"There are two choices in life..." - Quote from Robert Staub

The Courage to Be Vulnerable and to Love

Dusty Staub Courage to be Vulnerable and To Love

Overcoming the Fear of Rejection and Loss

I have seen and continue to see many people going through life focused on “not getting hurt” versus “going for the gold.”

Too often, defensive patterns meant to protect the self from harm become THE problem. From past experience as a marital and family therapist and decades of working to support people in their professional as well as personal lives, I see the pain created by old defensive patterns. These include cynicism, denial, pre-emptive rejection and insistence on being right, promiscuousness, isolation, withholding and withdrawal.

Such patterns of behavior always point to a lack of the courage to be vulnerable, to be open to life and to love.  This robs people of intimacy, meaningful connection, and any real joy or deep satisfaction in their relationship(s).  Instead, they are left with the experience of perpetual loss and a self-defeating pattern that just creates more of the same.

A girl who is fearful and self-protective.

The poet Elizabeth Sewell, author of The Human Metaphor, described two fundamental ways to live life. 

One is to live fully, openly and with gusto; the other is to live it just so as “not to lose.”

I remember the powerful metaphor she used when I heard her speak years ago at UNC-Chapel Hill.  She described the second way of living –“not to lose” – as laying down in the grave, pulling the marble up to your chin, hoping not to get hurt while waiting for life to be over.  That image has stayed with me now for more than four decades.  Yet in my work with individuals, families, teams and organizations, I keep running into people who seem to be living “not to lose”, not to get hurt versus being their very best, of reaching for what they want.

The barrier that corrals them is FEAR; the path out is Courage.  Of the various specific Acts of Courage I have described in my book The 7 Acts of Courage, the number one called for here is the Courage to be Vulnerable.

As many spiritual masters have so astutely pointed out, the experience of pain and loss is inevitable in life. Nonetheless, we can deeply enjoy life and experience profound meaning and intimacy.  For that, we need to bring compassion for ourselves and for others to bear, and we need to access the courage to use the pain to help us go deeper and to open ourselves more fully.  Unfortunately, the lesson many learn and that our society teaches is, “Numb the pain,” “Medicate away the loss,” and “Avoid all BAD feelings.”

Many people are afraid to feel negative emotions.

The deep insights of psychology, sociology and spiritual discipline all tell us that to label a feeling as “bad” is to limit aliveness.

From the disciplines of physiology, psycho-neuro-immunology and bioenergetics, it is known that by blocking one set of feelings or emotions, the ones labeled as bad, one ends up blocking the capacity to feel the desired emotions, those labeled as good.

Thus it is a fool’s errand to try and close off difficult emotions, whether due to the fear of or the actual experience of loss, rejection, shame, doubt, anxiety or grief.  Because once a person closes down to feeling the pain, he or she has also closed down on life as a whole, limiting the capacity to feel truly alive. This also prevents a deeper understanding of difficult experiences at the level of the soul, and the incorporation of trials lived and lessons learned into a powerful and unique life story.

The only danger, really, is that of letting our fear(s) run us.

Out of past hurts, old wounds and the fear of new ones, we shut down our life essence and ability to be truly present, alive and whole.  Yes, loss and pain occur, yet they can be the passageways to living more fully, wholly and gracefully in life.  I know this first hand.

When my sister Debbie, two years younger than I, died in a mysterious house fire, the grief was overwhelming.  In addition to that was the crazed voice in my head that said, “If you had only been staying in contact with her, being the big brother she needed, this would not have happened.”

In the pain of grief and guilt, I began to shut down.  I remembered Elizabeth Sewell’s words and my own training as a therapist, and then could hear the deeper voice within my heart.  Shutting down on the pain was a violation of the love and connection I had with my sister. It was not worthy of the warrior spirit and generous-hearted being she was in life.

The path with heart was to express the Courage to be Vulnerable, to go into the fullness of my loss and grief, and then to honor her spirit and the history of our loving relationship by bringing our story into the world and sharing it with others.  As my heart opened and I moved into and through the pain, without judging it or letting fear stop me, I experienced an incredible richness in each precious new day and each person in my life.

Waking up to our emotions.

Three simple actions you can take to help you to be more available, present, loving and intimate in your personal relationships, to “rise up” so to speak from the metaphorical grave with its protective marble cover are:

1. B.O.B.B. = Breathe-Open-Be-Bigger.

A colleague of mine came up with this brilliant concept during an intense, weeklong workshop we were doing.

Just remember to breathe: take some deep breaths and then remind yourself to open – to unclench and release the physical tightness first, and then to allow yourself to feel what you are feeling.

Finally, “be bigger”: remember your big self and feel the spaciousness inside you.  You are bigger than any pain, any emotion; you have spaciousness to hold these feelings when you open up this way instead.  That is much better than allowing them to swallow you. It takes getting just a fraction bigger than the feeling that seems to be paralyzing you to bring some fresh, hopeful movement within your psyche.

2. Call On Your Allies.

Remember you are NOT alone. Reach out to ask for support, help and comfort from your true allies: key family, friends, mentors, guides, Spirit / Divine.

None of us are really alone; there are resources and strengths both deeply within us as well as around us.  You do not have to – in fact you cannot – do it alone.  Remember to ask for help.  “Knock and it shall be opened.”

3. Ask, “Open or Closed?”

There are only two choices before you. You can choose to be open or you can choose to be closed.  Which choice gives you the greatest aliveness?  Which choice will help you live more fully and wholly?

It has become very simple for me at this stage of my life.  I choose to be present, open and vulnerable knowing not only that I can be, but that I will be, hurt in life.  The Heart has an amazing capacity and ability to transmute pain and loss, grief and fear into greater love, compassion, kindness and grace.

So which will it be for you and your life, your loved ones: Will you cultivate the courage to be vulnerable and open or will you close up and wait for life to be over?

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