In the last two episodes, I shared three practices to help you nourish your joy—Tracking Glimmers, Orienting, and Taking in the Good.

These practices can make it easier to honor our needs because they help us notice when our needs are well-met, imagine a life in which our needs are well-met, and detect otherwise hidden opportunities to honor our needs.

But sometimes, it still can feel really vulnerable to feel or express joy. And if so if you do ever feel hesitant or nervous to really savor feelings of goodness, I created this episode for you.

Let’s start by discussing the work of clinical psychologist, Beatrice Beebe, around what she’s termed our windows of welcome.

For over four decades, Beatrice Beebe and her team have recorded and analyzed videos of mothers engaging in face-to-face interactions with their infants. Over this time, they’ve tracked how people’s earliest communications with their mothers affects how they communicate with themselves and the other people in their lives into adulthood.

Through their research, Beebe and her team made a discovery that has really big implications on how much joy—and other emotions— we allow ourselves to feel.

They named this discovery the windows of welcome. Here’s the basic premise:

When you and I came into this world, we had the capacity to express every possible human emotion—sadness, anger, fear, delight, disgust, excitement, you name it.[1]

But soon after we were born, we started tracking the emotional expressions which our caregivers displayed. And at around four months old, most of us began editing our emotional expressions based on what our caregivers accepted and reflected.

If our caregivers mirrored our emotions, meaning, when we smiled, they smiled back or when we frowned, they frowned back, then we knew they accepted our emotions.

But if our caregivers did not mirror our emotions, say they met our smile with a flat affect, we experienced less acceptance of what we were feeling and were apt to feel a sense of painful disconnection.

The process of tracking and editing out expressions shapes what Beatrice Beebe and her team named windows of welcome. 

Inside our windows of welcome are all the emotions that others reflected to us with warmth and that we developed relatively easy access to. Outside our windows are the emotions that we came to believe are unacceptable and that we therefore ignore, numb, or turn away from.

Windows of welcome are not only shaped during infancy but also during adulthood. For example, in many activist cultures, commiseration is a strategy for belonging. Many changemakers hold the belief that it’s wrong to feel joy in the midst of all the collective injustice and that if we allow ourselves to feel good, we’re betraying people who have it worse. If the people with whom we collaborate hold these beliefs, we are more likely to limit our expression of joy.

Another metaphor I find helpful for depicting how our relationships sometimes teach us to limit our joy is that of an emotional drawbridge. This one is from the work of Sarah Peyton and her book, Your Resonant Self.

When we humans attempt to share an emotion with another person, it’s as if we extend one half of an emotional draw bridge toward them, reaching out across a chasm.

If the other person reflects what they see, it’s as if they’re extending their emotional bridge to meet ours. And we feel seen and understood.

But if the other person does not acknowledge our bridge or turns away from us, it can feel like our part of the bridge collapses down into a chasm. We’re apt to feel a jolt of shame like an electrical shock in response. This experience can be so painful that afterward, we might unconsciously decide it’s safer not to fully experience or express that emotion, at least not with the person we’re interacting with.

If you’ve learned to unconsciously anticipate that other people will meet your delight with disapproval, you might unconsciously hold yourself back from exposing or even feeling excitement now.

I invite you to reflect for a moment. Is it easier for you when someone who depends on you is afraid or when they’re sad? If it’s easier for you when they’re afraid, you have a wider window of welcome for fear than for sadness.

Another question: Do you unconsciously shift into sadness when you feel mad? If so, you might have a wider window of welcome for sadness than anger.

And, how is it for you when you feel joy? Do you allow the sensation to flow in? Or do you try to shut the window? And does this depend on who you’re interacting with or what the context is?

An essential part of our work toward becoming whole, nourishing our joy, and crafting a life in which our needs and all peoples’ needs are met—including our needs for play, pleasure, intimacy, adventure, and connection—is learning to welcome the full range of emotions—Grief. Rage. Fear.

And joy.

Widening our windows of welcome isn’t about pushing ourselves to feel any different than we do right now.

For those of us who were raised by unreliable caregivers or experienced sudden disappointment or heartache in our lives, it makes complete sense that we might now anticipate disappointment, brush good things away to make it not hurt so bad when we lose them, or brace ourselves in the face of delight, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

If this has been your experience, it makes sense that a part of you would try to protect you from feeling bad. Because it’s true: If things don’t go as you hope, you may feel disappointed, and  disappointment hurts. If you try to focus on what’s good without also acknowledging your struggles, the part of you that is struggling might worry that you’ll forget about it and insist that you focus on what hurts.

So, if joy feels scary, please be gentle with yourself. My invitation to you is not to push yourself so far outside your comfort zone that you become overwhelmed. When people push themselves too hard to feel good, they can experience what Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer call backdraft. In The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, they write: “Backdraft is a term that firefighters use to describe what happens when a fire has used all available oxygen and fresh oxygen is introduced through an open door or window. The air rushes in and flames rush out.”

So please don’t push yourself. Instead, my invitation is to become curious and experiment with welcoming what is, to turn your attention toward whatever you feel with genuine warmth and open curiosity, and ask:

How might I welcome what I am feeling right now?

If you notice uncomfortable feelings, see if you can turn toward them and, through the lens of a compassionate observer, say hello. If you notice a part of you that tries to push your feelings away, say hello to the part that’s pushing away. And say hello to the pleasant feelings, too.

Stay curious about what helps you welcome whatever it is that you feel.

So, please take care of yourself as you go. If you start feeling overwhelmed, pause. Look around the room, notice as many details as you can, and notice any signs that you are safe. You might also stand up, squeeze your hands and feet, massage your arms with your hands, circle your joints, or walk around. I also encourage you to seek a trauma-informed therapist who can support you in this process, if possible.

When we do the inner work necessary to welcome what we feel, we nurture the soil in which the seeds of joy can take root.

[1] These findings come from the work of neuroscientist Beatrice Beebe, who studied videos of caregivers and infants. I first learned about these findings here: Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self Workbook: From Self-Sabotage to Self-Care. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2021.)

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