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There are studies out there were you can see that witnessing another individual in pain can actually activate your brain to also feel like it is experiencing pain. There is no lack of evidence that emotions have a contagion effect. I was teaching a parenting group yesterday, which was on suicide and self-injury. It’s not an easy topic to discuss but necessary. I started the conversation by talking about how this is the hardest lecture I give in the series and it’s extremely important, given the rise among suicide rates in young individuals and the rise in non suicidal self-injury in young people. I knew it was going to be challenging because I entered the room minutes after having a family meeting with mother and young man. The young man was in process of having an organic psychiatric break. There are lots of things no one prepares you for in the field I am; however, I have to say one of the most heartbreaking and hardest things is having to bring a family who has had this child who has been healthy and strong for seventy to twenty-some years and suddenly the child has a psychiatric break. Essentially it’s like telling someone, ‘the child that you had is dead.’ However, the child is not dead, they are present, scared, psychotic, and in for a very different life than they or their parents imagined for them. Anyway, this mother, who I had been talking with all week deserves an award. She advocates for her kid. She just has been a rockstar in dealing with all this. At the end of our session, she pulled out a collage of pictures for the psychiatrist and myself to look at. She wanted us to see the lively, athletic, kind boy she had raised. She wanted to share with us who he was before his mental illness because that is very much a part of who he is now and because she needed us to know how much she misses her son. It was also a plea to us to keep this in mind, as she is entrusting his care to us. I was beyond sad looking at the pictures, but it was also a moment of reflection. I was thankful for her deeming me worthy of such an important job. It also reminded me of the power of love and connection. In the same way the human brain becomes activated by being near someone who is stressed, it also can pick up on love and joy. I walked in to teach my parenting class, which is a room full of parents dealing with different things; however, also a room full of parents entrusting me again to help them help the teenagers they love so much. I noticed throughout the class how as one parent shared, the others began to also open up and become more vulnerable and share. At the end of the meeting, one parent thanked me and said, ‘This was so helpful.’ Right after that another mother stated, “I just feel so much lighter knowing I’m not alone.’ The community of parents willing to be vulnerable had activated a sense of peace in these parents. The idea of knowing other parents were struggling brought them a brief moment of joy and thankfulness. They had activated that in each other. I’ve not been quiet about how ‘restless’ my own mind has been the last few months. I find myself in states of self-doubt, dealing with loneliness and questioning my own future. I actually decided to take a break from therapy (which as a therapist, I was taught in school, therapists should always be in or at least in and out of) and decided to go see a ‘life coach.’ I wondered if there might be less ‘talking’ and ‘more action.’ The experience was interesting because the conclusion really came back to one my therapist has been saying for months, ‘you have to know what you want.’ For me, right now, that’s really challenging. It seems like I think of something I want and there’s something, on the other side that I want that opposes it. I love adventure and traveling, but I also love every minute I’m given with my parents and my job really has no vacation. I’m a constant learner. I am reading, writing, researching all the time. If I’m not doing that, I’m always listening for something new I might be interested in learning about. Recently, I found myself reading blogs and watching TED Talks on ‘everything.’ I would say many have a self-help kind of theme to them. I’ve gone on self-help kicks before. I’m not against them. I often find the most helpful thing about them is that I gain a new metaphor, a new way of explaining behavior, etc. I often find its things I know, but it’s put in new words. I love words, so I enjoy them for that. They sometimes can feel like ‘little vacations.’ I read them and daydream for a day or so that I really could just ‘quit my job and move all over the world if I saved differently.’ The reality is, with rent, student loans, car insurance, a phone bill, health related bills, groceries, and I don’t have much left. Still, it’s fun to imagine. It’s great to imagine that there are body language secrets I could learn to become more charming and draw more people to me. There are people who have this charisma. I think of Dolly Parton, Emelia Clarke (from Game of Thrones). I feel like in watching interviews, they exude joy. You get the feeling that they are generally happy people and the rooms they enter are graced with an energy that becomes contagious due to their positivity. There’s a part of me that can be that. There’s also a part of me that fights negative thoughts all day, that some days no matter how hard I try, I am depleted. There are days when I feel so lonely, it’s tough to smile and feel charming. During the process of watching these videos and reading these blogs, I have tried to become more intentional and aware of what kind of energy I’m giving out. I want to give out positive energy to people. I do believe people are inherently ‘good,’ and I want to show people that belief. It’s been during this time that I discovered the word ‘joy.’ I sort of have an aversion to the word ‘happiness.’ I think as a therapist, I hear it too much. I feel it’s a word like trust and many others that have been used so often, they really have lost their truth and their meaning. “I want to be happy,’ is a goal I hear all the time. I won’t allow it as a goal because happiness is an emotion and it’s fleeing like all others. It also does nothing for the individual who is stating it. My happiness is not yours. When I follow up with the question, ‘tell me how you’ll now you’re happy,’ or ‘describe what happiness would look like for you,’ people fall flat. They have never thought of it. However, go to a bookstore and scan the shelves of self-help and the amount of books advertising ‘happiness,’ is enormous. To me, happiness is like sadness, anger, jealousy, it belongs to a group of emotions we experience that are fleeting. Joy, on the other hand, sort of stands out. Joy, to me, is an emotion that almost comes from a divine place. It has a higher conscious than happiness, which feels often like a fleeting emotion we get when we get rewarded for what we want. I have begun to feel like joy lives in us and it’s our choice whether we bring it out, trade it, or keep it internally. I’ve been experimenting the past week with it in this context. I feel like it’s a choice. I always have the capability to enter a situation with joy and gratitude. I noticed in those situations, how my ability to bring out my joy and share it with the room changes the status of the room. It typically brings it the ‘energy to a little bit higher of a place.’ It’s a much different experience than happiness because it’s a choice. I feel like, in order for happiness to be present, I would have had to accomplish something or met a personal goal. With joy, I feel like it’s my decision when I bring it out, who I share it with. It feel somewhat like this secret I have inside me that is available anytime. I just need to decide to share it. There’s really nothing that has to happen, it’s sort of just always there waiting to be brought out into the light. It was a small discovery, but one I’ve been cherishing since. The knowledge that I can bring it out, choose to share it, at any time gives me a deeper sense of control over my emotions. It makes me feel like in a deck of cards, I always have this Ace in my pocket, that I can pull out at any time and it’s almost certain to bring me a win. The last week has been exhausting, but I’ve really found knowing I have this relationship with joy to be my calming force. I suggest you try to get to know joy as an emotion. The next time you’re in a room and you feel the need to change the state of the room, I suggest you pull out your joy and put it on display. It, like the other emotions, has that contagion effect too.

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