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 write music lyrics (that no one has ever seen) 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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