Thankfulness: How to Choose Joy When It Doesn’t Feel Safe

When The Blessings Aren't What You Expected (1)

I sit in the doctor’s office.

It has been several months since I have had a doctor’s appointment. I want to have a check-up to see how my iron levels are — where my health is at the moment. I have had a long road of recovery this past year after a miscarriage and surgery. Immediately after my pregnancy loss, I wanted to try for another child, but I had to hold off for some time because my body needed to heal.

As the year wore on, I began to hesitate on that desire. Each month where I combatted dizziness and fatigue made me question whether I wanted to put my health on the line again with another pregnancy.

And now, one year later, as I sit flipping through pregnancy magazines, I am still unsure. I look at the young moms in the photographs with smiling, chubby babies. I eye the expensive, modern strollers and diaper bags these magazine moms sport, and I feel detached from these women.

My youngest son has been potty-trained and is now in preschool. I recently turned 36. I have given away most of our baby stuff, and I have just two small bins of baby items in my son’s room.

As these thoughts swirl in my mind, I think as I am sitting here that I don’t feel well. I feel like I am getting the flu, and I want to go lie down for a nap. A really long one. I had a daydream that morning that I had asked the nurse to give me a pregnancy test and it came up positive. I keep having this persistent thought that maybe I am already pregnant. But I brush that thought aside and decide not to say anything about that to the doctor.

Once in the examination room, I tell the doctor my health history and that I might want to try for another child. Even as I voice the words I can feel myself retreating further away from that decision in my own mind. I don’t feel committed to this course of action at all. I think that maybe this noncommittal attitude is for the best. I can be happy with the children I have. It will probably not be the easiest thing for me to get pregnant after all — I am over the age of 35, and from everything I have read, I know my fertility rate is declining.

I continue to feel worse as the day progresses. I feel an onset of nausea when I am cooking dinner. I am starving hungry but nothing sounds remotely edible. Repulsed by the smell of raw chicken near me, I am reminded of the fact that I only have a bad reaction to meat when I am pregnant. All of these symptoms that I am assaulted with are only those I have when I am growing a life in my womb.

Later that evening, I rummage through the cupboard — almost on a whim — to see if I have any pregnancy tests in the vicinity. I am surprised to see one unopened in a box. The expiration date has already passed, but I reason that it still might work. I go upstairs alone to my bathroom. My husband is watching TV and my kids are asleep. I watch the first line color in — and I pause for a moment because I see just one line. How can this be? I say to myself. I feel pregnant. I glance away for a moment and then I look back. A little jolt goes through me. A second line has colored in — ever so faint. But it is there.

I call my husband upstairs and I show him. We don’t smile or celebrate like we did with my other positive pregnancy tests. We just look at each other over the double lines, and I mostly feel numb. A little tremor of excitement ripples deep inside, but I push it down — because it’s still really early. And I don’t know where this is going.

A Diagnosis: Foreboding Feelings

The next few days are a blur, and I am functioning more like an I-don’t-feel-anything zombie than an expectant mother. I don’t feel like I think I should.

But because I have been writing about emotions for some time, I know better than to beat myself up for the way I am feeling (or not feeling, rather). So I decide I need to explore what is going on with me a little more in-depth. I tell God during my quiet time that I am not sure why I am so numb. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but why don’t I feel joy?

Not too long after that conversation with God, I get a phrase in my mind that I remember reading about and the phrase is this: “foreboding joy.” I know who coined that term so I pull up some Brené Brown videos on YouTube. In one such video in an interview with Oprah, Brown says something that immediately resonates with me: “The most terrifying, difficult emotion we experience as humans is joy.” She continues on to say that we often don’t want to “soften into [a] moment of joy because [we are] scared this moment of joy is going to be taken away.”

I have an aha! moment when I hear those words. Yes, that’s it! I am experiencing foreboding joy. I am afraid to let myself feel joy because I don’t want that moment to be stolen. That little ripple of excitement I felt after the pregnancy test? I suppressed it. Something inside of me said, “No ma’am, not again. Remember how happy you felt when you found out you were pregnant last time? How foolish you felt when that all came crashing down?”

However, according to Brown, what I am doing is trying to “dress rehearse tragedy” so that I can “beat vulnerability to the punch.” But what that is doing in me is making it impossible for me to really experience joy. Brown stresses that truly joyful people don’t “shut it down” when they get a “tremor of joy.” Instead, they choose thankfulness.

Brown isn’t the only one who doesn’t advocate “dress rehearsing” for tragedy. The Bible also warns against foreboding thoughts. Proverbs 15:15 says, “All of the days of the despondent and afflicted are made evil, but he who has a glad heart has a continual feast” (AMP).

Joyce Meyer illuminates the meaning of this verse, saying:

Because I had been hurt so much in my life, I was really negative and expected the worst all of the time. Even after I had a strong relationship with God, I still struggled with this for a while. Then one morning, I was standing in the bathroom and I remember noticing this pressure, this evil presence around me. It wasn’t new; I realized that I’d always felt it. It made me think, ‘What bad thing is going to happen next?’ I asked God what this feeling was. He spoke to my heart that it is ‘evil forebodings.’ Later I found Proverbs 15:15 … Once I read that verse, I realized what it meant. It was the fear of something bad happening when nothing was going wrong.

Meyer goes on to say that we should expect good to happen to us rather than bad. As the Pulpit Commentary states, the “afflicted” in the verse is referring to those people who “take a gloomy view of things” and “are always taking anxious thought and forecasting evil.” The days are “made evil” by the person’s continual fretting!

Though I wasn’t necessarily “forecasting evil” to happen in my situation with the pregnancy, I was choosing to try to not let myself get too thrilled in order to brace myself for the worst — and in a way, that was choosing to take a negative view of things. And although the writer of Proverbs and Brown approach foreboding from slightly different angles, both give the same advice — to embrace joy and not try to push it away. As Brown advocates, I can’t embrace joy by willing myself to be happy. I do this by practicing intentional gratitude.

Certainly, gratitude does not feel like the right option for me at the moment. Numbness does. However, as Brown states in another video, foreboding joy is a type of armor we strap on ourselves to feel safe. And even if that option feels safe, it isn’t. Proverbs reminds us that allowing foreboding thoughts can actually bring the bad things we fear our way.

So, while I think I am protecting myself by freezing my feelings and think I am being “practical” by not anticipating a good outcome in this pregnancy, I’m not. Instead, I need to wrap my arms around the moments I feel tremors of joy. And even if I don’t immediately feel joyful feelings, I can fix my mind in the moment and focus on what I can be thankful for in the situation — and that intentional thankfulness opens the pathway to joy.

A Conclusion: Dictating My Emotions

I’d love to tell you that after my research on foreboding joy I have been able to immediately feel the way I want to feel. But every day has been one step at a time for me: listing what I am grateful for; choosing to give thanks even when I want to put my emotions on lockdown; fixing my thoughts on positive things when I feel scared about having another miscarriage.

My conclusion is this: Though I should pay attention to my emotions as they are useful in letting me know there is a problem, in some cases, they aren’t reliable. I can’t in this instance let them dictate how I will respond because what feels like the right way is actually not helpful, but harmful.

I have to go with what the Word tells me in Proverbs 15:15 — and that is that I need to expect for and look for good. Not only that, I need to look around me and notice the things that are good right now.

Thankfulness is God’s will for me in every circumstance (1 Thessalonians 5:18) — even in this situation that feels so unexpected, so scary and yet wonderful all at once.

Really, when I think about it, choosing intentional gratitude isn’t just about creating the capacity in me to feel joy; it is really about letting go of trying to somehow control or minimize pain in a situation I can’t control and choosing to plant my thoughts on good as a way of telling God that I am submitting to Him in this circumstance.

Because as the author and finisher of my faith, He has already gone before me — already knows the outcome. And though I detest situations that feel unpredictable, this pregnancy is a chance for me to let down my human defense mechanisms and say …

Lord, even in this, I trust you.

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Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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A Christian Perspective: How to Overcome Depression

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When I first moved to Georgia at the tender age of 21, a newly married bride with not a clue about how to be a wife or an adult for that matter, I slipped into a profound depression that lasted for three years.

I really didn’t realize it at the time, but I had walked into the perfect storm, a whirlwind of stressful life changes: a move to a different state into a new role as wife away from my support system of friends and family, a start as a transfer student in a much bigger university, and a transfer to a new branch of Starbucks. I had no idea why I felt the way I did or how to make myself better. “Depression” sounded like a textbook term that had nothing to do with me. It never occurred to me that I was suffering from depression or what the root causes for that could possibly be.

Everything was new. And, to make the transition that much more difficult to embrace, I began to suffer renewed feelings of loss over a previous relationship that I had never been able to find closure in. I faked my way through lectures in lecture halls, shifts at work — and then fell into bed feeling like I was at the bottom of a cycling torpedo of black despair.

I didn’t think there was any way that I could possibly claw my way out of how I felt. One of the reasons that it went on so long is because I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I lived a double life — presenting a smiling façade to the world and suffering alone with my own angst. It was not until I went forward for prayer one Sunday, and the pastor mentioned that he felt someone needed to forgive someone and say that person’s name, that some things began to click for me. I said the name of the person I needed to forgive; instantly, the black clouds enveloping me parted.

Although I didn’t have all the answers leaving the altar that day, I understood something important about myself: I had been carrying the weight of unforgiveness and the other person’s negative view of me around for years and carried it right into my marriage. I felt so depressed partly because I had so much repressed anger at the individual in the relationship and anger at myself for “failing” in the relationship. Even though I was married, I had never processed through the emotions from the previous relationship; therefore, those emotions reared up at a time when I was feeling insecure, vulnerable and out of my element.

Christians Get Depressed

Somewhere along the way I got the idea that as a Christian I have to be happy all the time or the world will not want what I have to offer, but what I didn’t realize is that the world does not need a false façade or a fake person. The world needs authentic, flaws and all.

The reality is not that Christians will never get depressed. Christians do get depressed. We need to look no further than the book of Psalms to see a man often in the depths of despair. David got depressed! He expressed great despair when God took his child that he conceived with Bathsheba; when armies advanced and his enemies outnumbered him; when troubles overtook him and his body was weak and sick as a result.

Depression is not something to hide or pretend away. When we are depressed, our mind is processing through a loss of some kind or reacting to a stressful event or situation. The solution is not to pretend that we don’t have a problem but instead look to the root of the depression and determine the source of our negative feelings. Is there a relationship that we need to reconcile? Do we have unresolved anger towards a person, an individual, ourselves, or God? Have we just experienced a loss of some kind such as a death of a loved one, a loss of a position, or the loss of our health? Those circumstances can encourage negative thoughts that leave us feeling depressed. (More here on Forgiving Others: Taking a Relationship Inventory.)

David had the right idea — he poured out his heart to God and penned his very real emotions into poignant psalms. He didn’t put on a brave front to God and pretend like he had everything under control. He got real and admitted his need for God. However, nowhere does it say in Scripture that God was upset at him for having those emotions. God can handle our bad feelings.

Because of my own struggles since that day at the altar, I have come to understand more about how to overcome depression — and accepted the fact that Christians do get depressed, but we don’t have to stay depressed. We may not get to choose the circumstances that leave us feeling down or the reactions people have to us that make us feel isolated and unloved — but we most certainly can choose the way we handle and react to those times when a blanket of gray envelops our souls.

1. Practice thanksgiving in the moment.

I used to consider myself a realist — I thought that in order to see the world realistically and shield myself from unneeded pain meant anticipating when this pain would rear its ugly head. However, this just made me a paranoid, critical person who wasn’t very fun to be around. Thanksgiving didn’t seem like something that would help me crawl out of the pit of pain I had fallen into.

However, it is no coincidence that so many verses in the Bible stress being grateful in all circumstances — thanksgiving helps to take the edge off of the pain, even forget it. Ann Voskamp recommends listing gifts daily in her study One Thousand Gifts. She carries around a little list and writes down her “gifts” as she goes through her day.

This may not sound like a profound activity, but what I didn’t realize is that I had gotten into the habit of meditating on the negative problems happening in my life, and it was taking my mind to a dark place. The more time I spent stewing over what was wrong and who had wronged me, the more time I spent in the throes of depression.

Habitually listing what we are grateful for and rehearsing that in our mind may feel a little forced and silly at first, but as we continue to engage in intentional gratitude, we will find that our depression lifts much sooner — and we can have peace even in the midst of very stressful circumstances.

2. Prayer.

Prayer sounds like a no-brainer solution that well-meaning people offer you when they don’t know what else to say, but it really does work. Even though it is helpful to talk to others, no one else can help us in our situation like God. We can be honest with him about how much that person’s remark hurt us, or how scared we are about taking a step of faith or how angry we are at our husband.

Prayer time is a great emotion neutralizer. We come into it with angry, despairing, devastating emotions and walk out of it with a different perspective, a sense of calm, and a release from all of the bad that has been swirling inside of us. As Philippians 4:6-7 recommends: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

The truth is that when we are at our lowest, we just don’t feel like praying at all, but when we do it despite not feeling like it we really see results. In fact, as this verse suggests, God promises to guard our heart against the anger, despair, and bitterness that threaten to overtake us. God’s peace becomes our protector.

3. Know it’s a season.

The reality with depression is that it sometimes can last for a long time — especially if it is following a loss of some kind. There may be quite a bit of time that passes before you begin to feel good again. In her CNN article “Going Public With Depression,” published shortly after Robin Williams’ death, Kat Kinsman reflects on her own journey battling depression at fourteen and how she feels now as an adult:

Now, 25 years later, I’ve lost too much time and too many people to feel any shame about the way my psyche is built. How from time to time, for no good reason, it drops a thick, dark jar over me to block out air and love and light, and keeps me at arm’s length from the people I love most.

The pain and ferocity of the bouts have never eased, but I’ve lived in my body long enough to know that while I’ll never ‘snap out of it,’ at some point the glass will crack and I’ll be free to walk about in the world again. It happens every time, and I have developed a few tricks to remind myself of that as best I can when I’m buried deepest.

While I can’t agree with everything Kinsman says concerning depression (namely, I believe that we can overcome our negative thinking patterns and indeed “snap out it”), I like how she acknowledges that we can look to the hope that we may be in a hard season, but it won’t last forever.

Knowing that the depression will pass and that there will be a day when we wake up and no longer feel trapped in a black hole helps us when we don’t feel like talking about it, praying about it or keeping in touch with the outside world.

4. Keep moving.

In yet another juncture of my life, when I had quit teaching and was feeling isolated and insignificant in my role as stay-at-home mom, I felt like I was in a major slump. Something told me to just keep going. Keep attending church events. Sign up for a mom class. Keep searching for a school for my daughter. Keep showing up at my husband’s basketball games.

Sometimes when we are praying and working through things, and we still feel like we are in the valley — choosing to continue to engage in social avenues helps to lift some of the heaviness. As Joyce Meyer suggests in Approval to Addiction:

When we are hurting, our natural tendency is to nurse our wounds. We may want to isolate ourselves and think about how pitifully we have been treated. I have discovered that when I am hurting, the best thing I can do is keep moving. While I am hurting, I just keep doing what I would be doing if I were not hurting. I go to work, I study, I pray, I go out and preach, I keep my commitments. I keep doing the good things God has given me to do, and I trust Him to take care of the evil things.

5. Focus on others.

As I detail in another post, I was at the doctor’s after a miscarriage for an ultrasound and follow-up visit, and I felt God’s nudge to minister to some of the nurses and patients at the doctor’s office. I have to admit that I was very uncomfortable with the idea. Offended, even. Are you serious, God?  Do you really want me to say some things to these people when my own heart is broken?

It turns out that reaching out to others in my own pain and sharing my story had a very healing effect on me. I actually started feeling more sorry for some of the pregnant women in the office then for my own un-pregnant state. I have to attribute this feeling to God because my own feelings did not suggest to me that I should do anything but focus on my own state. God knew by pulling my heartstrings that I would help myself by turning outward and aiding others.

(We can often swing to drastic extremes where we try so hard to pretend nothing is wrong and only focus on others that we lose ourselves in the process. With keeping our commitments and focusing on others, I definitely am not suggesting doing these things without taking care of ourselves. There definitely needs to be some alone grieving time after painful events or losses; however, sometimes we can isolate ourselves to the point where we hurt ourselves more.)

As I look back on some of the seasons where I thought that my depression would consume me whole, I can admit quite happily that I made it through. In time, the feelings lifted, and I was able to enjoy life again. Although I was fortunate to get the healing I needed at the altar as a young bride, there have been other seasons that took some persistence and perseverance to make it through the tough valleys.

Simply knowing that bad things will happen, and we will experience negative emotions but do not have to let these things derail or define us — helps a little when sadness steals its way into our lives.

 Related Resources:

Do you believe that you may have depression because of repressed anger towards another person that has not been resolved? Another great resource for you to learn about the healing effects of forgiveness is outlined in Joyce Meyer’s article “The Poison of Unforgiveness” — a read I highly recommend!

 

 

Carol Whitaker

Carol Whitaker is a coach's wife, mom, writer, and singer. She left a career in teaching in 2011 to pursue a different path at God's prompting. While she thought that the path would lead straight to music ministry, God had different plans -- and Carol found herself in a crisis of spirituality and identity. Out of that place, Carol began writing about the lessons God was teaching her in her desert place and how God was teaching her what it meant to be healed from a painful past and find her identity in Him rather than a title, a relationship, a career, or a ministry. These days, Carol spends her time shuttling her little ones back and forth from school, supporting her coach-husband on the sidelines, and writing posts. Carol also continues to love music and hopes to pick up piano playing again. Carol is a self-proclaimed blog junkie and iced-coffee lover. She resides in Georgia with her husband and three children.

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