Embracing Joy and Sorrow
5 min read

Embracing Joy and Sorrow

Embracing Joy and Sorrow

In Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, she talks about how much joy and sorrow have in common. Both emotions require vulnerability and surrender in order to fully feel them. The times we feel most alive are moments of great joy and/or great sorrow.

Here’s her definition of Bittersweetness:

Bittersweetness is a tendency to states of long­ing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute aware­ness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. It recognizes that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.

And what’s interesting for us as community builders, is that sharing feelings of joy and sorrow with others is one of the main ways we connect. It is in those moments when we are most open, most willing to reach out for help or support, and most vulnerable to finding others who can empathize with our feelings.

What I noticed from reading Bittersweet is that joy and sorrow aren’t that far apart in how we feel when we share them. The result of both can be connection.

There’s an opportunity to acknowledge these moments in the communities we lead and in return invite members to deepen their connection to each other. Below are some ideas on how to do that in small and grand ways.

They each include moments for joy and sorrow and are in order of most potential for joy to most potential for sorrow.


Are you inviting your members to celebrate the right things? It’s often easier to celebrate visible, public milestones... reached a revenue goal, we were featured in a magazine, a famous person talked about our work. Those moments are great, especially if they align with the journeys your members have in common. But they don’t necessarily drive connection.

In order to prioritize connection, how can we better incorporate language of joy in what we celebrate?

Because true moments of joy are fleeting, ask members to describe the moment they heard the good news they are celebrating. What were they doing? How did it feel? Who did they think of first? Having these prompts in the community should result in more vulnerable sharing of celebrations and that will lead to more connection.

PS. Sharing joy in this way will quickly lead to some bittersweetness...

  • “I wish my mom was still here to share this with me”
  • “I love that my kids are growing up, but I miss when they were younger”
  • “I’m excited for this big contract we just landed, but it’s also scary to hold so much responsibility.”

Hold space for the ambiguous, complicated feelings too. That’s how you’ll know you’re really talking about joy.

Think about where this type of celebration would best work in your community. In your monthly check-in calls? As a prompt in the community platform? In small support groups? In 1:1 breakout rooms?

Pets and Kids

We all know a great source of joy are pets and kids.

The reason pets and kids bring their parents so much joy is because there’s so much bittersweetness in that relationship. We know our pets are companions for a limited time. And children grow up so fast, that parents are always grieving for the tinier human they used to know.

What are the ways you can embrace pets and kids in the experience you're designing, regardless of what the community is about?

You can make it a policy that pets and kids are always welcome on live calls. Or as a part of introductions, you can add a prompt to include a picture of someone that inspires/matters to them, often these are pets and kids! And you can do an entire thread asking for pet pictures with the last joyful moment they shared.

3 words

Before each call in Tanya Geisler’s small group coaching program, she asks each participant to share how they’re feeling in 3 words. In doing this on the call I noticed a few things.

  • One, that sometimes I would go an entire day without really naming how I was feeling. The opportunity to stop for a minute and think about that already made me feel more grounded and open to connection.
  • Secondly, I could put a positive spin on the first 2 feelings I would name, but by the 3rd one, the truth was coming out. The third one was always the most vulnerable.
  • Lastly, on those calls, I didn’t have to say anything else besides the 3 words to feel heard and acknowledged by my peers. I could see empathy in their eyes as they listened to me. And I did the same for them.

This is a beautiful way to start out a smaller call, get a sense of the mood of the group and make everyone feel heard.

Anxiety parties

This is a specific event structure that welcomes unfiltered venting.

Right before the new year, Mathilde and Caryn invited me to an Anxiety Party for community builders.Here’s how they defined it...

A moment to metaphorically burn our professional anxieties before the new year. We take inspiration from the empathy circle and Google Ventures' anxiety parties. The idea is to give you a space to share a few things that have been holding you back this year and that you might not feel comfortable sharing with your friends or colleagues. Don't worry, you'll have time to reflect during the session!

It was such a beautiful way to share within a small group. The important thing for the facilitators to do (which Mathilde and Caryn did beautifully) is to remind the group to hold the space without trying to fix problems.

The group would reflect back what they heard from each person’s venting, and sometimes share their own related stories, but never jump to solutions.

There was crying and there was laughing, both sorrow and joy coexisted beautifully in each story I heard. If venting and deeper connection is something your community is ready for, hosting an anxiety party is a beautiful way to invite that in.

These are just some ideas for you to try as you incorporate Bittersweetness into your community experience.

Some of these may not be right for your community. You know best about how to build connection within your group.

As always, I invite you to borrow what resonated and leave the rest.

I’m thinking of Bittersweetness as we launch a new and improved version of Build a Community Business for the Spring cohort. Starting a new cohort is always an opportunity for us to reflect on how the community is going and where we can go deeper as we welcome in more members so Susan Cain's book came at just the right time.

If you're building a community business and want more clarity, more support and connection with peers, I want to invite you to join us this Spring. The course is a 4-week cohort experience followed by 11 months community support as you implement what you’re learning. You can learn all about it and apply to join us here →

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