I’ve always admired people who seem to maintain a bubbly personality even when they are in the midst of situations that most of us would find it hard to deal with while staying upbeat. It’s rare that people will give you a glimpse behind their social media “highlight reel”, but when I find out what some people are really going through and compare that with their consistently joyful demeanor, that makes me wonder what my excuse is for sulking about minor things that don’t go my way from time to time.
Necole Kane, creator of XONecole, and Maya of ShamelessMaya are two such people that come to mind. Both of them have been very vocal about their stories and how hard it was to show the world a happy face as they were in the middle of financial problems (in Necole’s case) or divorce (in Maya’s case). Each of them did not allow hard times to define them, moved past those periods in their lives, and currently lead authentic, passionate lives filled with activities and opportunities that give them a true sense of joy. I wonder what their secret is at times. How does a person maintain such a sunny disposition in the face of things that seem like they would destroy most people?
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The secret is the principle of learning to preserve your joy. It is something that I’ll admit that I constantly need to work on since I am prone to dwelling on the negative at times. Ruminating about negativity and allowing myself to become paralyzed by things that didn’t turn out quite as I had planned has been an unhealthy habit that has affected me emotionally, of course, but it has also had physical effects.
I have been somewhat of a worrier all of my life, and in my late 20s, I worried myself into an anxiety and panic attack.
I had my first panic attack on the way to work after not sleeping so that I could get some papers graded. It was the end of my first semester as an English instructor at the community college where I was teaching, and this particular day was the last day of class. Grades were due at noon on the day after that last class, and I had a massive stack of final papers and other assignments to grade and hand back to students so that I could have everything calculated to turn in final grades.
I don’t know if it was the stress of being overwhelmed with all of the grading I had to do or the fatigue from not sleeping, but as I climbed into my red Volkswagen Beetle, my chest felt heavy. I assumed I was just tired, and I told myself that I would use the whole weekend to sleep and recuperate if I could just get through this last day.
My class started at 7am, so I had to leave the house every morning before the sun came up. I was used to getting up a dark o’ thirty to get to class on time. I was used to being rushed. I was used to having a lot to do and a lot of work piled up. But this morning, as I scrolled through all of these things in my head, my chest began to get tighter and tighter. I started to get hot and the A/C in the car wasn’t cooling me down fast enough, so I rolled down the window. It was early May, and even in the morning here in NC, late spring/early summer days are at least in the lower 70s to upper 80s, so at first I didn’t think much of that. Then, I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. No matter how deep my breaths were, I felt like I couldn’t get enough air.
One of my sorority sisters had recently passed away from lupus not long before this episode. That really shook me because I had just seen her at a homecoming event in my hometown during the year before. She came up in my mind in the midst of my tightening chest and shortness of breath as I sat at a stop light on the way to work. I asked myself, is this what she experienced right before she died? Am I dying? When the light turned green, instead of turning straight to continue my trip to work, I turned in the direction of Wal-Mart. I sat in the parking lot and called my mom, who came with my sister. My mom, who is a nurse and apparently knew I was just having a panic attack from my description of what I was feeling, brought orange juice and something for me to eat. My sister drove my car back to the house while my mom drove me the rest of the way to work.
I don’t have lupus, so I’m not sure why I convinced myself in that moment that I was dying, but that’s how things work sometimes when you don’t preserve your joy. Allowing negativity to take the wheel usually takes you to a very irrational and unrealistic place.
So what does “preserving your joy” look like? How can a person actively preserve his or her joy on a regular basis?
One major thing that’s part of my “preserve my joy” toolkit is the act of surrounding myself with positive people who care about me.
I used to think that all of the talk about negative and positive energies in people was just pseudo psycho- babble, but I’ve learned over the past years that there’s definitely such a thing as negative and positive energy. My biggest source of stress (and probably everyone’s biggest source of stress) is other people. It took me a long time to figure that out, but I started to notice how relaxed I was around certain people and how tense I was around others. These are signs that I pay close attention to now, and I try to avoid people who seem to always have a cloud of tenseness and discord (aka drama!) around them. This is critical for preserving your joy.
Another thing that I’m learning to do is look beyond the current moment to the joy that’s on the horizon.
As Rev. Timothy Wright says in his song that has become a classic in black churches everywhere, “trouble don’t last always”. The panic attack that I described was triggered by things that were in my control, preventable, and not really serious enough to cause a meltdown. However, for some reason, at that time I couldn’t see beyond that mound of ungraded papers, a looming grade deadline, and inevitable explanations to unsatisfied students about why they didn’t quite make it to an A that semester.
If you power through and keep your eyes up and ahead, problems don’t last as long as you think they will.
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The papers were graded. The grades were turned in. I didn’t have half as many students complain about grades as I thought I would. Now, this experience is something that I laugh about when I think of it. It proved to me that if you power through and keep your eyes up and ahead, problems don’t last as long as you think they will.
I’ve also taken Beyoncé’s Lemonade, an album laced with the poetry of Warsan Shire, to heart and learned to become an alchemist.
“Grandmother, the alchemist, you spun gold out of this hard life, conjured beauty from the things left behind. Found healing where it did not live. Discovered the antidote in your own kit. Broke the curse with your own two hands. You passed these instructions down to your daughter who then passed it down to her daughter.” – An Interlude to “Redemption” from Beyoncé’s album Lemonade
I’ve learned to see what seems at first as strife in my life as an opportunity to recalibrate my priorities.
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Being the type of alchemist that this quote describes requires the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness and opportunity where others see insurmountable adversity. I’ve learned to see what seems at first as strife in my life as an opportunity to recalibrate my priorities and replot my map to living my best life and accomplishing my goals. My career in journalism didn’t take off as I had planned, but that caused me to think about what I really wanted from a writing career and the type of writing I am truly passionate about doing. I am now on a path toward a writing career that is much more in line with my passions and purpose than I would be if I had continued to chase a journalism career. I consider that to be a blessing that the type of “alchemy” Beyoncé describes provides us.
Lastly, I’m much more devoted to stellar self-care than I’ve been in the past.
I make myself healthy, delicious meals. I rest as much as possible and whenever I’m feeling burnt out. I exercise, but not to the point of tearing my body down. I listen to uplifting podcasts and music. These are just a few things that I do to take care of myself and by extension, preserve joy in my life.
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I still have a long way to go in this area, but as I get older, this has become more and more of a priority to me. We live in a world that puts profit before people most of the time. People have developed a habit of looking past the humanity in a person to condense them down into a tool to get what they want. Under these conditions, it is imperative to take care of ourselves.
We all deserve joy in our lives, but first we have to learn how to protect it and preserve it.
What do you do to preserve your joy?
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