A Victim’s Foreboding Joy and the “Dress Rehearsal” Tragedy
Growing up for all my childhood with my “fledgling psychopath” brother was very difficult. I worshipped him most of the time, and I wanted to be with him. But mostly, I wanted to please him, because when I pleased him I felt the connection and emotional closeness that I was looking for from him. Life with him was not always cruel, there was a soft side to his way of being, and this was the side of him that I loved being around. There were times when he would complement me on something or other (i.e. having a bright idea that he approved of. Or perhaps I may have surprised him (in a good way) with a strategy I used to win a game, etc.). In these wonderful exchanges together, I would feel such joy. However, there were those times when my joy would turn to disappointment, when Gerard would destroy the moment by shaming me in some particular way, leaving me feeling extraordinarily vulnerable. The momentary joy where I was feeling connected could suddenly turn to my feeling of being unacceptable, feeling exposed and humiliated. So, in an instant, I would become bound by shame, and a sense of foreboding joy. Of joy, Brené Brown says: –
“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience. If you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is start dress rehearsing tragedy” …. “We’ve learned that giving into joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster”
I can remember many happy times playing with my pathological brother Gerard, but there was always the inevitability that it could end badly, and then something tragic would happen that would rob me of the happiness I was feeling.
Joy became somewhat fragile and precarious, probably the most vulnerable emotion I experienced. Far too often my joy and fear went hand in hand with each other. I suppose it is inevitable that I would “dress rehearse” tragedy when feeling joy. Being prepared for disappointment at some level of the self makes one less likely to be caught off guard. When the tragedy did not strike, I was full of gratitude for being able to stay open to the joyous connectedness Gerard and I shared. Brené Brown describes gratitude as a spiritual practice which connects gratitude to doxology. She says: –
The antidote to foreboding joy, are the practices of gratitude…. People who stay open to joy, despite its risks, are those who practice gratitude…. “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”
This “rehearsing tragedy” is something that is very common in most narcissistic abuse victims. I had one narcissistically abused client tell me that there was something happening to her that was somewhat disconcerting. When I inquired what that could be, she told me that she was feeling such joy in her life right now. It was as if everything was going right, and nothing was going wrong. She went on to explain that she does not seem to be worried that it would not last, and how strange and lovely that feeling was. She was able to say that she would not normally allow herself to feel too good about things, because she knew that something terrible was waiting to happen. I knew immediately she was relating to “foreboding joy”, but I decided to stay with her, and look at her feelings of gratitude. This was the perfect time to teach her about practicing “gratitude” instead of the foreboding joy that she had learned as a survival strategy.
I knew this feeling myself, it was so familiar to me. Whenever I received a compliment for any achievement, it would spontaneously trigger a sense of foreboding joy and activate my shame response, which I wrongly identified as shyness or modesty. Although I did not know it at the time, I became shy because I had experienced too much humiliation in the form of being belittled, ridiculed, or ignored by Gerard. I carried that underlying shyness into adulthood. I remember one particular day when in my 50’s when I received the highest score in the class for a psychology assignment. The tutor was blown away with the way I presented a case-study. She even went as far as to suggest that if the other students could get a chance to read my essay, that they should. I was feeling very “shy” and uncomfortable with the attention turned to me, but I was feeling pride and excitement for the compliment, and the fact that I had achieved such a personal high mark.
I immediately started to give some excuse, saying something like, “Well I did psychology before.” My psychology tutor was really fast, and said, “Stop that! That is not the point, the point is it was a brilliant analysis.” Of course, what I was doing was my usual “foreboding joy” and “dress rehearsing tragedy” to avoid disappointment at feeling such momentary bliss. So, I did stop, and I thanked her, and received the compliment humbly.
Unfortunately, the feelings of pride and excitement did not last long. In an instant, one of my peers turned to me, and in an angry and loud voice that everybody could hear, she said, “It’s well for you, you’re good at this, but what about giving the rest of us a chance”. Instantly I felt totally mortified and ashamed as if I had done something terribly bad by doing well in the assignment.
This was an enactment of what would happen if I ever outshone Gerard. His unhealthy shame and envy would be triggered and projected onto me. Here I was now in a similar position with a fellow student who felt shame at not doing well in her project.
She too projected her shame and venom onto me, and I became so shamed-based that I was unable to speak. I just wanted the floor to swallow me up, and once again I abandoned myself. Instead of being able to enjoy the compliment from the tutor, and experience a healthy pride in my well-deserved accomplishment, I was gripped in a cocktail of enjoyment-shame, excitement-shame, competence-shame, not to mention anger-shame. I can still feel the shame now as I am recalling that incident. This is a good illustration of the multi-dimensional effects of shame, and how it can evolve through specific developmental pathways.
One thing I am most grateful for, is that I did not allow my shame to crush my individuality, or my creativity. My mother, especially, encouraged those qualities in me, and they did flourish. I also feel a sense of gratitude that my children are a testimony to the fact that my shameful feelings did not affect my willingness to love them unconditionally, or to receive their love in return. My immediate family are my ultimate and unashamed joy.
- Narcissistic Female Intimate Partner Violence Against Men Is No Joke - February 28, 2023
- Narcissists and Positions of Power and Influence - February 6, 2023
- Why Is It So Blooming Hard Leaving a Narcissist? - December 9, 2022
Once again, I abandoned myself.
I can relate to that. I still do it. I don’t know anything other way.
Thank you Christine. I have learned so much from you. It is helping me recover very rapidly from my boyfriends narcissistic abuse. I appreciate you so much. Jeanine Sinor My grandmas family came from Northern Ireland to US in 1907. Bless you my dear Irish sister.
How well I relate to the very real, tangible emotion of “foreboding joy” and the “dress rehearsal strategy.” This is almost too painful to talk about, but strikes my heart in the same way as the rock is cleaved and the wellspring of healing gushes forth.
Though I have consecrated my life to the healing power of Christ, there still remains absolutely no words to begin to describe the depths of abuse, pain, hurt, and destruction my father and narcissistic sister have robbed my life of. I grieve the little girl who was me whose little wings were so severely clipped at such a very young age that, even then, no more than 3 years old, I remember being aware that I would be struggling to carry my Cross throughout my lifetime. All my creative projects, as though behind a glass window that I can see but can’t get to. I am paralyzed by the cruelty and abuse that, though I have largely severed ties with family, remain indelible. I often wonder if I will ever heal from, or end up dying of.
Self pity is one of the worst sins and one I try to avoid at all costs, but if the abuse of the narcissists in our lives could be visible, as the sores on a leper, I would be so hideous there is no doubt even in our liberal society, solitary confinement would be ordered. The open wounds and infected sores never seem to heal. The glimpses of joy were only ephemeral, though such is life, but even so, there is intense trauma associated with this kind of abuse that takes us a lifetime to heal from. It is a form of torture. The narcissist, though seemingly covertly, TRIES to kill us.
Christine writes, “One thing I am most grateful for, is that I did not allow my shame to crush my individuality, or my creativity. ”
How fortunate you are, Christine, that your magnificent gift of creativity remained intact. My creativity was aborted at every turn and to this day, I grieve the boxes of paints, portfolios of unfinished work, and promising projects that I have never been able to summon the motivation or passion to complete. I live in absolute exigent poverty. My narcissistic father literally robbed me of my inheritance by knowingly filing a bogus and outdated will my mother left behind. I found the bill for her updated will in a box of papers several years after she died, addressed to both my mother and father. I don’t have the money to pursue this legally and now he accuses me of elder abuse when I confront him about his abuses.
If he were a healthy person he would humble himself and want to know what he has done to hurt others that he might make amends before he dies. But the narcissist thinks he’ll live forever. And often they do live long because God keeps giving them the opportunity to repent, though they will never, ever “get it.”
Each time I visit Christine’s site I find another gift of healing. Our world is infested with narcissism. It is absolutely terrifying to see the kind of anti-Semitism blatantly unleashed by the Speaker of the House in the United States of America, who is so narcissistic that she doesn’t even realize the kind of danger she subjects the citizens of her country to. The mind boggles. Narcissism is a form of Satanism and is a hard-wired personality disorder that can not be cured. It is horrifying to witness how widespread narcissism is within the most powerful factions of our culture; from Hollywood to Holyrood, we can only pray that those of us who find ourselves victims of this hideous affliction will sooner or later find our healing and realize our full potential before our time is up here on earth. It is all so overwhelmingly exhausting.
Hello Christine…I can relate to foreboding joy…And that is where I am at right now actually. Another twist to this is when I am joyous, happy…talking with friends and family my Nar is standing by furious…At times he will even come and get me out of the conversation stating I talk too much. Even when I am watching TV and laugh at something funny he has this angry look on his face. Years ago I would feel frighten and stop laughing but now I try to ignore but I still feel a little unease…I’m the process of making plans to leave him. Again we are about to lose another car,behind in our bills and barely have enough for basic cost of living expenses. In June of last year I had knee surgery on both knees and was down for about three months.During that time he blow money and hardly paid bills. Once I started recovering I discovered everything was behind 2 or 3 month…This is a cycle I have gone through with him for over 10 years. I am 63 years old and I got to get out of this madness.
Your explanation of NPD and what they do makes me understand the behaviour of my soon to be exhusband. I couldnt understand for so many years (34) why he would destroy occasions and my dignity time and time again. You have made me understand things so clearly. Thankyou for helping me and so many others.
Another wonderfully poignant post.
C u r the master! O see so many women victimized by their childhood shame and the carry into adult relationships that end sadly.
Ann Burke, LCSWR
Hi Melissa, I am not sure which uTube talk it was, but it may have been “Listening to shame/Brené Brown”
It may have been this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0
I grew up with my father being a diagnosed psychopath and fell into a relationship with another psychopath. It was a hard earned lesson to love myself. I have noticed in myself what you are speaking of. More broadly as a feeling of impending doom whenever things were going well and specifically very uneasy with accepting compliments or acknowledging achievements. May I ask which book by Brené you are referring to? Thank you for sharing your experience ?