The title of this post is a quote from a wonderful TED Talk by psychologist Susan David on the fantastic resources humans are capable of harnessing when they embrace their “negative” emotions. There is no such thing as “negative” emotions after all, Susan David says – there is only “normal, natural emotions”.
I have learnt this lesson over and over in the past few years and I have seen true magic unfold in my own life as I have slowly began befriending my inner demons.
I used to think I had to be happy and joyful all the time – that was a goal to aspire towards. That was the measure of a “successful life”. I used to be, as one of my good friends once told me, “annoyingly nice” – I’d be cheerful even when I felt sad, lest I upset the people around me. I used to jump in and “console” my loved ones at the very first sign of discomfort, throwing well-indended advice on how to “think positive”. I used to avoid conflict and strive to make everyone happy, all the time. And the more I did it, the less happy and at peace I felt myself.
It took me a long time to accept that all emotions are useful and necessary. I learnt the hard way that grief is valuable because it creates the space for healing. That anger is useful because it may help you right a wrong or stand up for yourself. That shame is a sign you are sabotaging yourself by thinking you’re not enough or that guilt points at what you have done wrong and you might start doing right.
I slowly learnt to talk to my emotions, to check on what my body was telling me I was feeling and to observe my reactions so I can stop lying to myself and covering my suffering with anger or my sadness with fake cheer.
Slowly, as I became more authentic and true to myself, I not only started to respect my own emotions more, but I also started being more honest with the people around me.
I found the courage to say “no” to clients who asked me do do projects I didn’t believe in and embraced the fear that I would lose that client. Sometimes I did. Often, I didn’t and ended up creating a project I could truly put my heart in.
I took risks. I refused to do or say anything just because it would “create a good impression” and instead accepted that not everybody will like me, and that is ok. Some people thought I had become too direct. Most thought I was more trustworthy because now they know I say what I feel and do what I say.
I became more brave in my work as trainer and a coach, no longer fearing to take people out of their comfort zones by asking difficult questions. I no longer refrain from calling out the bullshit people tell themselves or others. I still believe in kindness, but I learnt that kindness without honesty is hypocrisy. I stopped being “annoyingly nice” and started just being respectfully honest – some people didn’t like that, my best friends surely appreciated it.
Every single one of these changes required courage and I only made these shifts when I accepted that to be brave did not mean I stopped being afraid. I just allowed myself to feel the fear and carried on with it, not in spite of it.
Nowhere has the lesson of embracing fear been more powerful than in my role as a parent.
As a new mother, I discovered a depth of love that I only imagined was possible, but at the same time I stumbled upon the most excruciating kind of fear – one that I hoped I would never have to experience. I learnt that truly loving another means having to accept the frightening fact that they will make choices in their life that will make them suffer and there is little, if anything, you can do to prevent that. Worse, it means to accept that your most loved ones are mortal, just like you are – they might get ill or you might actually lose them one day.
The terrifying spectre of a loved one’s suffering or loss is actually a reverse mirror for our paralysing fear of our own suffering. I know my daughter will have her heart broken one day, that her life will come with its own painful lessons, that she will mourn her losses or mistakes, that she will have her disappointments and will lose her way and struggle to find it back again. I know all of these things and it would be futile to hope otherwise because suffering is part of human nature and is given to us along with all the blessings in our lives – the joy, the laughter, the love. The challenge is to accept that I cannot control anybody’s future and yet be able to fully enjoy our present together.
I dread my child’s suffering because I dread my own suffering and I have to accept there is something quite selfish in loving so much. Deep love and the fear of suffering that comes along with it make parents do all sorts of foolish things – overprotecting, not letting one’s child make mistakes and thus rob them of precious lessons, controlling, stifling or rejecting all negative emotions the child may have just because those emotions make the parent uncomfortable, advising or lecturing too much and listening too little, putting pressure on children to live the life we imagine for them instead of the life they desire for themselves. And all that because we, the adults, are afraid. If they suffer, we suffer. We lie to ourselves believing we’re trying to protect them, when in fact we’re just trying to protect ourselves.
I learn, every day, that mature, wise love comes with boundless vulnerability and crazy courage, which is nothing more than just accepting the fear, walking arm in arm with it while still living life fully.
To love your child and be there for her suffering while embracing your own, to love her completely and unconditionally and yet to allow her to live her own life, on her own terms (which may not be yours), to accept that you have no idea what is truly “right for her”, to bear her moments of rage and yet love her just as much, to hold her tight and then be willing to let her go, to refrain from judgement and just hold space for her when she mourns her losses or nurses a broken heart, to play and laugh with her knowing that one day you’ll also cry together and all of that is ok – that is conscious love. That is “fear walking”.
I feel that accepting that there can be no joy without sadness, no courage without fear and that emotions are, all of them, precious reminders I am alive, has freed me to actually enjoy my life, as it is, much more deeply and genuinely. This acceptance has come with a sense of peace.
I know nothing lasts – not my relationships, not my projects or businesses, not my life itself – and yet I can be fully present (much of the time) with what is and deeply immersed in life right now and, when I’m not able to find that wisdom, which is quite often, I can at least be accepting of myself and my limitations. There is a lot of joy to that. And a lot of freedom. I no longer have to be perfect, I no longer prepare today for some future when everything will be just right, I no longer shut up when I feel I should speak, nor do I rush to speak when actually silence is better. I no longer believe I have the answers for anybody else, yet I believe, more than ever, that everyone has unimaginable resources for well-being inside of themselves. I am more willing to listen and be present and much less convinced my advice is needed or even useful. I’m more keen to ask a question than offer an opinion. I am more aware of my own ego and the lies I often still tell myself, more willing to look in the mirror than to point fingers and definitely more honest in accepting that I am deeply imperfect – just a human being full of shadows and light and yet wonderful in my own imperfection, just like everybody else.
Most importantly, I am more brave. Not because I stopped being afraid, but because I accepted that fear is ok. Courage is fear walking.