Are You Dress-Rehearsing Tragedy?
I know I’m not alone when I say that Brène Brown’s Netflix special, The Call To Courage, produced many Ah-ha moments. Or, to be more specific, many “Wow” and “YES BRÈNE” and “This is the literal tea” moments.
But the moment I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, a full three months after first watching it, was this concept of “dress-rehearsing tragedy”. Rehearsing. Tragedy. It sounds like the name of the world’s worst self-development course. Brown, the famous public speaker and research professor, told the audience: “As someone who studies shame, fear and scarcity, I’m here to tell you that joy is the most vulnerable of all human emotions. We are terrified to feel joy. Terrified that if we actually let ourselves feel it, then something or someone will come along and rip it away from us and we’ll be sucker-punched by pain and trauma and loss. So in the midst of great things we literally dress-rehearse tragedy.”
It sounds pretty cynical, right? I mean surely we’re not as neurotic as her research makes us out to be. Wrong. Brown continued, “For all the parents in the audience: how many of you have stood over your child while they’re sleeping and thought, God I love you like I didn’t even know was possible, and then a split second later pictured something horrific happening to them?” Hundreds of hands shot up around the room. She said over 95% of parents do this. Ninety-five percent. And dress-rehearsing tragedy isn’t just reserved for the mums and dads, we’re all doing it. It’s when you wake up and you’re feeling good about yourself, your health is good, your relationship has been going well, maybe you just received a promotion at work, and then your stomach drops: something terrible is about to happen. We simply don’t believe that life could be this good for a while. It’s like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I think we often fall into the habit of dress-rehearsing tragedy in the aftermath of something bad happening. Maybe after loss or miscarriage. After misfortune or missed-opportunity. And it’s because sadness almost always lingers longer than you think it will – it isn’t singular in its manifestation. Sure, sadness can be all-encompassing, like an oversized coat that enters the room before you do. But it can also be small enough to fit inside your pocket. Meaning that you could walk around all day with it and not even realise you’ve adjusted to it’s weight. Then something amazing happens in your world, you get the job or the guy or you book the flight, and that little pebble of sadness spills out of your pocket and onto the floor in front of you, reminding you of its presence, and your mind starts practicing terrible things again.
Can you see how depressing this all sounds? Why the hell do we submit ourselves to the anticipation of tragedy? It’s unavoidable already! Have you watched the news lately?! So why not lean in fully to the greatness of great moments? Don’t look at your newborn child and think, What if I fuck this up, marvel in the wonder of this little life you’ve created. As Brown reminds us, joy is vulnerable. It can be scary as hell to feel joy, because if we practice gratitude or admit how happy we feel, there’s a part of our psyche that believes someone will want to take it away. But, in my experience at least, that’s not how life works.
So repeat after me: I will lean in fully to the greatness of great moments. I will lean in fully to the greatness of great moments.