Courage - what does it mean to you?

Courage is one of my core values, and I felt I was being courageous to leave my job and start a new life.  However I started to notice that although I’ve made big changes, there was a bit of me still holding back, so I started to get curious about that.  I have lots of reasons to hold back – my kids are still young and need me, I’m scared of getting too busy in my new business, my husband is abroad a lot, so I have to juggle domestic duties.  Initially I thought it was just these many factors that meant I couldn’t go further or faster.

Something happened last week to make me dig a little deeper into what it means to be courageous.  I’m teaching my first 8 week Mindful Self Compassion course, and I have an amazing group that are engaging well and I’m enjoying sharing the materials and seeing them inspired.  I crawl home happy and tired by 10pm, and allow myself some time to unwind before I go to bed. 

What I noticed, is that despite evidence that the group are gaining so much from the training, a little potent voice pops up as I try to get to sleep that questions “Was it really any good?  Are you really doing a good job, or do you just hope you are?  Were you too much?  Are they wondering how to get out of the course, as they can’t stand you?”  The thoughts come up laced with emotions, and I feel tearful, and I have to fight them with reason, to allow myself to get to sleep.

I talked to my husband about it, because I know it’s not rational, and he reassured me that everyone has these thoughts.  But deep down, I know that this potent little voice is an echo from my childhood.  I’ve avoided writing about my childhood because I know my parents did and still do the best they can, and I don’t feel comfortable laying blame with other people.  However deep down the truth is that various experiences in my childhood were “lifeshocks” – I would be thinking I was doing okay, and then randomly I’d be told punishingly that I was a terrible person.  This wasn’t just once, it was something that happened repeatedly and continues to happen.

The impact of that is I stopped trusting my instincts, and stopped trusting the evidence around me.  I questioned everything, and tended to doubt myself at every turn.  I have perfectionist tendencies, which I know are a kind of armour, trying to create the illusion that nothing bad will happen as long as I do my best.  For years I berated myself for being overly-anxious, but I’ve started to realise that my young brain had become hard-wired to look for danger, since my life felt unpredictable.

I knew that I’d struggled with my confidence despite achieving a lot in my life, and I have spent much of my adult life working on overcoming my natural tendency to doubt myself.  It wasn’t until this week, however, that I fully felt the pain of this wound that I’ve been carrying. 

As I lay in bed on Wednesday night, noticing the thoughts and the rising emotion in my throat, I finally accepted that this is what I am.  I carry a wound.  I can’t pretend that I find it easy to be visible, to be seen for who I am.  I realised that true courage is stepping forward and being visible even though I know the wound is there and it will be painful.  I doubt that the “potent little voice” will ever leave me, so I might need to accept that it’s part of me.

I have laboured under the illusion that the people who speak out – Michelle Obama, Malala, Maya Angelou – do so having “first got themselves sorted”.  I thought that first they were healed, and then they spoke up.   What I realised as I lay there in the dark, is that the courage I admire in those women, is the courage of speaking up whilst still being a perfectly imperfect human, wounds and all. 

I now know that when I push myself forward, to support other people, to speak up on issues that I believe in, such as the need for compassion for ourselves and others, my wounds will still hurt.  I can’t wait for them to disappear, or my life will be over. 

I’ve been avoiding this for some time, partly because I’m a parent myself, and I know how hard it is to be a parent.  I have spent much of my adult life worrying about damaging my offspring.  But denial and silence just lead to shame and more pain.  I have more chance of supporting my children’s development if I’m honest with myself about the wounds I carry.

What I’ve gained from studying self-compassion is the wisdom to know that suffering is a part of life, and by opening to my struggles, I also open myself up to more joy.  Rather than avoiding this painful revelation, I need to recognise the wound and show myself some tenderness.  Learning to support myself because of my wound, rather than wishing it would go away, seems to me to be the sustainable option.  Perhaps then will I be able to continue my path of courage.

Nicola Harker