times when I have felt better and tried to embed the feeling of happiness in every cell of my body – desperate to hold onto it, knowing that I have more bad days than good ones, wishing that I had the ability to pull those saved feelings up when I need to. But it doesn’t happen that way. I have to just remind myself that it is possible, that at least I have been successful in remembering a time when it has happened and then I hold onto hope that one day I might finally find myself having more good days than bad, because for the past 7 years I have had more bad days than good. I don’t count on joy. Joy can be frightening, it is no longer my normal, but I wish that it was.

    That was a little jumbled – sorry.

    Welcome back to blogging. Missed you.


    1. Thanks for your patience, Sheila. Bringing out a book is all-consuming and I’m very glad to have most of the promotion behind me.

      It’s interesting that you say that “joy can be frightening.” It’s what I think, too, because it involves the risk of disappointment and shame, which can be felt as depression. I think the kind of depression you’re talking about is the residue of a childhood with parents who just weren’t “good enough.” Not enough joyful attachment. That’s my guess, anyway.

      1. What is surprising is that I don’t recall having many bad days as a child. But, yes, my mother, with 5 kids to raise and having her own issues wasn’t really emotionally available. I don’t ever recall having an actual conversation with her. As I became an adult and moved away from home, I would block her voice out whenever she called. My husband would ask what she wanted and I would reply that I didn’t know.
        The lack of a mother in my life set the stage, for certain, but the real problems began about 30 years ago. I have been dealing with major depression for the last 22 years. The last 7 being the longest episode.

        1. That anonymous comment was from me. Sorry. I typed it on my phone and sent it before realizing I hadn’t filled out the info. Lol.

  5. I know exactly what it feels like to not feel any joy regardless of what is happening. I have been like this in the past and I still don’t anticipate anything with joy. But the difference is, I can enjoy life now and recently joy has stolen up on me and overwhelmed me for a short while when I wasn’t expecting it! Only last week I was taking my little grandson to the beach where I met up with an old friend. Being with these two on a lovely sunny October day on the beach on my day off work was suddenly not just nice, but filled me with a warm, quivering sort of happiness! The difference for me is, just like Joyful Pessimist, due to working on living in the moment and trying to notice and appreciate what is happening. It has begun to be more natural and the impact is powerful. I don’t always remember, to do it though and still get anxious and worried about things going wrong.

    1. Sounds like a lovely day at the beach! Up here in the Colorado mountains, October has been spectacular and on so many days, I felt the kind o happiness you describe. I agree that living in the moment, without fear of the future and unburdened by the past, is key.

  6. I relate to the woman client in your post. Have had paralyzing fears about being myself and obsessions around what other people think which quashed my ability to connect and therefore reduced my joy. Shame is a large part of this. Happily (and joyfully) through very hard work inside therapy and out I am learning to reconnect to emotions people and even joy. Recently a large arc of progress has happened for me for which looking back I can clearly see the path that I took. Therapy and hard work on connecting with others and looking at my shame—–Feeling stronger and stronger and taking more risks——taking a huge risk and asking for something big where I work——–being rejected and not getting this thing———-feeling really rejected and sad———using my resources and talking to my trusted friends———getting in touch with my choices and power——–looking for different jobs———–finding an incredible amount of choices———–applying for a new job (after 18 years at my current job)———–today getting an offer which is so much better than the job I have on every level———–JOY-WOW. It has taken me a long time but I have found myself realising a pretty fundamental change in myself. It’s cool!

  7. I see myself in both the clients you mention, specially the male, but I can admit that I’m alone and feel alone. If your client is anything like me, he feels the urge to cry in movies that explore the purpose of life. A life you can’t share sure seems purposeless.

    I think one of my biggest hurdles to overcome is my fear of looking back at all these years of stasis with deep regret for not having done something earlier, and also the sense of self pity or sorrow… like wanting to give my past (present) self a hug. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I can make lemonade with these lemons; that my rather rare life experience gives me a unique vantage point to observe what life really is about, as if I were a monk, a philosopher or a sage wizard (lets get that Halloween spirit going). I know it’s a defense mechanism, but it’s too painful to fight it.

  8. A great article, and very accurate. Shame is one of the least understood emotions. It features quite a bit in my life, but I find it hard to work through it internally.

    I wondered if you could recommend any novels which deal with shame affect or core shame?

    Much gratitude from myself, and I’m sure others.


      1. I’m quite into bibliotherapy at the moment, so will certainly check out Cinderella…when I get some kind of kindle device. And i’ll look out for Grim. The only novel I found that dealt specifically with shame was The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but i’m sure there are others. Kafka creates a claustrophobic, emotionally revealing and shaming atmosphere in the The Trial – it would be good to find others writers like him.

    1. I recommend:

      Disgrace by JM Coetzee – a superb novel set in post-apartheid South Africa about a university professor who scuppers his own career
      The Small Hours by Susie Boyt – a dfficult read because of the very subject, beautifully written though if you’re into literary fiction

      They are both works of fiction so on some level deal with the subject indirectly. Both spoke to me though within that territory of shame and self-alienation
      Brene Brown’s famous Ted talk ‘Listening to Shame’ is also worth a look if you haven’t already

  9. Hi Joe,

    Good to have you back blogging. i don’t have much to say on the risks of joy – definitely not feeling joy today. Had a horribly patronising experience with a junior doctor yesterday (and a senior one too ) and still feeling stung by their behaviour- doctors have to get top marks on the patronising scale!!!!

  10. I really liked this piece. I’m curious about the nine genetically built-in affects and not sure where to find out more about the others – could you point me to a list or resource about these?

  11. This is very interesting because I’ve recently just realized that I am unable to feel joy or excitement because I’ve repressed it. I don’t want to be happy or joyful because I’ve been hurt so much by disappointment that if I open up myself to the possibility of joy or excitement, then I’ll ultimately be let down and hurt. I realize now that it’s due to deep shame that I experience that was brought on by my parents’ treatment of me. I realize too that it’s affecting my relationship with my husband, whom I can’t be intimate with or express much emotions to, because I’m projecting my anger towards my parents to him and he’s bearing the brunt of my rage and frustration. Having realized all this, I hope that I can overcome this and heal all the damage I’ve done to my marriage. I’m going through therapy which is helping but sometimes I wonder what it is that I can do with all the past hurt that I’ve unconsciously inflicted on my husband…

  12. Your post was excellent. You may enjoy the book “Affects as Process” by Joseph M. Jones. He takes a unique expansion of Lichtenberg’s Motivational Systems Theory of affect and has an excellent section on the prereflective roots of shame as it pertains to joylessness.

  13. “The pessimists believe that one shouldn’t get too excited about the future because chances are you’ll only be disappointed”

    I thank you for writing the interesting articles and describing your joined point of view as a psychologist and a man.
    I suspect myself on being an autistic person (my hardships in real life are quite the same, my early childhood behavior fits the description, all tests I passed show high probability of that).
    And I have trouble in experiencing joy as the most people can. But exploring my interests brings me joy a rare person understands.
    The greatest joy for me – if I have a friend who is interested in the same thing and we exploring the topic together. That’s a real bliss – but it’s a very rare event.
    I was always curious of psychology and tried to find description of myself on the pages of psychological books.
    But I have got more questions than anwers.
    I couldn’t understand what a ‘character’ is – because I never reacted spontaneously but always considered all the information I received before choosing my way of reaction – or if I feel the need to react at all.
    The most part of my life I feel confusion about people’s actions and behaviour around me. And the whole my life I fear of people taking their anger on me just for nothing. It happened so often in my early years, It still keeps on occurring – when people flood their negative feelings not at the sourse of their frustration, but on the person who can’t defend theirself because does not expect the attack.
    I do not seek intimate relationship with other people because I know that every person does hurt others. So I approach people with whom I have some common research or interest – and through discussions, through exchange of topics I let the person build their opinion of me – like i build my own opinion of them.
    I need about 5 years to learn the basics of the person’s priorities and character and start to feel trust to them – and feel more free and unguarded around them, be more spontaneously.
    I wonder why the common psychology does not account that all people hurt each other and initially are only interested in using each other for their own purposes? It usually takes a lot of time before people start to see the separate person in their companion – and the most of people do never reach that stage.
    I see every human being as an individual from the start – and that overloads my senses to deal with them: I do not understand ‘social roles’ and ‘images’ – I try to talk with a human being behind them and that gets me a hell most of times: anger at me, resentment, bulling.
    I think people do hate when they are seen as they are: as they really behave themselves, as they make their choices, as they lie and pretend to appear what they do not feel inside.
    They can not believe that someone can not hate them – seeing them as they really are.
    I feel hatred when I’m under attack and in pain caused by words and actions of people, but living among them – I do not hate them. But I’m sad them waste so much energy in pretending and buying someone’s ‘love’ – destroying the whole planet along the way: with their neglect, gnawing of its resourses, shattering the litter and waste.
    I wonder why the psychology considers a human being ‘normal, healthy’ and their behavior to be ‘adequate’ if they destroy their natural habitat?
    Why is it ‘normal’ to want to have children – and meantime do not care what kind of natural habitat these children will live in?
    Why does the psychology count the real world of human relationships and communications to be shiny and joyful when it’s clearly – not? A person won’t get sympathy and support in the human world from nobody but closest friends, and many people will gladly use someone’s weakness to their own gain, the boss is always up to cut the salary of the workers, parents are always take their frustration on children, all politics lie in their promises, wars goes on.
    The psychology states that competition among human being is absolutely normal – to the death. And people who don’t see point in competition are just ‘depressed’. Well sometimes they really are. But I have never seen the point in competition – there are so much new about the world, people do not even aware of, not yet discovered – and they won’t, I’m afraid, being too taken with the glee to beat some other person in some competition.
    I shudder at the medic’s competition – instead of individual learning the natural working of human body and learning how to revert the most frequent inner imbalances causing illnesses, they compete who will cut the human on the operating table better.
    I’m quite harsh now. I know the operation is better than inaction but I feel that plenty of possibilities of real curing are slipping. In my mind it’s very much like the medieval conviction that ‘bloodletting cures everything’!

    So… to the point of my commentary – the joy.
    I think that every person calls a different thing to be the sourse of their joy. For many people their ‘joy’ is the object of others’ envy (to have or hold something precious for others, like a great travel).
    And if the person starts to feel inside without relying on other people’s reactions – I think the ‘joy’ is increasing of personal integrity and security: like the small adventure with a good friend, the heart-to-heart talk and so on.
    I think there is no guaranted way to feel ‘joy’ by simple doing something mechanically.

  14. Until a few years ago, I believed that I had been a very difficult, demanding child, a challenge to everyone around me. Then I had a child myself, and while helping me with my son one day, my mother told me: “I was always happiest when your father was at work and I could enjoy just being with you when you were a baby. When he came home, he would want my attention all to himself and ask me to ‘put her away’.” Which she would do, at 6 p.m., and I would be crying, which gained me the reputation of being “difficult”.
    I was also a clumsy child, so when I was overwhelmed with joy or other strong emotions, usually I would bump into something or drop something and it would break, so being joyful and being scolded are – in my mind – closely connected experiences.
    Today, I am able to experience intense joy, but only when I am completely alone. When others are present, I always feel as if their expectations are weighing me down, and I try to stay guarded and in control. But at least there is joy, especially where music is involved, and I am grateful for that.

    1. Your account of being “put away” and left to cry is heartbreaking. I suppose I ought to write something about the jealousy of fathers and their hostility toward rival children for the mother/wife’s attention.

      1. I would very much like to read your article on the jealousy of fathers. My father was and probably is very narcissistic though, so I hope more normal fathers are not like that. It is funny how becoming a parent suddenly can bring to light formerly hidden details regarding the dynamic in the family of origin. Were there things you realized about your family of origin when you became a father?

        1. I had been in analysis for so long that I don’t think there were any big new realizations, but it did cause me to soften a bit toward my parents. It’s such hard work being a parent!

  15. There are people I have encountered who are so afraid of experiencing disappointment that they don’t allow themselves to get excited about things. The primary thought in their mind is, “What if it doesn’t work out the way I anticipated? Will I be able to cope with the disappointment?” We often forget that we are stronger than we believe ourselves to be and allowing ourselves to experience emotions isn’t neither a sign of weakness nor a precursor to an inability to cope. Also, the mother-child bond has pervasive influences on our life and development. Pity, children don’t come with their own manual. But if they did, would we read it?

  16. Welcome back Joe, I’ve really missed your posts this year. Great to have your wise counsel. Depression has hung like a heavy cloud with many downpours this last year. This is when joy is hard to feel but rationally I know I have so so much to be grateful for and to be joyous about. Last week’s immobilising depression got me reading a book “Cry of pain, Understanding suicide and the suicidal mind” by Professor Mark Williams. It was pure bliss to finally understand my constant suicidal ideation because obviously I want these (escapist thoughts) to stop or diminish. The book deals with our feelings of defeat, entrapment, poor emotional regulation or feeling helpless with no control over our thoughts or lives. The interplay between our inner turmoil(shame) and sometimes but not always external triggers makes us erroneously think that if we punish or destroy the body the mind will be set free. Seeing myself, or shame in someones research allowed me to SEE the angry, trapped, frightened, frustrated etc me, providing a much needed distance between my thoughts and feelings and who I am as a living being. It’s also a joy not to feel alone as a suicidal crazy person. And you do feel deep shame when suicidal. Poor parenting has meant I developed poor problem solving skills and emotional regulation. I also “enjoyed” your new book. Brilliant and so needed by me as a guide to deal with these unfortunate people and understand my shame at the way they make us feel.

  17. Joseph, this article really resonates with me…but seems to stop short of what to do with that realisation. Is there a “part B” to this article?

  18. Thank you for this article! I am one of those joyless people, and I have had therapists tell me I’m afraid of joy but never understood what they meant. This article put it into perspective for me. I can see this being something I do, in fact I’m known to say “an optimist is never pleasantly surprised!” to defend my pessimism.

    I’ve always thought I couldn’t enjoy normally enjoyable things just because of my depression, or because they really just do suck, but now I wonder if maybe I’m not armoring myself up for disappointment. That sounds like something I would do.

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