The 7 fears that hold us back from joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Why don’t I do the things I most want to do in life?

A few years ago, I started asking myself this question. Anytime I found myself saying, “I want to do…” and then not doing it, I’d ask myself why.

I want to paint my walls Yves Klein blue. (Why haven’t I?)

I want to take myself out for lunch in the middle of the day. (Why don’t I?)

I want to make more videos and do interviews with people I admire. (Why the hell not?)

As I asked myself these questions, I noticed that the answers seemed to filter into predictable layers, almost like sedimentary rock.

At the top were the excuses. “I don’t have time.” “I have too much work to do.” “I shouldn’t spend money on that right now.” Normally, these are discussion-enders. They’re sensible and practical, and taken at face value, they’re usually true. But usually they mask a more complex reality.

At the bottom were hard constraints. These are limits that make the desire difficult to attain in the moment. This might include not having enough money, access to the right resources, or having enough of a safety net to take the risk. They might also include biological constraints — for example, infertility. I think it’s important to mention these constraints because as a society, we tend to overemphasize individual responsibility for the barriers we face in life, and ignore the collective structures that stand in our way. Constraints are real, and I won’t pretend that we can “mindset shift” or “manifest” our way out of them. But some of these constraints are things we can also challenge or shift at a community level, and there’s also a lot we can do within our constraints.

Then there was everything in between. And what did I find when I looked in there? A messy slush of judgment, self-criticism, cautionary tales, popular wisdom, and familial maxims passed down as truth. This layer contained statements like “You really should get your work done first,” “Are you sure you know enough to do that well?” and “You’ll probably make a fool of yourself.” It looked like a big hot joy-sucking mess. But as I sat with these sentiments, I began to notice that they all had one thing in common: fear.

The fear that I wouldn’t get it “right.”

The fear that I was lazy or self-indulgent.

The fear that I would embarrass myself.

These fears created an inner conflict: I would feel pulled toward joy, and then yanked back by the fear. Each time the fear won out, the potential for joy was shut down before it even got started.

I knew I wasn’t alone in having these fearful inner voices. In the twelve years I’d spent studying joy, I’d talked to countless readers and joy-seekers who were perplexed by their inability to do the things they knew would bring them joy. If we could better understand these fears, we’d be able to resolve the internal conflict, free ourselves from the sense of paralysis that comes with it, and move decisively in the direction of joy.

I began to notice patterns in these fears. Overall, there were seven distinct fears that were the most common “killjoys.” These fears have roots in societal biases around joy that become internalized through family values, cultural conditioning, and life experience. We all have killjoys, but you’ll find that some are more prominent for you than others.

To help you identify your killjoys, I created a quiz. It takes just 3 minutes, and will tell you which inner voices are most likely to interfere with your joy. At the end of the quiz, you’ll also find a comeback — a simple script you can use to begin to free yourself from the fear so that you can find more joy.

Take the quiz here.

Then come back to learn more about all seven killjoys and how you can move past them.

A key discovery for me in the process of learning about these fears is that no matter how mean or bullying these inner voices sound, they originated as protectors. These fears are trying to protect us from disappointment, loss, or rejection. Some are so deep that they actually fear for our survival. Defusing our killjoys is more than a matter of just embracing positive self-talk or pushing through the fear. It requires acknowledging that sometimes joy feels risky, and that certain deeply entrenched beliefs or coping mechanisms that have helped us survive hard times will need to be gently unlearned before we can move in the direction of joy.

With this in mind, I’m teaching a workshop this month called How to Get Unstuck: Stop Waiting for Happiness, Start Creating Joy. This workshop is specifically designed to help you move past the fears and roadblocks that keep you from joy. If you’ve been feeling stuck in a rut or unable to move forward in life, this workshop will give you tools and strategies for finding clarity and feeling confident about your next steps. Learn more and sign up right here.

Now, let’s meet the killjoys…

The Inner Critic

aka The Fear of Judgment

Ah, that judgy voice inside your head. The Inner Critic tells you that the things that bring you joy are silly, weird, or pathetic. It thinks it’s being helpful by protecting you from the sting of other people’s judgments, but instead it makes you second guess yourself and suppress your joy to gain the approval of others. It leaves you questioning everything: what you want, what you like, who you want to be.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You have a lot of things you consider “guilty pleasures” that you wouldn’t necessarily tell your friends about.
  • You worry more about whether an outfit is flattering or “cool” than if you really enjoy wearing it.
  • You often hear the phrase “What will people think?” in your head.

How we end up with a loud Inner Critic? Sometimes it’s because we grew up in a home where discernment was a form of currency. Judging a movie as “bad” or an outfit as “tacky” can be a way of proving your good taste or savvy. It may also come from having overheard a lot of judgments made by adults when you were a child. Even if those judgments weren’t leveled at you, you gained an implicit understanding of what behavior was acceptable, and what was worthy of scorn. Another place to look? Judgy friends. Having your musical taste or fashion preferences criticized by peers can increase the Inner Critic’s vigilance, as it tries to protect you from the pain of embarrassment or exclusion.

When starting to work with an active Inner Critic, try asking: What evidence do I have that this judgment is true?

The Taskmaster

aka the fear you don’t deserve it

The Taskmaster is the part of you that secretly believes that you don’t really deserve joy. It stems from the mistaken belief that joy is something we have to earn, not something that’s integral to our thriving as human beings.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You see joy primarily as a reward for hard work or “good behavior.”
  • You ration or deny yourself joy if you haven’t achieved certain milestones.
  • When you think about doing something purely for joy, it feels self-indulgent

The Taskmaster is common in achievement-oriented families and cultures, where success equals attention, approval, and even survival. It’s also a symptom of living in a capitalist society that conditions our value on our output. Add in the fabled Protestant work ethic, and the Puritanical belief in denying ourselves joy on earth to wait for a reward in heaven, and you have a perfect cultural cocktail for this killjoy to take root.

When trying to ease the grip of the Taskmaster, ask: What would I do if I believed I didn’t have to earn joy, but was worthy of it just as I am?

The Green-eyed Monster

aka the fear there isn’t enough to go around

The Green-eyed Monster spends a lot of time thinking about other people’s joy. A manifestation of the scarcity mindset, it believes that joy is finite and that if other people are experiencing it, that means there’s less for you.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • When a friend gets promoted, you feel competitive, rather than happy for them.
  • Scrolling through Instagram fills you with FOMO and a sense that you’re stuck while everyone else is living their best life.
  • You feel more joy from getting something rare or scarce than when you get something anyone could have.

The Green-eyed Monster feeds on scarcity, so anything that promotes this mentality will intensify our feelings of FOMO and envy. This includes capitalism (yes, again!), which takes scarcity as a fundamental premise and makes it an essential precondition for value. If we believe things are worth more when they are scarce, then we are primed to see joy as a zero-sum game. This opens the door to competitiveness and schadenfreude, and a constant fear of losing ground.

When working with your Green-eyed Monster, the goal is to shift from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance. For starters, you can gently ask: What other paths to joy might be available to me?

Quick note: in November’s workshop, How to Dream: Build a Life of Abundance, we are going to be focusing on letting go of scarcity and cultivating an abundance mindset. So if this killjoy is a big one for you, you’ll definitely want to check out this session! You can learn more here.

The Protective Pessimist

aka the fear of loss

“Well, it’ll probably rain,” says the Protective Pessimist, as soon as you book your tickets for the Bon Jovi reunion tour. This killjoy thinks it’s looking out for you by keeping you from getting your hopes up so you won’t be disappointed if things don’t go your way. But in the process, it keeps you forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, holding yourself back from being fully immersed in joy.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You don’t tell people about good news until it is absolutely, 100% certain that it’s happening. When you receive bad news, you tell yourself you didn’t really want it anyway.
  • You try not to get too attached to people in your life, so you won’t feel so bad if they leave you.
  • You cultivate low expectations for an experience, so that you can be pleasantly surprised if it lives up to the hype.

The Protective Pessimist reveals that joy is actually a highly vulnerable emotion. When we feel joyful, it means have something that would be painful to lose, so we lower our expectations to try to blunt that pain, unfortunately dampening our joy in the process. Ironically, this killjoy feeds off of our culture’s bright-sidedness — the tendency to avoid negative emotions and overemphasize the importance of positive ones makes loss feel even more isolating, so we’ll twist ourselves in knots to suppress it. If you experienced trauma or periods of struggle, or this is a part of your family history, you may have absorbed this fear without realizing it.

To rebalance the Protective Pessimist, allow yourself to consider what might happen if things aren’t a complete disaster. Ask: What might happen if my best-case scenario came true?

The Control Freak

aka the fear of losing control

The Control Freak is pretty sure that it’s the one thing standing between you and total humiliation. It thinks that if you get caught up in a moment of joy, you’ll let down your guard, and might forget to keep those awkward or uncool parts of yourself under wraps. In the process, it keeps you so self-conscious that it’s impossible to fully enjoy yourself.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You dread the idea of having to play a game where you might look silly.
  • You have trouble with moderation: you work hard to control cravings for sugar or alcohol, but then binge when you can’t take it anymore.
  • Your worst nightmare: having to do improv comedy in front of your coworkers (or anyone, really).

The Control Freak is trying to protect us from embarrassment, but from societal perspective, what it really does it uphold norms. Joy often means following our unique, quirky, even weird impulses, but those impulses sometimes lie outside of the constraints of “mainstream” thought and behavior. The Control Freak is a symptom of a society that tells us we have to be a certain way to deserve love and respect. This killjoy often affects people of marginalized identities who have had to conform so as to avoid discrimination. In these cases, the protective function is meaningful, and the tradeoffs between safety and joy can be very real.

If you find the Control Freak is keeping you hemmed in, you may find relief by asking: What’s wrong with letting people see this side of me?

The Perfectionist

aka the fear of failure

The Perfectionist wants the very best for you — and only the very best. It believes that the only things that are worth doing are the ones that we do to perfection, and its definition of perfection has a lot to do with how things appear to other people. The secret fear that keeps the Perfectionist up at night: being seen as a failure.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You’ve been putting off taking those painting lessons because you’re afraid you won’t be good at it.
  • You haven’t hosted a dinner party in your apartment because you feel silly hosting people at your too-small table with your mismatched chairs.
  • You have a million browser tabs open trying to plan a vacation, but you never actually book anything because you can’t find exactly what you want in your budget.

Like the Taskmaster, the Perfectionist is common in families where achievement is seen as a mark of virtue. People with strong a perfectionist streak may have had to overachieve (whether in school or through their manners or behavior) to gain attention or approval from caregivers, or to survive in difficult circumstances. The ultimate danger of perfectionism is that perfect isn’t an attainable standard, and when we feel we can’t achieve it, we often don’t even bother.

To help the Perfectionist loosen its grip, try asking: What if my standard were joy, rather than perfection?

The Nervous Nellie

aka the fear of the unknown

The Nervous Nellie doesn’t get out much — out of its comfort zone, that is. When Nellie pipes up, it’s like looking at one of those old maps that have the words “Here Be Dragons” written all over it. Like the Protective Pessimist, it wants to keep you from being disappointed, and that means playing it safe by avoiding anything different, unconventional, or new.

Signs it might be killing your joy…

  • You always get the same ice cream flavor, not because you love it but because you’re afraid you won’t like whatever else you choose.
  • You dream about leaving your corporate job and making a living as an artist, but it seems so scary you can’t even consider it.
  • You save photos of new hairstyles to Pinterest but always get the same cut because what if you try something new and hate it?

Nervous Nellie is another symptom of having been in survival mode. If you grew up in poverty, novel choices may have been risky (because if you don’t like what you picked no one’s got the money to buy you another). Similarly, in many immigrant cultures, creative or otherwise “risky” career choices are discouraged because a previous generation survived hardship to build a new life, and the potential for instability feels dangerous.

It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between a valid assessment of risk and the overanxious whisperings of Nervous Nellie. When that’s the case, a question you can ask is: Even if it doesn’t work out, is there a lesson worth learning from taking this leap?

While learning about our killjoys isn’t the most fun activity, it’s a powerful way to open up space for joy.

If you haven’t taken the quiz yet, you can do so here. I’d love to hear which killjoys are most significant for you, and what techniques you’ve learned for freeing yourself to find more joy.

October 8th, 2022

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