I’m a Psychotherapist, and I Want You To Know Joy and Grief Are *Not* Mutually Exclusive

Photo: Getty Images/Oscar Wong
As a psychotherapist, one issue I often (especially since the onset of the pandemic and widespread social reckoning with systemic racism in 2020) help patients navigate is how to experience joy during periods of grief—and why doing so is both possible and necessary. Many don't realize that finding joy during grief is very much possible, and only by understanding this duality can we find pleasure in pain and the strength that the discovery can afford.

Even so, some folks try to bypass pain and grief completely and just skip to joy—but they find this road to be paved with anxiety brought on by their authentic feelings they're ignoring. Others believe they don’t deserve joy amid so much loss and injustice, and therefore deprive themselves of experiences that might ignite positivity. Well, newsflash: Joy is not something that must be earned or can only come as result of a prior effort, and grief is not something that needs to exist in a vacuum and consume every waking moment of your life.

Psychological research holds that two seemingly opposing feelings can occur at once. The things in life that bring us the most joy (our silly children, our loving partners, an incredible sexual experience in our bodies) can also bring up sorrow or anger (our persistent children, our maddening partners, feeling dissatisfied with and in our bodies).

Feeling alive does not mean feeling consistently happy or joyful, but rather creating room for everything that exists within you.

With that in mind, it's clear that dulling the negative emotions can also blunt the positive ones. Feeling alive does not mean feeling consistently happy or joyful, but rather creating room for everything that exists within you. And, with the help of some intentional mental exercises and awareness, you can set yourself up for success to feel joy—even amid grief. Certain inhibitors of joy might allow grief to absorb outsize space in your life, but certain facilitators of joy can help counteract that.

Below, learn about several of those inhibitors and facilitators so you can work on finding joy during times of grief.

2 common inhibitors that may be in the way of your joy

1. Dwelling on anxious feelings

Even though the physical experience of anxiety (heart palpitations, racing thoughts) can feel extremely intense, they are actually examples of feeling avoidance. Anxiety is an evolutionary survival response; our brains have evolved to worry in order to protect our ancestors from risk-taking and danger. Anxiety serves a purpose, indeed, but if we do not examine which difficult emotions it may be helping us conceal in order to protect our functioning, it cuts us off from our intuitions, pleasures, imaginations, and courage.

2. Judging your pleasure and what feels good

Many of us weren’t taught how to identify what feels good. We are skilled at figuring out what "wrong" feels like, but because we resist novelty, our nervous system doesn’t trust goodness until it feels less new. In reality, pleasure can be selfish, big, messy, and exuberant. Many of those descriptors are at odds with accepted messaging about what it means to be good, like selflessness, modesty, and politeness. The effort to be good may keep some from prioritizing what actually feels good. Know that claiming joy is not a negative, self-indulgent pursuit, but one you owe yourself.

That said, if you’re experiencing happiness guilt when people around you are suffering, consider it an opportunity to introspect about your privileges and what you choose to do with them. This does not mean questioning your right to joy, but rather examining how your unchecked privileges may impinge on the joy of others.

4 facilitators of joy to use during times of grief

1. Feeling the feels

We know it’s healthy to feel our negative feelings, but how can we do that without opening the floodgates of pain? Part of what feels problematic for people about feelings is they believe that they are facts and, therefore, need to be acted on. Feelings are the body’s way of communicating with us—they are clues to better understanding our needs, and they shift constantly. While it's important to acknowledge all of our feelings—even the inconvenient ones like sadness, anger, and grief—it's not necessary dwell to on them. Freeing yourself from the burden of focusing on tough feelings can help with finding joy during times of grief.

Many of us conceal our emotions, thinking doing so will enable us to function in order to fulfill family, work and social obligations, when, really it's the suppression of these emotions that hinders us. There is a difference between compartmentalization (i.e., having to prepare for a presentation and therefore needing to shelf sadness until the end of the day) and avoidance (never making room for the sadness at the end of the day). The more we run from our feelings, the less attuned we are to what they are trying to tell us.

2. Noticing your emotions

There is a process called titration, which allows us to dip into the emotion without being overcome by it. Even if you give yourself three seconds to self-observe without blame or the need to take action, you’re creating opportunity for connecting to your aliveness. Examples of what you might notice include:

  • The predominant sensations (sharp, tense, jabbing, tingling) that come up in different parts of your body
  • The magnitude of these sensations (small, big, forceful)
  • The temperature of these sensations (hot, cold, warm)
  • The time of day they arise
  • How long they last
  • Thoughts, beliefs, or memories that arise with these sensations (either feelings or thoughts)
  • How you react toward these thoughts, beliefs, memories

3. Sharing

Healing happens in connection, and pain thrives in isolation. Consider a person who makes you feel seen, soothed and secure. You don’t need to reveal everything to this person, but pay attention to these three buckets: pleasure, pain, and power. Things you might consider sharing include:

  • What is bringing you pleasure
  • What is triggering pain in your heart or your body
  • What is making you feel empowered
  • One true thing about a wound as a means to heal it

4. Making space for joy

Just as it is essential to make space for pain, we must remember that joy must accessed with intention rather than passively experienced. To facilitate that, consider designating 10 minutes per day for “dream time.” To connect with joy in this time, reflect back on a moment or a memory that you wouldn't change one thing about. Connect with the smile that extends beyond the width of your face when you think of your favorite thing to do as a child or the moment you knew you were in love. Expect that as you steep yourself in joy during times of grief, the shadows will arise alongside. Welcome them in.

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