Rehearsing Tragedy and How to be Grateful

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I’m reading the book Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – and I will be doing a Book Jam episode with all I learned. But something very rare happened to me during my time reading – it’s a book about vulnerability, and I hit a section that absolutely exposed me – she nailed a problem that I had been dealing with for a long, long time, and gave a name to it. She calls it Rehearsing Tragedy. It’s something I struggle with still, and I want to talk about that today in 5 4 3 2 1

I have spoken here before about rehearsing tragedy – I didn’t know that’s what it was until I read it in Daring Greatly. Here’s a quick breakdown. When I was constantly getting bad input – all of the horror novels and violence on TV, and before I began filling my head with pure, powerful and positive material, I would very often have visions – not the religious kind, just the in-the-mind sort, visions of something terrible happening to either my wife, my kids, or all of them together.

I felt entirely alone in this. I truly thought there was something wrong with me and I blamed it on the input – even on this show, several times as I’ve mentioned this, I’ve blamed it on the stuff going into my head. I even had some proof. Once I began this personal development journey and changed what went into my head on a daily basis, these thoughts didn’t occur as often, and they weren’t as severe.

I want to paint you a picture. Three years ago, before any self-improvement happened, I would lay down in bed at night, usually after eating a late-night snack, I would put my book down and close my eyes. Just as I began to drift off to sleep, this vision came – someone getting hit by a car or falling off a cliff or whatever horrible nightmarish scenario I could think of. I’d wake up with a panic attack – maybe not a clinical panic attack, just a self-diagnosed one – heart rate up, I could feel my pulse in my neck, sweating, that kind of thing. I’d know that I was going to have trouble falling asleep again, and I would be fixated on the scenario that woke me up. This happened sometime two or three times a night. I’d keep thinking, “What is wrong with me?”

After I began the self-improvement journey things got way better, but these visions didn’t go away entirely. At that point in time, I had the positive material and motivational speeches memorized – and I would combat the troubling scenarios by replaying Jim Rohn and Zig Ziglar and others in my head, and that would usually do the trick. The panic attacks were gone, I changed my mindset. The negative script that said, “now I can’t go back to sleep” was changed to “of course I can relax and go back to sleep.” Even with this strategy, there were times that the horrible thoughts would still come – and it was depressing, because my thinking was somewhere along the lines of: “I’ve done all this work, filled my head with all this good stuff. And the bad junk keeps coming back to me. What is wrong with me?”

I went so far as to ask on Quora, in a self-help group, and there were therapists saying they seriously questioned my mental stability, these things don’t happen to normal people, there is obviously something wrong. And until I began my podcast, I didn’t talk about these things to anyone. In fact, I only brought it up in the podcast because if there was a chance that someone listening was going through the same thing, I didn’t want them to feel alone in this, and I wanted to give them a strategy that I was using that was mostly working for me.

Let’s fast forward a year – to the present. A couple days ago I picked up the Brené Brown book Daring Greatly. Brown’s book isn’t entirely about that, but this concept was addressed – and in a very enlightening moment for me, I read this following passage:

“Both of these ends of the continuum tell the same story: Softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability. If, like me, you’ve ever stood over your children and thought to yourself, I love you so much I can barely breathe, and in that exact moment have been flooded with images of something terrible happening to your child, know that you’re not crazy nor are you alone. About eighty percent of the parents I’ve interviewed acknowledged having that experience. The same percentage holds true for the thousands of parents I’ve spoken to and worked with over the years. ”

Excerpt From: Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Apple Books.

After that, my heart jumped for joy – I am not alone, and I am not crazy. There is nothing wrong with me. After years of struggle and at least two years of trying to solve the issue in the best way I knew how, I knew that a lot of other people were going through the same thing. This alone was excellent news, but it got even better when I read the next paragraph:

“Once we make the connection between vulnerability and joy, the answer is pretty straightforward: We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.”

Excerpt From: Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Apple Books.

I had a feeling during this struggle that the reason I kept having these visions was because I loved my family – If I didn’t care so much, then I wouldn’t really be influenced by this thought. Not to be callous, but I’m not consistently worried about kids that live 300 miles away from me and I’ve never seen them. I mean, I am hurt if there is a tragedy involving kids, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about healthy kids I don’t know – except for my own. And now I understand. I’m rehearsing tragedy. I’m trying to come up with ways to cope if something ever were to happen.

The author goes on to say something which felt good because it’s something I’ve been saying since I began this podcast. She says,

“For those of us who rehearse tragedy, there’s a reason those images flood into our mind the second we’re overwhelmed with joy… our culture assists in this doom-filled rehearsal: Most of us have a stockpile of terrible images that we can pull from at the instant we’re grappling with vulnerability. I often ask audience members to raise their hands if they’ve seen a graphically violent image in the past week. About twenty percent of the audience normally raises their hands. Then I reframe the question: “Raise your hand if you’ve watched the news, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, or any other crime show on TV.” At that point about eighty to ninety percent of the audience hands go up. We have the images we need to activate foreboding joy right at our neurological fingertips.”

Excerpt From: Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Apple Books.

We have all the information we need to be really excellent worriers. If the scenario we picture isn’t horrible enough to satisfy our fear or counterbalance our joy, we can always dig deeper, and think of something worse. We have the ammunition, because of the news, TV, and books.

I tried steamrolling over these negative thoughts with voices of Jim Rohn and Zig Ziglar – and it helped, but it didn’t make them go away.

I tried pushing them away and I got pretty good at that, but they didn’t go away.

I tried ignoring them, and that didn’t make them go away.

I learned from Brené Brown the most miraculous thing. I can relax. I don’t have to make them go away. All of my attempts to stop the thoughts were about “what’s wrong with me.” And that’s not where I should have been looking. In not so many words, I was saying, “I DON’T WANT TO BE VULNERABLE TO ALL OF THIS STUFF.” And that’s not the solution.

According to Brown – and now according to myself – when I experience these terrible images, I can ask, “What’s right with me?” Because that is the truth. I love my family. And that makes me vulnerable. And that’s always a good thing. So, that’s what’s right with me. And when my psyche tries to defend itself by creating unfortunate scenarios, I look for what’s right with me. I am so grateful and my family makes me so joyful, that these scenarios will come. Now, when they do, I simply begin to express, at least in my mind but sometimes out loud, how grateful I am that these people are in my life, and how vulnerable I am because of how much I love them.

When my mind practices tragedy, it’s a reminder that it’s actually trying to express joy but also protect itself and once again, I must do what I can to express that gratefulness. I’m going to close with one more quote from the book, quoting a man in his early sixties:

“I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn’t fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that.”

Excerpt From: Brown, Brene. “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Apple Books.

This week, in your journal, write down the fears that you have. What tragedies do you rehearse on a regular basis? Each of these fears will indicate what brings you joy in life – so write down all that you are grateful for. If you ever get overwhelmed by the rehearsal, call out what’s happening – steal the power by saying “I am rehearsing tragedy to keep myself from being hurt,” and start allowing yourself that absolute vulnerability so that you also allow the joy. Thanks for listening. I’m gonna be here every Monday and Thursday until caricature artists stop making me look so funny!

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