By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
To speak of vulnerability and love is to speak of fear and courage. In the first part of this series we talked about the ways in which we suffer from a state of disconnection from our hearts and how to practice living consciously with the “heart in mind”. This can be an incredibly vulnerable process that may generate feelings of fear and anxiety just thinking about it, let alone putting it into action! The C.S. Lewis quote above speaks to this risk of loving and being loved. It is a remarkable capacity that we have as humans, yet it also comes with the almost sure risk of being wounded at some point in the experience of loving and being loved and the choice to be in a space of vulnerability.
To live life on planet earth, with all the beauty and mess, takes courage. It is a complicated place with complicated situations and emotions. It seems particularly relevant to write about courage, fear and love with all the violence and displacement happening around the world right now. Suffering certainly abounds in various forms in this world- psychologically, physically, externally, or internally, and no matter what, it always impacts us as whole human beings in body, mind, and soul.
Often, when faced with the prospect of vulnerability and love, we think about its connection to suffering, and as a result we feel fear. Fear is a primal human emotion that arises when our sense of safety has been threatened. We can experience fear in so many different ways. Externally, it might be for our physical safety if we are living in a dangerous environment- whether that is a war-torn country or a home where we experience abuse at the hands of another. Internally, it might be for our emotional safety if we are struggling with an unhealthy relationship or self-harming thoughts and behaviors, or fear at the possibility of openly and truly loving and being loved.
We might express our fears by avoiding speaking up for ourselves, refusing to take up space, isolating from relationships, or living an unauthentic life because the risk of really being who we are feels like too much. We might fear the act of simply being alone with ourselves, practicing self-love, or trusting love from others.
Two powerful antidotes to fear and suffering are courage and love. Courage does not mean the absence of fear. In fact, courage implies the presence of fear and then moving forward to face it and go through it. Courage is the ability to do something that is frightening or to have strength in the face of pain and grief. You may have heard this one: It is the ability to feel the fear, face it, and do that hard thing anyway.
The word courage comes from the French root Coeur that means heart. Courage is a matter of the heart and therefore a matter of love. Remember the Cowardly Lion from the film The Wizard of Oz ? He was struggling with so much guilt and shame about his fear, anxiety and perceived cowardice that he could not recognize the courage that he had within him was in his heart. He was always looking outside of himself for courage, yet ultimately it is a quality that was inherently within…and it is also in us, in our hearts, but it requires attention and cultivation. We are faced with a choice when fear and suffering show up- will we respond with vulnerability (a courageous act) or will we turn away, choosing fear and self-protection?
We live in a world that values the rational mind over the instinct of the heart. The rational mind may talk us out of taking risks to give and receive love or pursue a passion. The fearful mind may ruminate on all the reasons why we shouldn’t risk loving, asking for what we need, making a change in a less than healthy situation, or seeking treatment for an eating disorder, addiction, or mental health issue. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly says, “experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice-the only choice we have is how we are going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk and emotional disclosure” and I would add to that, the prospect of loving and being loved. She also tells us that courage comes from a place of vulnerability, not a place of strength or posturing. Courage is showing up, for yourself first and foremost, and then for others who are suffering.
Life requires courage, in small ways everyday. You may have heard of the “small acts of kindness” movement. I wonder what would happen if we started a “small acts of courage” movement. Courage can certainly be a big heroic act and we see that happening all over the world and it is important to acknowledge that it does not always have to be that. It can also be the small daily actions we take to be true to our integrity and character, to love and allow ourselves to take in love. It can be the way we love our child, parent, sibling, or friend. It can be accepting love extended to us from someone else. It can be extending love toward ourselves.
Courageous acts are ones that come from the heart. Here are a few things that come to mind my mind when I think about courageous acts in daily life:
- Standing up for what is right
- Asking for help
- Attending a therapy session
- Facing suffering in yourself or in another, sitting with someone in pain
- Getting honest with yourself about where you are and where you need to grow
- Accepting imperfections in yourself and others
- Owning your right to make a mistake (again, kind of like accepting imperfections)
- Saying No…or maybe, saying Yes to something that matters to you
This is just a short list….I wonder what you would add to is? What does it mean to you to have a courageous heart?
To help, here are some journaling ideas on cultivating courage in your heart:
- Write about people you think are courageous- call them to mind and write what words or images you have when you think about that person
- Make your own list of what it means to have a courageous heart in every day life
- Write about what it mean to you to operate from a place of love and vulnerability rather than from a place of fear and self-protection
- Write about where you need courage to replace fear in your own life right now
- Write one thing you can do today or tomorrow to practice moving toward vulnerability and courage
Remember, vulnerability and courage isn’t just about sharing the parts of you that are light and shiny, it is also about revealing the wholeness of your humanity, the dark parts included. It takes practice, but facing the fear and doing the hard thing anyway eventually becomes easier as you become more in line with your authentic self.
If your courageous act means taking a step toward treatment and you want to learn more about Center for Change or how to get help for your eating disorder, please…reach out and practice courage. It will be worth it. You are worth it.