“One of the things that has been inspiring to me is to realize that I am not alone in this process…I realize that I’m tied as if by invisible strings to billions of people, and that somehow my gesture of courage or bravery is also helping them. I also always think that when the courage comes, to actually stay open and receptive to my experience when it’s so vulnerable, so tender, so painful–I also know that my courage is the result of many, many other people, who all over the world, are lifting themselves up and walking forward, for the sake of all of us and the sake of the planet. So it’s not like we are all alone, me personally struggling to “be a warrior” to “face my fear” and not run from the shaky tenderness. It’s like we’re a vast society of training bodhisattvas, training warriors, we are all in this together. When I do it, I’m helping a lot of people. When they do it, they are helping me.” –Pema Chodron, Unconditional Confidence
When I was depressed, I was of little use to anyone. I didn’t feel I had much of anything to give, so I gave very little. I didn’t think that I had the power to create change, so I didn’t create any (in my life, or in anyone else’s life).
A story of isolation is at the root of all depression. In that far-away place where we don’t think we matter or that our lives amount to much, we don’t see that we are intimately connected with others, and that everywhere there are people in the wings who are rooting for us to not only survive, but to also thrive.
It’s not just your birthright to live a joy-filled, happy, courageous life. Choosing to live this kind of life is also how you help others. When your own well is dry, you don’t have anything to give. When you empower yourself, you teach yourself the very tools that someone else can use to empower themselves.
In other words: the world needs the kind of help that only those who have transformed pain and suffering can give.
If you are in pain right now, if you are suffering, if you are lost and alone and hurting and confused, you are not just in the experience of those states. You are also poised to train as a warrior who can come out on the other side of this, and help others.
Yes, there are people who are starving, who are abused, who suffer far more than you, and yes, it’s good to be grateful that you have so much.
Yes, it’s good to note any navel-gazing tendencies on the path of becoming more fully human (navel gazing narcissism isn’t so very human, anyway).
What’s dangerous is when people beat themselves up for their insecurities, isolating themselves further. Why can’t I get my shit together, be grateful, give a little back? Isn’t it selfish to work on myself? Those thoughts–especially of trying to give something to the world when you don’t feel you have anything in the reserves for yourself–are particularly exhausting. The shame of “not being grateful enough” weighs you down.
When you feel completely lost, or even just a little forlorn, it’s good to remember that there are people who only want your highest good. People are always doing things: meditating or praying, or creating art that will light up your life via the living room wall, or fighting for freedom in a war-torn country so that you don’t have to, or, yes, feeding the hungry.
In other words: there’s someone right now who is acting as a force of love. They act on your behalf, whether you know it or not.
In those particularly low moments, your act of courage is to simply remember. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve got it in you to make a single choice in the name of deep self love, just remember that there are thousands, millions of people who are making those choices on your behalf. They rise in the morning and practice courage and compassion and love because they know that there’s going to be someone who is positively touched by their actions. You might run into one of these exquisite humans in line at the grocery store, or reaching for the sugar at the cafe bar, or when you look to your right at a stoplight.
And one day, even if today does not feel like that day, you will be that exquisite human for someone else. You will be the link that helps someone find their way back from the darkest of emotions.
That, my friend, is reason enough–carry on, courageous warrior, carry on. Your courage is for all of us.
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I started snapping at my husband. Again.
A few years ago, any time that I was stressed out, it was inevitable that I’d snap at him. I’d nit-pick. I’d nag. My voice would take on an edge that was both unattractive and demoralizing to the relationship. My husband is a patient man, and it helped that I would always apologize–but everyone has their limit, and he was hitting his.
The edge that crept into my voice, the tendency to snap off some irritated comment when I was tired, felt so habituated that I wasn’t sure how I’d ever change.
And then, one day, it shifted. I saw very clearly why the pattern was continuing.
I was able to stop doing something that I had been doing regularly for as long as I could remember. It was powerful beyond measure, proof-positive that if you really want to see things change, they can change.
* * *
After having our baby, things were bliss for a few weeks. Then the sleep-deprivation started to kick in. I’d ask my husband to grab something for me–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–he wouldn’t know where the something was located–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–I’d tell him where it was–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–he’d tell me that the something wasn’t where I thought I’d left it–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–and I’d snap at him, telling him he must have moved the something, why do I always have to find the something, do I have to do everything, around here?
Nearly all of my friends have confessed to doing this with their partners, especially in the early weeks of having a baby.
After the snapping, cue the shame (especially after realizing that I’d moved the something I’d been asking him to find).
Why do we do this, if we know better? Why do we snap at the one person who’s on our team, who’s on our side, who just wants everything to work out for us?
Sometimes, my husband would do things like clean the kitchen and get the baby down, and then, there I’d be, seeing the one thing he’d forgotten or complaining about the one thing that didn’t go smoothly.
Then I’d have another shame hangover–God, here I was, doing this again, and this time after he cleaned the whole kitchen AND got the baby down? What was wrong with me?
It’s in these moments when you take yourself aside and sit yourself down for a little talk.
“My love,” you say, “Nothing’s wrong with you other than you’re sleep deprived, and overwhelmed in a way that goes beyond those capital-S Stories you’re always talking about–this is physical. Someone can only handle so much sleep-deprivation before things just start shutting down. Breathe, hon.”
“My love,” you remind yourself, “It’s really hard to not to know what the hell you’re doing. It’s hard when the baby cries because you love her so much–way down deep in places that you’ve never loved anyone, before, and it’s raw and vulnerable and when she cries, all you want in the world is to have an answer, to just know what to do.”
“My love,” you say, “when you don’t know what to do, the defenses come back up as a means of coping. Anger is a defense. It’s an old one. It’s a survival mechanism. You can choose to use it, if you like, but I only want to (gently) remind you: it doesn’t work. You know this. You know this to your bones.”
The Fear of Alone
I realized why I was snapping at him, again, on a random Wednesday. He came home early from work and immediately gave me a big smile and said, “Want me to take the baby while you go out and get some time for yourself?”
He didn’t ask for a thing for himself. He was just excited to be home and eager to support me in getting a break and enthusiastic about spending time with his daughter. Our daughter.
It had been an easy day with the baby; his coming home early had been a surprise. When he walked in, I was in the midst of playing with our daughter and she was looking up at me, smiling. It felt like a gift on top of a gift.
Later, driving home after some time out, I clearly understood that I do this thing, this pinchy, snippy, irritated thing, because in those moments when I snap at him, I feel I am alone. I live in the Story that I am Kate, Alone With This Dilemma Of Figuring It All Out Alone.
Alone on top of alone, the worst kind.
It’s not a true Story. It’s just the one that’s oldest, the one I’ll reach for most easily. That’s what we do–we reach for what is easiest when we are tired.
I came home; I gave him a hug; I apologized and cried. Instead of using it as an opportune moment to really let me know how shitty I’d been, he pulled me close and hugged me.
We create our fears, and we act from there. Later, I thought this to myself, as I tucked into bed beside a man who loves me and loves our baby.
I thought, “This is what contentment looks like. Contentment is not creating the fear by perpetuating the story.” Lights out, I snuggled next to my man under the covers, and we went to sleep.
In the Land of Internet, life coaches claiming that they know the secret to “kicking fear’s ass” and ” becoming fearless ” and “fearless living” or “living fearlessly” or “living life without fear” (the iterations are endless) can seem almost as common as space bar key strokes.
I’m always curious when I see their sales pages: do any of their clients actually ask them, perhaps as part of the initial consult to decide to work together, the tough questions with these claims?
For instance, what if a potential client actually asked: “Are you honestly saying that you never experience fear? Never, ever? Not even a little bit? Are you truly telling me that you are ‘fearless’ and that you know how to teach others to be ‘fearless,’ and that if I work with you, I’ll never experience fear?”
Would these coaches cop to the (very human) truth, and change their sales pages?
Fearless vs. Fear, Less
In my own work, I don’t promise “fearless.”
Here’s what I can help you with:
- Fearing, less.
- Getting to the root of fearful Stories that you tell yourself.
- Not hating your fear.
- Not letting feelings of fear stop you from going after what you want.
- Reframing your relationship to fear.
- Healing the core wounds that make the fearful voices get so loud and scary.
- Helping your inner critic (the fear) communicate its needs to you in a way that is more respectful.
I won’t promise you “fearless”–I will, however, avow that I can help people to “fear, less.”
There is a wide expanse between “fearless” and “fear, less.”
“Fearless” is the domain of perfectionism. It’s striving. It’s putting all of your energy towards some fantasy state.
“Fear, less” is reality. Fear doesn’t have to control your life. Fear can be understood, and the wounds that create the fear can be healed. You can learn how to “fear, less” when you embark on your next bold life move.
You cannot escape fear, entirely. It will come up again and again, in different forms, as you push against the edges of this life experience.
If you’re a life coach, you get to choose how honest you’ll be with your clients about who you are and the very human experience of working with fear. Your biggest qualification as a life coach is not a lack of fear, but rather how powerfully you work through fear when it arises.
If you’re a client, you get to choose who you’ll spend money to work with. Choosing to bypass those who make audacious claims is a beautiful first step in the direction of critical thinking and claiming your power.
Again–you cannot escape fear, entirely.
What’s more? That’s okay.
Would you want it, anyway?
Consider this: If “fearless” were even possible, would you really want to be “fearless,” anyway?
I frequently think that wanting to avoid fear altogether is a form of trying to “check out” of life. Fear is uncomfortable, but the things that are uncomfortable in life are not meant to be avoided, at all costs.
The price you pay for avoiding discomfort is that all of your energy goes into trying to control life so that you don’t have to experience the discomfort. That is its own prison.
When you start working with fear differently, fear has a curiously enlivening quality. Instead of being what keeps you down, the experience of fear becomes something that is both thrilling and terrifying. It’s terrifying because it’s uncomfortable, but it’s thrilling because it’s showing you where there’s something that you deeply desire. It’s thrilling because it makes you wake up, pay attention.
In other words–when the experience of fear controls your life? That’s a problem. And by all means, if fear is running your life, stop sitting on your hands and do something about it.
But–if fear is showing up, at all? That’s just…normal. It’s part of life. It’s part of taking risks.
If you use it as a wake-up call to pay attention? That’s enlivening. It’s cluing you in to your next big adventure.
It breaks down to this simple equation:
“Fearless” = deadening.
“Fear less” = fully alive.
From there, it’s all about what you choose.