The armor that keeps out joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

“You seem to be struggling to take a breath,” my therapist observed, as I tried to tell the story of my weekend. “Why don’t you slow down and take a minute to breathe before going on.”

I felt awkward as I sat there, silent, gulping for air. Like I was holding up the natural flow of conversation (as if “natural flow” really exists in therapy). My chest tightened against my breath, like I was inhaling against a metal breastplate. I couldn’t seem to expand my lungs deeply enough to stop the gasping feeling. I began to feel like I would never catch up, and so I started speaking again, only to have to repeat the whole uncomfortable process again a few minutes later.

When this first began, I wondered if I just wasn’t breathing “correctly,” as has become fashionable to say in mindfulness circles. Perhaps my poor posture and lazy, shallow breathing was to blame for this intermittent shortness of breath. But over time it became clear that no amount of breathing exercises was going to fix me. “The breastplate” wasn’t a lack of discipline. It was relic of battles I didn’t know I had been fighting — an armor I had put on as a child without realizing, and never taken off.

In my recent workshops, one theme that keeps coming up is how chronic stress and trauma influence the ability to feel joy. When you experience an intense or prolonged period of difficulty in life, whether that’s abuse or neglect, poverty or burnout, you respond with a range of coping mechanisms that help you ride out the storm. But when the threat is over, you find that you struggle to really feel joy. You might feel like you’re physically there, but not really present. You might look forward to a happy event, but not actually feel any joy or relief once you get there.

What’s happening? It turns out that many of the coping mechanisms that protect us from suffering during painful events can actually block our ability to feel joy once the difficult time is over. Like my breastplate, which had hardened into place as I braced myself to deal with my chaotic childhood, the armor we put on during hard times is tough to take off when things get better.

Why does this happen? One reason is that in situations of intense or chronic stress, we often move from the “fight or flight” activation of the sympathetic nervous system into another state known as “freeze.” While fight and flight are active states, prompting us to either move ourselves out of danger or face the threat head on, freeze is a state of attentive immobility where it feels like there is no action that will help resolve the situation. The only option is to dig in and ride out the danger.

When we imagine the freeze state, we might picture someone who accidentally comes across a bear in the woods, standing perfectly still and hoping they won’t be noticed. But in modern life, freeze might look more like showing up to the office even while burnt out, because you’re afraid you’ll lose your job if you complain about your boss’s lack of boundaries. Freeze might be staying in a situation you know is abusive, because it’s not safe to fight back and you don’t know anyone who could help you get out of it. When you’re in a freeze state, you’re just trying to survive and hoping something changes, because you don’t feel you have the power to change it yourself.

The freeze response is often accompanied by other responses. Some of these include:

  • Dissociation: We disconnect from our bodies and surroundings to avoid the pain of the stress or fear.
  • Numbing: We try to blunt our emotions through substances, distraction, or escape.
  • Learned helplessness: A term coined by psychologist Martin Seligman after his seminal (and traumatizing) research with dogs. In these studies, dogs were given powerful electric shocks whenever they tried to leave their cages. Eventually, even when the shocks were taken away, the dogs stopped trying to escape. In a state of learned helplessness, we stop looking for a way out of the situation because we feel powerless to change it.
  • Hypervigilance: We become overly attentive to signals of danger, and are easily overwhelmed.
  • Exhaustion: Freeze seems like a passive state, but actually it takes a tremendous amount of energy just to survive under these circumstances. We end up feeling drained and depleted, even when it feels like we’re not doing anything.
  • Arrival fallacy: We believe that if we just achieve a certain goal, we’ll feel better. This is the “I’ll be happy when…” line of thinking.

Once these habits are acquired, it’s not always easy to turn them off. One reason for this is that when you’ve experienced hardship, joy can feel risky. You worry that at any moment, you could be plunged back into a crisis. You worry that a good job might turn bad, that a kind partner might leave you, or that an unforeseen event will take away your joy. It’s safer to hold your joy at a distance, not getting too attached, to protect yourself from the pain of its loss.

Even if you aren’t afraid of loss, the residual effect of these coping strategies can dampen your emotions. Dampening is a scientific term for down-regulating your emotions, making them feel less intense. Here are some of the ways that the stress responses mentioned above can dampen your joy:

Dissociating and numbing can be a way of dealing with intensely painful emotional responses. We know, for example, that heartbreak can feel physical painful, and that loneliness can trigger inflammation. Disconnecting from the physical sensations of your emotions may be one way of coping when those circuits are overloaded. But when you want to feel joy, the habits of numbing and dissociation block the ability to feel joy in the body. It’s like you’re there, but not really there, because you can’t actually feel the physiological sensations of joy. If you tend to dissociate, you might also unknowingly suppress your expressions of joy, which dampens down your feelings of joy. Or you might distract yourself or otherwise escape a joyful situation because it helps take down the intensity of your feelings.

Hypervigilance keeps you waiting for the other shoe to drop. This can show up as bracing, where you are constantly readying yourself for the potential of loss or pain. (I came to see that the origin of my “breastplate” lay in bracing myself for the impacts of my mother’s mental illness. I spent my childhood in two houses, alternating weeks, and each time I had to leave the relative stability of one house for the chaos of another, I reinforced that habit of bracing myself for what I might find.) Hypervigilance can also translate to worrying, protective pessimism (where you set expectations low so as not to be disappointed), disaster fantasies or dress-rehearsing tragedy, or what Brené Brown calls foreboding joy. All of these approaches use your fears as a buffer to keep you from fully leaning into the positive experience of the moment, holding you back from joy.

Learned helplessness can make you feel that you’ll never actually find joy, so you don’t even bother to seek it out. You cut the potential for joy off at the root, so as to avoid getting to a place where you end up disappointed. This might look like ending a budding relationship after the second date, before the other person has time to find out your faults. Or not applying to a scholarship because of course you’ll get rejected.

Another outcome of learned helplessness is known as adapted preferences, where we adjust our desires to only allow ourselves to want things we believe we can have. For example, it might not even occur to a neglected child to want a caring parent, because they’ve never know what that feels like. Another example: children raised in poverty sometimes learn to suppress their desires because they don’t want to put pressure on a struggling parent. Adapted preferences can lead to us accepting an unsatisfying status quo simply because we’re so disconnected from what we really want in life. We end up feeling stuck, not because we can’t change but because we don’t even consider what might be possible.

Exhaustion often triggers what I call powersave mode, a state of being where we stop doing things that bring us joy because they feel extraneous or indulgent. We have to expend all our energy just surviving, so joy begins to feel like a luxury. Over time, our lives become monotonous and start to shrink. We end up just going through the motions and don’t know how we got there. (For more on this, read this post on downward and upward spirals.)

Arrival fallacy causes us to postpone joy, convinced that happiness will come if we can just get through a difficult period. This mindset is a fantasy that hardship is finite, and can be transcended. Yet somehow even when we arrive at the hoped-for endpoint (a big presentation, wedding, or vacation), we feel unsatisfied, and immediately begin looking to the next future milestone that surely will bring relief.

If some of these examples feel familiar, it may be comforting to realize that you still have the capacity for joy. Trauma and hardship don’t kill your ability to feel joy. They may suppress it, they may repel it, but you can choose to take off the armor and allow joy back in.

This is one of the key things on the agenda at this week’s live workshop, How to Dream. In this session, I’m sharing strategies to free you from the limits that have been imposed on your joy, and help you reconnect to your desires. There are some powerful exercises in this session (including a field trip through the multiverse — yeah, baby!) designed to unlock hidden sources of joy and bring them up to the light. Details and signup are here.

The tricky truth of wearing armor is that you don’t just get to wear it into battle. When we blunt our challenging emotions, we also blunt our joy. So, taking off the armor means being ready to feel everything more deeply. It means learning to become tender in the face of difficulty, in a way that may not have been possible when you were going through past traumas or struggles. I often say that the depth of our sorrow defines the height of our joy, and by now, it should be clear what I mean by that. We have to allow ourselves to be present to all of it, if we want to be able to experience any of it.

If you don’t know where to begin, begin with the body. Notice what it feels like to feel. Name the sensations, whether they feel pleasurable or painful. Be like an explorer of your own inner landscape. Study each emotion like you are feeling it for the first time.

I still feel my breastplate occasionally. It’s a reminder of a time when I was afraid of my own emotions, so afraid that I ignored the gasping, tingling, burning pain in my body and masked it with humor and the blithe assurance that “all that was in the past.” Sometimes I close my eyes and picture the breastplate, hammered flat and bejeweled, an artifact of my trauma that I can lift off my shoulders and place in a display case, to be admired at the Met. With it set to the side, I feel the breath go in and out, sometimes choppy with excitement, ragged with anger, or heavy with defeat. Sometimes smooth with joy.

Join me this week, on Wednesday, November 16th at 7:30pm ET, for the last live workshop in the Reclaim Joy series, How to Dream. I can’t wait to see you there!

Image: Nelson Flores via Unsplash

November 12th, 2022

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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Scott McKinstry on November 12, 2022

    Hi Ingrid,

    Thx for the in-depth post. I feel moved to share a song I wrote that approaches this idea of armor. It’s called “The Prize.”

    http://scottstoriesandsongs.com/2021/07/16/song-the-prize/

    Take care,
    Scott

    Reply
  2. Latoya J. Willians on November 16, 2022

    Hi Ingrid!

    My version of the breastplate, which you shared is a part of your personal body/energetic armor, was a “straight-jacket” that I had no idea that I had been wearing for most of my life. During the early 2000s, I even spent 3 years studying and training to be a therapist and took several somatic/body-based therapy courses and that particular armor didn’t reveal itself to me then.

    I discovered the energetic straight-jacket, which was a part of my armor, when I took the time to sit with myself and reflect on the unarmed killings of African-Americans, sparked by the collective outcry and horror of people watching the video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd.

    In my experience, every one of the “freeze” responses that you listed in this is post are symptoms of what I and other descendants of enslaved Africans in this country have lived with to some degree chronically. The history and magnitude of racism had convinced me to believe that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about racism (aka a chronic stressor/trauma) and we just had to live with it to the best of our abilities.

    When my mind-body presented the image of me sitting on a solitary chair in a dark room wrapped in a straight-jacket, as I reflected on what the murders of George, Ahmaud, Breonna, and countless others, who could be my relatives or me meant for my life, somehow I knew that I could finally finally myself. And, I understood how “oppression” lived in my body, which was like being struck by lightning because I would have never identified with being or feeling “oppressed,” until that image visited me in the summer of 2020.

    It took me over 4 decades of my life to realize that I believed and accepted the lie that we cannot do anything about racism and that we should just live with it. No more, no longer. And, I committed to the work of antiracism for the rest of my life.

    I really appreciate the distillation and presentation of how chronic stress and trauma presents itself in our bodies and experience in this post.

    And, attending your “How to Dream” workshop tomorrow has been on my list of what I’m looking forward to experiencing this month! 🙂

    Latoya

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on November 16, 2022

      Latoya, thank you so much for these powerful words. It makes perfect sense that you would experience racism as a freeze response, and that it would manifest as a chronic, physical stressor. (I was shocked, but ultimately not surprised, to learn that this “wearing” or chronic stress from the effects of racism is a major contributor to the health inequities that affect Black people.) I love reading your description of how you freed yourself from your “straitjacket” – and how the commitment to action played a critical role in being able to do that.

      So excited you’re joining tomorrow’s session. I’ll see you there!

      Reply

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