Need more joy in your life? I have ideas.
If you survived trauma, you might have a hard time with joy.
I understand. I’ve been there.
Let’s practice our joy together.
If you were raised in trauma, you’re still suffering from it now. Oh sure, you look competent and maybe even confident. So many people think of you as the strongest person in the room. You’re always there for whoever needs you, with a listening ear and maybe some muffins. You fill your social media feed with thoughtful posts about how to better the world. You’re the last person anyone would suspect is struggling.
But inside, you’re crumbling. You haven’t slept well in years. You don’t know how to stop working so hard or giving so much. In fact, you’ve never known how to be anything but strong for everyone else, since you came from a hard place. You were taught that your feelings came last.
You want to have more joy and relaxed days but you keep waiting for them to arrive.
You’re holding off on joy until everything else is crossed off your to-do list.
It’s time to put yourself first.
I understand you. Believe me, I do.
You see, even though my professional life has looked like a huge success — building a wonderful online community through my award-winning food blog, Gluten-Free Girl; teaching culinary getaways with my chef husband in a villa in Tuscany; appearing on the Food Network; winning a James Beard award for one of our beloved cookbooks — inside I was sometimes filled with deep anxiety and a feeling of being not-good enough.
Oh, the energy I wasted, spinning my wheels to pretend I was okay.
It took having a mini-stroke in 2015 for me to start my inquiry into why I had always felt this way.
You see, I may have looked like the perfect student as a kid, and my parents were the AYSO soccer coach and the PTA president. But inside my childhood home — it was dark.
That’s the story I wrote about in my book, ENOUGH: Notes from a Woman Who Has Finally Found It. I traced all the ways I had spent my life feeling not-good-enough back to the trauma I endured as a child.
It took all my strength and courage to write that book.
Still, when my book editor sent me a press release to approve before ENOUGH entered the world, I stopped at the phrase “She survived a traumatic childhood.”
Did I? Was it that bad?
Sure, I was emotionally abused and required to curtail any freedom or sense of self to keep my mother’s fears at bay. And I was required to solve my parents’ fights every afternoon, even when they were using fists or knives. At eight, I was trying to talk sense into them and calm the violent anger. By ten, I was secretly checking out psychology books from the library to try to understand what to say to make it stop. And yes, my father and brother and I were forced to sit at the kitchen table every night while my mother interrogated us about her fears of dogs, cats, or one of us being kidnapped that day and then returned to school before they came to pick us up. And yes, I was berated by my mother for daring to ask to visit someone else’s house to play — and it didn’t happen until I was 17 — because she couldn’t handle it and clearly I was trying to make her look bad. And I was told on a regular basis that I had no right to be angry because she didn’t have time for my anger. And my mother insisted I had to live with them until I was 27, or else, because I was her safety person.
And my father did nothing but fight with her or stand by passively, never ever doing anything to help me or my brother.
But was it traumatic?
It took me an hour of consideration before I could write back to my book editor and say, “Should we use the word traumatic? I don’t want to make it too dramatic.”
And she wrote back: “IT WAS A TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD, SHAUNA!”
That’s what being raised in trauma does to you. You have to think for an hour, and be reminded by someone else, that the terrible trauma you endured as a kid really was THAT BAD.
You don’t know how to trust yourself when you’re told you don’t matter as much as your parents’ needs and also told that you’re demanding too much for wanting to ride your bike around the block by yourself.
I know, without a doubt now, that I endured cumulative toxic stress from being raised this way, downplayed this way, told to doubt and hate myself this way. That cumulative stress affected my health and kept my central nervous system on high alert for years and years. My body has kept the score for decades. And I’ve been learning the long-term effects of that trauma in my body to manage it, for the past few years.
I’m filling up my well for the first time. And now, I’m focused on joy.
I survived my childhood trauma. I’m a warrior, just like you.
It’s time for you to start thriving too.
Here’s something we don’t acknowledge enough: joy is hard.
Joy requires vulnerability. To fully feel joy, you have to let go of your fears and the imagined response of other people. You have to let yourself look silly. Be ridiculous. And stop worrying that you’ll end up on someone else’s TikTok video when you decide to roll down a hill again, like you did when you were a kid.
And maybe, like me, you never did that much as a kid.
Because you were never allowed to be a kid.
So, you don’t even know how to have fun. You don’t know how to stop being productive all the time to feel worthy. You haven’t laughed so hard you almost cried in years. Or, ever.
Let me help you practice your joy.
This newsletter has changed a number of times since I began it in July of 2019. Of course it has. If we haven’t looked at our own lives with curiosity and allowed ourselves to change during the COVID pandemic, then we weren’t paying attention.
As I have changed, this newsletter has changed.
But now, after all this time, I know what it is.
I want to help you find your joy.
Recently, I’ve been sending out a little reminder every day, amplifying other people’s work, not writing many of my own stories.
It’s so easy for me to switch into teacher mode. That’s old training. And sometimes here, I have slipped back into being the teacher — the one who knows — instead of being vulnerable, learning as I go.
I’m pushing myself again, to be a guide, not a teacher.
A guide leads the way, a few steps ahead of you, and offers companionship as you move forward, not knowing, but hoping. A guide nudges you and makes you think about the hard things. And laughs with you.
Guides are always people who laugh well.
That’s how we help each other through this world.
As Toni Morrison said: “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
We can all do this for each other.
So, I’m going to be sending you something three to four times a week. Quite a few of you have told me that reading a new letter every day is too much. You can’t keep up!
What will I be sending you? Moments of joy in photographs, videos, and quotes. Recommendations for movies I’ve loved. Books I devoured. Artists whose work gives me joy. Tips for understanding the trauma-informed mind that have helped me to relax into joy. Interviews with people who know how to practice their joy.
I also write essays. It’s who I am. Mostly here, I’ll be sending brief little moments of delight. Sometimes, I might send long essays that help me to connect with that past part of myself and bring it to light.
I’ve realized this: if I’m not writing something real, something I’m discovering as I write it? Then it’s not true. And in my mind, that’s not worth sharing.
So, we’re here to talk about joy, talk about why it’s hard to allow ourselves joy, and what steps we can take to find our joy. I want to hear about you, your stories, your moments of delight.
Joy matters in this world. We all need more joy right now.
Let’s do this together.
P.S. If you weren’t raised in trauma, this newsletter might not feel right for you. We’re going to talk about hard things sometimes.
But someone you know, probably someone you love, was raised in trauma, or affected by trauma at some point in their life. Sadly, this is pretty common in America. So feel free to subscribe and be part of this to understand your people.
All the photos in this post were made by the amazing Elise Giordano. She’s a joy maker too, just like me.