What Does It Mean to Dress Rehearse Tragedy (& Why Is It Keeping You from Living in the Moment)?

dress rehearsing tragedy cat

“Why do we insist on dress-rehearsing tragedy in moments of deep joy? Because joy is the most vulnerable emotion we feel. And that’s saying something, given that I study fear and shame. When we feel joy, it is a place of incredible vulnerability—it’s beauty and fragility and deep gratitude and impermanence all wrapped up in.” - Brené Brown

In this quote from her 2018 book Dare to Lead, researcher, author, lecturer and podcaster Brené Brown introduces the concept of dress rehearsing tragedy—basically envisioning every horrible scenario in any situation, especially when it comes to your loved ones, rather than just existing in the moment. Even if you’ve never put a name to it before, we’re willing to bet you’ve found yourself doing it from time to time. Maybe you’re celebrating your grandmother’s birthday when all of a sudden, you’re overcome with sadness that she’s going to eventually die. Maybe you’re in a new relationship that feels naturally wonderful, but you can’t stop thinking about whether or not it’s actually going to work out in the long run. Either way, you’re envisioning sad situations well before they happen instead of being grateful for the present moment.

Even though it’s something many of us do as a way to prepare ourselves for these awful moments, dress rehearsing tragedy is effectively stealing our ability to feel joy in joyous situations. We tapped Jamie Goldstein, clinical psychologist and therapy experience lead at Coa, the gym for mental health, to explain why we should stop catastrophizing—and how.

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Dress rehearsing tragedy is an attempt to soothe the risk we are all taking in being alive

“Dress rehearsing tragedy, future-tripping, hope for the best/prepare for the worst—there are many names for the process of attempting to prepare ourselves to ‘handle’ anything and everything that might cause us harm,” Goldstein tells us. By handle, she means that we’re looking for ways to control the various feelings that these events might stir up in us.

She continues, “Dress rehearsing tragedy is an attempt to soothe the risk we are all taking in being alive.” Living, Goldstein says, comes with a lot of risk, and depending on our different life experiences, we all have different relationships to those risks. “Our work, our relationships, even our hobbies all come with possibility: the possibility of a multitude of emotions.”

None of this is to say that people who are prone to dress rehearsing tragedy are weak or poorly adjusted. “Nobody looks forward to grief, heartbreak, disappointment, embarrassment, or isolation,” Goldstein admits. “The thing is, when we make attempts to bypass these experiences, there’s a lot that we miss out on as a result.”

In attempting to assure our resilience, we end up hindering it

The issue is that attempting to pre-grieve things that haven’t happened yet is actually a counterproductive coping mechanism that removes us from the present. “We keep ourselves stuck in a loop that keeps us from moving forward,” Goldstein says. “That keeps us from truly growing our resilience muscles, and isn’t that what we are attempting to do by dress rehearsing? In attempting to assure our resilience, we end up hindering it.” Instead of focusing on what might happen, Goldstein stresses the importance of training ourselves to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

But how does that practice work? Per Goldstein, “Making time and space for ourselves to identify, name and acknowledge what emotions are present for us. This can look like taking time out of each day to write, cultivating a meditation practice or getting into therapy. Some days it will be a practice we do alone, other days it might be a practice we do with others. Either way, we are building the muscle memory that will truly serve us in those future moments.”

4 Ways to Train Yourself to Stay Present

1. Do One Thing at a Time

In theory, multitasking is awesome, but in practice it usually means you’re too distracted to focus on any one thing long enough to actually ace it. And not only is multitasking stopping you from living in the present, it’s also highly inefficient. Researchers at Stanford University determined that people who multitask “do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”

2. Spend Five Minutes a Day Doing Nothing

At least five minutes. If your day affords ten, even better. Practicing mindfulness is an amazing way to stay present. With nothing to focus on but your own breathing, you’re completely in the moment and not worried about that weird comment your boss made yesterday or the 25 things you have to do for your friend’s birthday party tomorrow. Trust us, it’s hugely relaxing.

3. Keep Your Tech Usage in Check

Yes, the modern world pretty much necessitates checking your phone after hours. But it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Set a specific block of time when you check your phone each night after work. And consider the rest of your evening to be tech-free. By limiting your nightly digital usage, you’ll become much more efficient in completing tasks—and will come to appreciate in-the-moment activities (like cooking dinner or reading your kids bedtime stories) a whole lot more.

4. Establish Meaningful Connections

You know, ones that don’t involve Instagram or TikTok. If you’re in the office, look up from your computer and make eye contact with your colleague as you talk something through. At home, make a habit of going around the table and asking each family member about their day. At the grocery store, ask the cashier where she got her beautiful glasses and really listen to her reply. It’s easy and enjoyable and hardly takes any time at all.

The bottom line is this: Try to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop and being proactive in training yourself to stay present. 

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...