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Are Good Surprises Ever Harmful?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Fri, May 31st 2013

We've all seen them - videos of surprise homecomings, proposals, and baby announcements occurring in public places. Perhaps an aspiring groom pops the question during the seventh inning stretch at a major league ballpark. Or a couple's parents and in-laws are told they will become grandparents on stage while being honored at an anniversary party.

man proposing to womanSometimes, these surprises are aimed at children. Take military homecomings, for example. I recently read about a 9-year-old girl at a Tampa Bay Rays baseball game who had the honor of throwing out the first pitch. When she finished, the catcher took off his mask to reveal that he was none other than the girl's father who had been deployed to Afghanistan for the past year. The girl tearfully sprinted across the infield to hug her dad in front of tens of thousands of complete strangers.

All of these examples sound charming, don't they? We live in a world of voyeurism, where it's not unusual to share the most intimate moments of our lives with a reality-show-addicted public and think nothing of it. Yet, does the act of surprising someone - even if the surprise is wonderful - in a highly public situation ever do more harm than good?

Some think so. Emily Yoffe, in an article in the Chicago Tribune, aptly noted that even an anticipated return of a parent in the military who has been gone for a long time can be emotionally overwhelming for a child. Imagine the added stress that comes with having to share that moment and express intense emotions in an environment transformed into a public spectacle.

This can be difficult for adults, too. Think back to the woman at the ballpark receiving a marriage proposal that's projected onto a Jumbotron. What if she was not ready for a proposal? What if she wants to say no? Will she really be true to herself in front of an entire stadium of cheering fans?

This is a tough one for me. I love seeing videos of good surprises as much as anyone. Heck, our news media has embraced the concept and at least two reality shows have been created for this sole purpose (Lifetime's "Coming Home" and TLC's "Surprise Homecoming"). But Yoffe's article was a wake-up call for me in that it may not always be a good idea to force people to experience highly emotional moments in public. Perhaps these are the moments that deserve safe places and private spaces to be our true selves and to respond in ways that will maximize our wellness, in that moment and beyond.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your opinion on whether you think good surprises are ever harmful, especially if you've experienced this phenomenon.


Yoffe, E. (May 29, 2013). Attention: Surprise returns a bad idea. Chicago Tribune (Kindle version).


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Itís a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

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