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.