Are you talking yourself out of joy? Here’s how to stop

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Have I ever told you about the time I wanted to wear a tutu?

It was about ten years ago. I saw a woman wearing one in a photo on a New York street style blog. I immediately wanted one. She wore it with a leather jacket and ankle boots, and a wry smile that made her look like a punk fairy, a heroine from some urban retelling of an old Hans Christian Andersen story. It looked FUN, and seemed like a welcome break from all the black in my closet.

But before I could google “where to buy a tutu,” a voice piped up in my head.

“You? A tutu? Don’t you think that’s a little ridiculous? It’s not you AT ALL.”

“What if you run into your boss wearing it? Or your crush? Won’t they think that’s SO weird?”

“You really think you can pull that off? Sure, it seems cool, but knowing you, you’ll just end up looking like a Center Stage-wannabe, or a dork who got lost on her way to her 7th grade ballet recital.”

Needless to say, I didn’t take the idea any further. My tutu dreams were dashed before they even got started.

Fast forward a year or so, and I was headed to Charleston to visit my friend Deirdre, who had offered her house as a change of scenery for a self-designed writing retreat. I arrived just in time to attend the gallery opening of a friend of hers where she was DJing, a hobby she’d recently picked up. I walked into the crowd of strangers and immediately spotted her. She was standing next to a turntable, wearing 4 inch heels, a pair of big headphones, and a bright orange tutu.

She looked awesome.

And more importantly, she looked like she was having an awesome time wearing it. No one thought Deirdre looked ridiculous. They thought she looked stylish and brave. People kept coming up to compliment her on her look. The tutu had been a great idea, but I had been too afraid of it to actually enjoy it.

The regret was small but sharp. It was just a tutu, but it felt like more than that. Why had I talked myself out of something that would’ve brought me joy? Why had I listened to those voices that told me I would feel silly or embarrassed, instead of listening to the deeper longing for something that made me feel free and playful and alive? Why had I sacrificed my joy for a perception that didn’t even turn out to be true?

Many of us have this tension within us, between our natural, joyful impulses and the voices of doubt that hold us back from joy. Maybe you can’t relate to wanting to wear a tutu, but you’ve felt the tension in other ways:

  • Wanting to quit your job and pursue art as a career, but worrying that others will think you’re just an amateur
  • Spending hours making a “cool” playlist for when friends come over, because you know they’d make fun of you if they knew what kind of music you really listen to
  • Wanting a yellow sofa, but getting a beige one because of a comment your mom once made about how your love of bright colors is a little kindergarten-y
  • Trying to be interested in highbrow shows and documentaries, but when you’re alone you watch Schitt’s Creek reruns for the third time because that’s what you really enjoy
  • Dreaming about singing in a choir, but fearing that you’ll just make a fool of yourself
  • Sitting out the game of catch at the beach because you still remember the shame of being told you “throw like a girl”
  • Wanting to wear nail polish as a male-presenting individual, but feeling afraid that others will think you’re different or weird
  • Wishing you could go out to dinner alone, but feeling pathetic, like there’s something wrong with you because you’re sitting by yourself in a restaurant

We feel the tug of joy in one direction, yet there’s always a voice claiming that this joy is impractical, uncool, childish, or a one-way ticket to shame and humiliation. What gives?

These voices don’t come from nowhere. They’re echoes of criticism we’ve faced or overheard throughout our lives that we’ve internalized as a way of checking our behavior against social norms. They might be a distillation of judgmental parents, the mocking of middle school peers, well-intentioned friends who are just “trying to help,” and sarcastic dialogue absorbed from movies, TV, and social media. Over time, we stop being able to distinguish them as separate voices. They just sound like a part of our own minds, warning us off the things we desire, keeping our lives inoffensive and safe and small.

It can help to realize that these voices originate from a place of protection. Our unconscious minds know that being part of the pack means safety, and deviating from norms can mean subjecting ourselves to the pain of rejection and isolation. So our internal voice says, “Stay safe. Don’t do it! Don’t let people see this side of us that is so clearly unlovable and uncool.” Like a parent who says no to their young son’s request to wear a skirt to school because they want to protect him from the pain of being mocked, these inner voices believe they have our best interests at heart. But what if the cost of that protection is bigger than the pain that it avoids?

The loss of joy is the collateral damage of conformity. We don’t see all these lost joys — the colorful clothes we didn’t wear, the hobbies we never began, the games we never played — but the loss of them makes our lives duller, and worse, less authentic. Each of these small joys might have been a portal to something more — friendships we might have made, creativity we might have developed — that reaches deeper into our lives than the initial source of joy. But when we live by judgment, rather than joy, our lives become a reflection of those judgments, rather than a true expression of what really lights us up inside. If I eschew the tutu, so to speak, in favor of more typical clothing, then I’m camouflaging my true self because I believe there’s something dangerous about letting people see it. The less I show people, the less they can know me, which makes that true self feel even more remote. When we feel lost from ourselves, it’s often because we have lost our connection to joy.

Joy is inextricably bound up with authenticity because it’s a clue to what makes us come alive. It might seem like the choice of a sofa or what book to read or whether to play Charades is an insignificant one. But little choices add up over time, and give shape and texture to our lives. The life you build when you are making decisions based on fear of judgment is fundamentally different than the one you build when you’re moving toward the things that feed your joy. The path back to ourselves is through joy.

Not that it is easy. A popular quote on Instagram by Henri J.M. Nouwen says, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” This often gets shortened to just “Choose joy.” The sentiment is right, but we have to acknowledge how difficult it can be. The judgments that make it hard to embrace joy are rooted in deep cultural biases. In Western society, joy is cast as juvenile, and we’re supposed to grow out of what is juvenile. Think of 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” We’re urged to leave behind bright colors for sophisticated neutrals and play for work. A joyful person is often assumed to be lacking in seriousness and unlikely to succeed. (While biting, sarcastic humor is seen as smart or witty, sweetness and good cheer give the opposite impression.)

Joy is also seen as shallow. Highbrow art and media is filled with struggle and hardship, which we see as a precondition or a proxy for depth, while lighthearted art is presumed to be simplistic and unsophisticated. And because what is deep is seen as important, joy is often categorized as frivolous or unimportant. Work, business, the economy — these are essential, while leisure and enjoyment are trivial extras that happen only if there’s time. (Actually, the latter is often justified in its existence by the former — rest is hailed not because it’s valuable in its own right, but because it can make us more productive; restaurants and shows are not inherently worthy, but we need to keep going to them amid a pandemic because they bolster the economy.) Joy is an extra, worthy only insofar as it feeds what society considers essential.

And lastly, joy is not cool. Joy is enthusiastic and earnest, and oooooeee is there any greater target of mockery in our culture than someone who is genuine in their excitement about something? Coolness is all about detachment, standing back and examining something from a distance, not getting emotional or involved. Coolness is discernment, another word for judgment. Joy requires us to lean forward, to participate, to risk being awkward and being seen as awkward, to be uncool.

It also needs to be said that these biases have roots in the patriarchal, white supremacist structures that shape Western culture. Media and pursuits that are disproportionately enjoyed by women as frivolous, while those enjoyed by men are significant. Romance is dismissed as an unserious genre for housewives while action and sci-fi are to be taken seriously. Home decor and flower arranging are frivolous, but sports and cars are worthy of intense discussion. Similarly, cultures that center joy, such as through color, dance, music, and celebration, are seen as more primitive, their practices and art deemed less worthy of scholarship.

So when a woman worries that in a fatphobic society, people might make fun of her curvy friend for wearing a tight dress, and gently suggests buying a more flowing style, she probably doesn’t realize she’s squashing her friend’s joy. And when our own little voice tells us we shouldn’t bother joining the choir because we’re probably no good at singing anyway, there’s a complex cocktail of judgments that go into that one joy-killing moment. The currents that pull us away from joy are strong, and it’s understandable why we feel so lost from it at times.

Yet every time we embrace joy over the fear of disapproval, something magical happens. We take a little bit of power away from those judgments, and reclaim it for ourselves. By wearing the tutu, Deirdre toppled the tyrannic voice in my head that said, “tutus are silly and uncool.” She probably did it for many of the other people she encountered while wearing it too. Not only did she free herself from judgment, she freed us too. And while I didn’t actually go out and get a tutu after that, years later when I saw a long multicolor skirt made of tulle, I didn’t hesitate. That rainbow skirt might seem like a token, but it made me feel more like myself. And every time I choose joy, it gets a little easier the next time.

Each time you talk yourself into joy, instead of out of it, you help to dismantle the power structures that keep joy in the margins of our lives. So let’s try this. What’s one thing you would love to do that you keep talking yourself out of? What does that inner voice say that keeps holding you back from joy? Listen, and thank this voice for trying to protect you.

Now get quiet and listen to the desire. Why do you want to do this thing? What might happen in your life if you were able to do this thing? Now imagine you don’t do the thing. What is lost in your life? What might not ever happen if you don’t at least give it a go?

Images: Belathée for the Aesthetics of Joy

If this post made you want to get back in touch with joy and you’re wondering where to start, I have something new that can help. It’s called The Joy Jumpstart, and it’s a self-guided program designed to help you reclaim your joy and rediscover what makes you feel most alive. Sign up here!

September 18th, 2021

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    Discussion (16 Comments)

  1. Janel Barthe on September 18, 2021

    I just ordered a gorgeous maxi dress with a rustic orange coverup…Joy, Joy, Joy

    Reply
  2. Janel Barthe on September 18, 2021

    You look fabulous, Dawlin!

    Reply
  3. Stevon on September 18, 2021

    I love this!

    Reply
  4. EV on September 18, 2021

    Thank you for giving me the courage and inspiration to dig out the beautiful tulle skirts in my closet. I have not worn them (even though they bring me considerable joy) due to my fears of being overdressed or standing out too much in this sea of athleisure during this pandemic. Your post made me reflect on what I have cast aside in order to fit in—and it goes much deeper than flouncy twirl worthy tulle. Love your posts! 

    Reply
  5. Mary on September 18, 2021

    The first bullet — “Wanting to quit your job and pursue art as a career, but worrying that others will think you’re just an amateur” — is exactly where I am right now.
    I am an amateur, but if I don’t practice the art that keeps drawing me toward it, I will never know what joy it might bring.

    Reply
  6. Beatrice Vicente on September 18, 2021

    You rock that Tutu Ingrid!

    Reply
  7. ana Pinski on September 18, 2021

    I love this post and I thank you for your awesome work. Nevertheless, I like to think the quote of Corinthians is too literal. I think it has another meanibg and is meant to be a methafore of swlfish behaviour

    Reply
  8. Heather on September 18, 2021

    “The loss of joy is the collateral damage of conformity.” Wow- I want to paint this on my wall! This whole post is super thought provoking, meaty and just really great. Might be my favorite piece I’ve ever read of yours. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Becca on September 18, 2021

    Loved this! You share key insights into the cultural influences that discourage joy. Thank you for sharing your passion and your knowledge with us. 

    Reply
  10. Sally on September 19, 2021

    I’ve been focusing so much on just getting by, surviving not thriving, that I’ve completely distanced myself from joy. I don’t even know what sounds fun anymore, much less joyful. I loved how thought-provoking this post was and I’m determined to have some joy! 

    Reply
  11. Elisa Allen Arias on September 19, 2021

    Love this! My enthusiasm has always been one of my least “cool” traits and at 36 gets me plenty of cool raised eyebrows and uncomfortable fidgeting from other adults. 😂 Though my enthusiasm can be infectious and I love when my passion gets others to try something new. It can help people shake off that voice!  

    Reply
  12. Meghan on September 19, 2021

    Thank you for this! People are so afraid to be different (me included) but this post gives me hope that I can showcase Joy in my life in different ways.

    Reply
  13. Elise on September 19, 2021

    Love this! Finally signed up for a tennis class after considering it for years. Been a little worried that I will just look stupid, but who cares. Life is too short!

    Reply
  14. Jayne on September 20, 2021

    Love this, and your tutu/tulle! I wore many of mine during lockdown last year to brighten those difficult days. I would agree with Heather, this is also my favourite piece! EV – dress it or dress it down 🙂 Mary – I’m 53 and starting university tomorrow, you’ll never be as young as you are right now! And to offer one more cliché to anyone wishing they’d done something years ago – the next best time is now 🙂 Happy joy spotting!

    Reply
  15. Deb Z on September 22, 2021

    I needed to read this this morning, I love my project and yet there are times I’m so worried I’m making a wrong decision or it isn’t good enough that yet that it makes it hard to get what I need to do done. This is a good reminder to keep working on it because I love working on it. Thank you. 🥰

    Reply
  16. Natalie on September 24, 2021

    Last year was my 32nd and final year of teaching. I promised myself to make it joyful. I decided to do Fancy Fridays. I wore the most sparkly, crazy looking outfits. I invited my 4th and 5th grade students to join me and to wear whatever Fancy meant to them(cool hat, pretty scarf, shiny shoes, sequins, anything).  We had the best time. Adults would look at me strange but I held my head up and felt amazing. I’m so glad I did that.  Now I keep talking myself out of starting a small business in case I get it wrong. I’m going to use the reflection questions you asked to guide me to a decision. Thank you for this meaningful piece! I enjoy reading your articles. This one especially.

    Reply

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