what no one talks about, when they talk about how to be courageous

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Sometimes, right before bed and even when I’m tired, I will suddenly find that I can’t sleep. I’ll feel a low-grade anxiety, and it’s difficult to pinpoint what it’s about.

So my husband—he’s such a champ—and I will pull on jackets and take a few loops up and down the block, and we’ll talk about what’s going on.

What ends up coming out, is always this: a feeling of being caught between two difficult options.

Always, there are nuances and no easy answers—and this is what no one really talks about when they talk about how to be courageous.

When people talk about how to be courageous, it’s usually with binary, good vs. bad language: There’s the fearful choice, and the courageous choice, and all you need to do is pick the courageous one!

However, I think it’s more ambiguous. Here’s what I find:

There’s the option that’s a huge risk and a ton of work, with the great emotional payout that will have made the risks and work worth it…

…or the option that’s about less work and more breathing space (and probably fewer of these nights where I can’t sleep) and the results aren’t nearly as interesting.

When people talk about how to be courageous, it’s usually with the exhortation that you need to choose the option with more risks and work, so that you can get the bigger rewards. I mean, duh, of course that’s how to be courageous. No taking the easy way out.

When I talk about how to be courageous, I talk about how to be real. That’s what courage always comes back to.

* * *

The reality is that the answers are nuanced and they aren’t as easy as picking the riskier, high-octane adventure.

The reality is that your life has seasons, and that even big dreams will have seasons where the sane choice is to not push for more (that would be my life, the first two years after having my daughter).

The reality is that there are other seasons of your life where maintaining the status quo is a total cop-out. Only discernment will tell you which is which.

The reality is that you are going to meander, pursue things with your whole heart behind it and find that it was a waste of time, be seduced by side projects that you later realize are distractions, work hard for something only to reach the end and hate it.

The reality is that creating something and looking back over the journey to get there is one of the most self-satisfying things that I know.

The reality is that few things are as high-stakes as we often make them out to be. Fork in the road moments appear most regularly in movies. But in real life? Chances are, you will have multiple opportunities.

Chances are that you might complete your coach certification one year and not really try to make a go of it as a coach until four years later, and it’ll all turn out okay (oh, hey, that’s exactly how my own story started).

Chances are that the relationship that could never be resurrected probably is, with time and growth and a newfound willingness to leave the past baggage behind.

Chances are that bad financial decisions can be corrected; dysfunctional patterns can be healed; with fits and starts, you will figure out your way.

* * *

When my husband and I finish these loops back and forth past our house, I never magically arrive home with different circumstances.

The decisions to be made in my life or business are still difficult ones, but they feel less-so and I can go to sleep because I’ve made the choice to be courageous by being real.

Being a human is a difficult thing. I realize that I’ve stated this in so many different incarnations on this site, but it really is true that the simple owning of fears and uncertainties is the start of what makes all the difference.

If you want to know how to be courageous, start by asking yourself how you can be most real.

Life? Not easy. So cut yourself a break.

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If you were to review my entire website, all the entries, you’d see over time an expansion-contraction, in-breath-out-breath between the deepest permission to completely let yourself off of the hook with forgiveness and compassion without conditions, and an exhortation to cut the shit and push harder—because after all, this is your life, and it wasn’t meant to be lived from the cheap seats.

This post is a reminder: Life is not easy. (So cut yourself a break.)

It can become difficult at times to remember that being a human is hard stuff. And if your reasoning for not letting yourself off the hook a bit is that somewhere, other people are suffering more, and who are you to complain about your suffering when others are walking through worse?

Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, then I wish I could wrap you in the warmest, closest embrace right now, and tell you that it’s all going to be okay; that the tears you keep holding back are valid; that the permission to acknowledge the hurt of life is there.

* * *

It’s hard to love people and simultaneously feel like they’re the most annoying human beings on the planet and then feel like a bad person who should be more patient.

It’s hard to not know how to handle money or not know why there’s never enough or why you can’t stop wanting-wanting-wanting more stuff.

It’s hard to be ill, to try to navigate health insurance and doctors, or not having health insurance and not having doctors, or having every single resource in the world and still no one can tell you what’s wrong or fix it.

It’s hard to watch death, to watch all the people in the world who actively do harm to others who are walking around alive-alive-alive while the person you loved most, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, is gone.

It’s hard to feel friendships fizzle and dissipate, to care about someone and discover that the foundation you built is on sand.

It’s hard to be criticized, rejected, ignored, left behind, gossiped about, left out.

It’s hard to feel like whatever you look like or whoever you are won’t be good enough.

It’s hard to reconcile your own failures. It’s hard to celebrate your successes, fully and joyfully, in a culture that is just waiting for you to cross the invisible line of “She’s got it too good, so now her successes are arrogance.”

It’s hard to watch social injustices play out and not know how to fix them. It’s hard to face your own guilt that you’ve been complicit in them, the beneficiary of such systems, or numbing out to avoid facing them.

* * *

All of these things are just hard. That’s the simple truth. Life is not easy.

There are other things I could say, of course—rising up to change it, practicing the courage to make it through, ten tips for an easier life.

But for this day, this post, I’ll only offer that it’s hard, which is okay. You’re going to be okay. None of us are alone; we are all just walking each other home.

How to work with the voices of the inner critic

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The inner critic is painfully misunderstood. It’s actually not out to get you. And silencing the inner critic? Silencing the inner critic doesn’t work.

Here’s a good metaphor: your inner critic is like one of those streetwise dogs that finally gets picked up by animal protection services.

This streetwise dog has been kicked a few times, gone hungry a few days, and this dog has responded to that by becoming one lean, mean, snarling machine.

The streetwise dog is really a sweet, lovable puppy inside–who learned some serious defense mechanisms to protect itself from danger or the things that it fears. If a hand holding a food dish is extended towards that dog, the dog will probably bite. Never mind the fact that now all the animal services people want to do is love and nurture this streetwise dog–at first, it’s not going to trust anyone. It’s going to trust what it has experienced and all of its survival mechanisms from the past.

The dog isn’t bad. It just has a set way of responding to the world.

Silencing the Inner Critic

Silencing the inner critic doesn’t work. If you put a muzzle on one of those streetwise dogs, sure, it won’t bite–until you take the muzzle off. Then you’re really going to get it.

If you want to stop a dog from biting, you need to rehabilitate it. You need to teach it a new way of being, not shut it down and hope for the best.

You start rehabilitating your critic by deciding that you won’t silence the critic, anymore.

Instead, you’ll get present to it.
You’ll choose to see that it’s not “bad,” it’s just a voice that has learned how to respond to life in a particular way, based on what it knows.

It just is.

It’s part of all of us. And if you’re on the journey to love and accept yourself, then let that journey start with just accepting that the inner critic is there, and then having the courage to believe that it can be managed, that the relationship is one that can shift with time.

Boundaries with the Inner Critic

Sometimes people misunderstand me as saying that acceptance equals letting the critic say whatever it wants.

Nope. This isn’t about letting things run amok. I’m not saying, “Let your inner critic say whatever it wants.”

I’m saying, Stop pretending that putting a muzzle on the problem, is what fixes the problem.

Back to the “streetwise dog” metaphor: That streetwise dog, once it’s picked up by animal services, will not be allowed to bite people or other dogs. They will practice boundaries.

At the same time, animal services won’t hit the dog, starve the dog, or hurt the dog as part of rehabilitation. The only thing that’s going to help that dog that’s so afraid and defended is this: loving boundaries.

You establish boundaries with an inner critic in the same way that you would with another person. You start by going into each interaction knowing that the communication must be respectful. As soon as your critic says something judgmental, condescending, blaming, or shaming, you respond with:

“Stop. Take a breathe. I’ll listen to your concerns, but they must be voiced respectfully.”

For awhile, this practice will feel a little bit crazy, because you’re basically talking to yourself and that always feels a little nuts. But what you’re really doing is reprogramming an old fear pattern, to create a new courage habit–the habit of noticing your inner critic voice, and responding to it in a different way instead of avoiding it or getting sucked in.

You, in fearful, triggered inner critic mode, are not bad. Your critic needs some boundaries. You can embrace this part of you and understand why it is what it is, while not letting that side of you bite.

Start getting present to this side of you–the inner critic–rather than trying not to see it or feel it or hear it or recognize it. Then start setting some boundaries. That’s how you’ll start managing the inner critic voice in a way that keeps it from stopping you with self-doubt.