I have been re-reading Brene Brown’s new book, Daring Greatly. Dr. Brown has become a bestselling author and speaker based on her research on imperfection, and vulnerability.

They don’t seem like hot topics do they?

But her work, and the perspective from which she speaks and writes, touch a deep longing many of us have to be told we’ re ok. To know and hear that we are okay and we are enough, and our lives can be lived fully.

Brown describes part of the road to that “okay-ness” and full living as a willingness to be vulnerable.

When you live with chronic illness, there is no way to avoid being vulnerable. Your body is unpredictable, and the impact cascades into every area of life. The root word for vulnerability comes from the Latin and means “to wound.” So being vulnerable is being open to being wounded or damaged. A familiar feeling for many.

 At core, once you are diagnosed, there is a feeling that you are no longer in control. You are vulnerable to the whims of pain and stiffness, doctors, medicines, and a host of other variables. You are consistently opened to being wounded and damaged.

Vulnerability is the norm.

But here is where I find Brown helpful.

Brown suggests that we create a “shield” to protect our tender selves from having to feel vulnerable or wounded (and therefore often shamed).

These shields are often created in childhood, but our experiences as adults often reinforce and harden our shields. The experience of chronic illness creates and reinforces our shields.

One of the most potent shields Brown names “Foreboding joy.”

It is a shield against feeling the joy and hope that arrive in many positive experiences.

Joy is our birthright. Remember a time when you felt joyful. Feel that feeling again. It is openhearted, and expansive. We allow ourselves to receive deep gorgeous good feeling to the tips of our fingers.

Most of us were often joyful as children – and it didn’t take much. Discovering a grasshopper, your favorite dessert at dinner, the right person smiling at you. Joy was natural.

But as we grew and experienced disappointments, and wounds, we began to be more guarded and less open hearted. We began to act like grownups, and not let so many feelings is. We realized, in the words of a Joni Mitchell lyric, “if joy, then pain.”

When we are diagnosed, this becomes even more poignant.  We imagine if we don’t allow ourselves to feel joyful, or maybe even happy, then we aren’t vulnerable. We don’t have to pay for our good feelings with pain and sadness.

Maybe this has happened to you.

You are surprised by an event or a person and spontaneously you think, “Oh this is so wonderful! I am so happy!” and immediately you are slammed by the fear that something bad will happen. Or unbidden you begin to see all the awful things that could happen, and you shut down that feeling right away.

Foreboding joy. A regular side effect of chronic illness and dealing with pain and limitation.

But when we shield ourselves in this way, we shut off more than our feelings of vulnerability. We also shut down any hope we might have of healing our hearts by connecting deeply with those we love who love us. We block not only the dangerous and wounding worries, but also the potent hopes and dreams. We cover over the tender places where good feelings and rich relationships thrive.

This week I have a small suggestion. Be willing to notice where you cut yourself off and shield yourself. Just notice. Breathe some compassion towards yourself where you feel afraid. Begin ever so slowly to allow those places to soften. This is the path to feeling vulnerable, which holds the golden key to our hope and our joy.

I guarantee as you practice, that this will open you to a space for moments of joy.