“Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.” ~Raymond Lindquist
I’ve been processing my beliefs on courage since I turned 31.
When I was in my 20s and teens, my idea of courage was that you fight until the death, never give up, be the one to say the last word, and always, always prove your point. And yet, I spent most of those years feeling unseen and unheard by my family and friends.
I felt completely isolated and exhausted, yet I wasn’t expressing these feelings. (Not to say I hold regret; in my journey I had to seek and exhaust what didn’t work before fumbling my way to what could.)
On the day of my 30th birthday, I found myself stuck in an unsatisfying four-year relationship, feeling so much pain, but I lacked the strength to move on. During those four years, I felt more and more isolated.
Some research suggests that isolation is the most terrifying and destructive feeling a person can endure.
In their book The Healing Connection, Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver define isolation as “a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation.”
I felt I had lost my self-respect and power, and that made me feel trapped and ashamed. As painful as it was to feel that way, it also felt familiar and comfortable. I was drowning with no life raft, holding my own head underwater.
Part of me was staying because I didn’t believe I would feel worthy or complete until I saved my then-boyfriend and the relationship.
At the same time, I wasn’t voicing my needs or feelings. I was expecting and depending on someone else to change instead of changing myself.
Perhaps this is the gift when relationships don’t work out: We learn where we are not loving or accepting ourselves. Relationships bring to light the wounds we have yet to heal. For that, I am grateful.
Once I recognized that the relationship had served a divine purpose—that the experience had happened for me, not to me—I was able to move on.
I’ve learned that the experience of shame traps us in self-defeating cycles; we feel unworthy and powerlessness to change our life conditions.
It also prevents us from seeing and representing our authentic selves. Then instead of airing it out and clearing the water, we muddy it further by keeping it all inside.
Familiarity can be more comforting than the uncertainty of what will happen after we let go and jump into the abyss, but we have to ask ourselves what we value more: comfort or growth?
Richard Schaub wrote, “Surrender is an active decision, an act of strength and courage, with serenity as its reward.”
Perhaps courage, for me, meant not hanging on and pushing through, but accepting the hurt, surrendering the need for certainty, and making the active choice to break the silence and begin clearing up the water.
I have learned that as unique as our stories may be, we all struggle with the same fundamental fears and we all lose our belief in ourselves. We all feel alone and isolated at times, and that leaves us feeling powerless.
When we get stuck in toxic behaviors and relationships and we feel trapped in this vicious cycle, we need to ask ourselves, “What do we stand to lose by not changing?”
For me, I stood to lose my authentic self, my integrity, my spirit, and the opportunity to live my best life.
It takes courage to be completely honest with ourselves about what’s keeping us stuck.
It took courage for me to accept that I was staying in an unsatisfying relationship because it was familiar, and even harder to acknowledge the shame and unworthiness I felt for being too scared to face the truth.
To feel worthy and take control back, I first needed to feel accepted and connected.
Sharing my story helped with that, and helped me release my shame. Shame and fear can hide in silence, but have a hard time lingering around when shared in a loving space.
When we don’t tell our stories, we miss the opportunity to experience empathy and move from isolation to connection. Breaking the cycle ultimately means breaking the silence.
To begin my healing, I started by cultivating a loving space within myself. I then stumbled into a Buddhist meditation center.
I talked and cried with others struggling with the same challenges of fear and uncertainty. I took up yoga and explored the scary places of myself. I even I booked a trip to Thailand to volunteer and experience a new culture.
I took to heart Red’s advice from “The Shawshank Redemption”: Get busy living, or get busy dying.
To do that, we need to recognize that the pain of staying the same is greater than the risk of making a change, and it’s worth facing the fear of uncertainty.
Who knows what the future holds, and perhaps that is part of the beauty of life. Each moment is fresh and new and maybe, just maybe, that’s what makes it so precious.
What’s your idea of courage and how can you expand your pain into growth? How could you reframe the situations in your life to see them as happening for you, not to you?
And if you are in a spot in your life where you feel scared to take a risk, ask yourself: what do you stand to lose if you don’t change?
Photo by monkeywing