How to Be A Hero: Cultivating Emotional Courage So You Can Be A Superpower
“The ‘Sacred Warrior’ is the personification of Courage within a man and a woman that allows them to keep their heart open in hell; the hell of their own frustration, confusion, fear, discouragement, anger, resentment….”
— Chogyam Trungpa, The Sacred Path of the Warrior
It was India 1996. Lucknow (yes, that is the actual name of the city) was only a shadow of its former self. Once the proudly decorated British ‘administrative’ capital of India, abundant with lush English gardens and grand estates, now it stood reclaimed by her gritty and humble Indian origins, her streets populated with pigs, goats and cattle, auto rickshaws peppering the busy thoroughfares. I was a young mother to a 13-month-old then and lived amongst a small community of expatriates in a quiet suburban community on the outskirts of town.
As was the custom of our little community, many of us often gathered at my home for lunch each day. Our living room was a veritable United Nations, with people from New Zealand, Israel, Germany, Palestine, Austria, America, Holland and Mexico. Life was simple as we sat eating rice and dal on stainless steel plates, sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor. It was, for us, a time of reflection, introspection and curiosity. And time stretched out eternal, allowing us the rare privilege of ease inside which we could take sanctuary from the world.
My son Dakota was playing quietly nearby. At one point, one of the friends, whom Dakota was particularly fond of, began to leave. She picked up all her things, bid us goodbye, kissed Dakota on his curly blond head, and walked out the door. At once he dropped his toys and crawled towards the door frantically crying for her. In response, I jumped up to comfort him, but felt a firm grasp upon my arm.
“Wait,” my friend said. “Let him feel it; it’s ok.”
A New Zealander who had spend his whole life keeping bees, he had a quiet, unassuming yet deep presence, and a profound understanding of the inner workings of nature, plus a trust of the simple mechanics of ‘how things work’.
I looked at him, a little taken aback by his intervention. Quiet and reserved, he seldom spoke, and almost never inserted his opinions in conversations. I must have looked confused because he then told me something I will never forget.
“We were raised to be emotional cowards,” he said. “Out of good intentions, and social norm, people who cared about us rushed to rescue us from difficult feelings. Or worse, they forbade us to feel them. We grew up not knowing how to deal with them, how to cope with them. And then we spend our lives running from them or denying they are there and getting sick from it.”
I knew he was right. I remembered as a child being told not to cry, to be a brave girl. I remembered being given three sugar-glazed donuts to keep me quiet when I wiped out on my bicycle, shredding my shins and knees beyond recognition. I remembered how I was not allowed to get angry.
“You don’t do Dakota any favors distracting him from his feelings. Instead, why don’t you show him, by just being present, that there is nothing to fear from painful experiences.”
I had always been, and remain, a very responsive mother. If there was a need, I met it. My children were breastfed, worn in slings and backpacks, loved, cuddled, slept with, played with and nurtured. But sometimes a mother can’t meet a need. And this was one of those moments. I couldn’t make the friend magically reappear.
It was an essential developmental lesson: life is sometimes painful.
So, instead, as an experiment, I sat near to him, but didn’t rush to fix him. I let him cry. His wails ripped at me, and every muscle in my body wanted to scoop him up and comfort him. And then I felt it—it was my cries I didn’t want to hear, not his. It was my pain I didn’t want to feel.
Dakota’s sobs were merely protests against his friend walking out the door, but they triggered feelings in me that were out of proportion to this current event. I saw how my desire to reach for him and comfort him was, in part, an attempt to comfort myself and alleviate my own discomfort with his cries. And suddenly I saw how emotional cowardice was handed down, generation upon generation. It stopped me in my tracks, and I was able to just sit inside the discomfort, and be present, as my friend had invited.
Within moments, Dakota stopped crying. And turned, happily, towards his toys, reengaging in his previous interest as if nothing at all had happened. The despair had simply washed through him like a brief weather pattern. Dakota took his first step towards emotional courage, and I along with him.
Teaching moments like these are so humbling because we then spend our entire lives trying to re-orient ourselves towards that compass setting on which it points. And from that afternoon, I’ve since spent years cultivating that emotional courage with varying degrees of success.
In a recent Harvard Business Review blog entitled Why So Many Leadership Programs Ultimately Fail, Peter Bregman writes, “What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it.”
“In other words,” he continues, “the critical challenge of leadership is, mostly, the challenge of emotional courage.”
I would agree that this is true in all sectors of leadership, be it organizational, parental, marital (yes, we ‘lead’ in marriage – at it’s best, its collaborative), personal, and communal. Much of our reactions to situations, that lead to poor outcomes, are because we are simply not willing, or too afraid, to feel.
There are several reasons for this. But one influential reason is due to our social, cultural, religious and /or spiritual orientation that cannot help but interpret emotions through a right/wrong, good/bad lens. Add to it the uniquely American approach to having a pill for every discomfort, advertisements for which saturate our television.
Developmentally, this lens is the perspective of about a 16-year-old. Hence the reason Hitler enlisted so many adolescents into his Youth Army, because their developing mind, perfectly poised to see only black and white, could easily be indoctrinated into racism. So polarized have we become against our own internal landscape, that we end up at war with ourselves constantly strategizing our relief through over-doing, over-committing, numbing out, distraction and blame.
Another reason, related to the first, is that we have a very limited relationship to our bodies. A body is something we use rather than a dynamic intelligent system to abide inside, and from which to seek wisdom. The body is a place of sin, we have been told, and therefore we should separate from it. Our society is a bunch of heads riding around on legs. In my work people at first often report having no sense of their bodies or what they are feeling.
So, how to be a superpower? The paradoxical answer is — be vulnerable. Feel everything. Be willing to feel your feelings, and the feelings of others. Be willing to listen to the morning news and let it rip you apart. Be willing to break open and experience it all. Be willing to be utterly, mercilessly at the hands of every sensation, every experience.
Dakota is now 18. Yesterday afternoon, we were sitting outside on the back porch, shooting tin cans with his BB gun (you take time with your son any way you can get it). “You know, the more I think about it,” he said, as he narrowed his eye down the sight, “the more I realize that life is only lived completely, if you completely let your heart break.”
Yes, let your heart break.
And when you let your heart break, then you feel it all. So just let it be what it is. You’ll discover that all it is, is sensation. Nothing more; nothing less. Some sensations are unpleasant. Some are pleasant. None of them are dangerous. It’s only our mind that comes in with unhelpful commentary and labels. But if you’re just present with your body’s experience, you’ll discover simply sensation. A veritable circus. And you’ll welcome it all. This is emotional courage.
What begins to happen when you cultivate emotional courage? You become brave—you take risks; you become accountable; you hold others accountable; you become more compassionate; you create trust; you become creative, spacious, easy and inspired.
One of my favorite bloggers, James Altucher writes “When you can get rid of the buffers against pain and change, life becomes more insecure, but we become FREE. We live in a bigger world, a world where risk and beauty go hand in hand and we are no longer afraid of the underlying pains.
A leader is always prepared for change. And realizes that pain is just opportunities to live in a bigger and more abundant world. This is the secret that most people forget when they build their brick houses and hide inside from the outside world so pain doesn’t seek them out.”
Here are your five superhero tips:
1. Tell yourself the truth — Take on, as a practice, to simply tell yourself the truth about what you are feeling in any given moment. Sounds simple, but when you experiment with this practice, you just might discover how often you habitually disregard, cover up, deny or project what you are feeling. This doesn’t mean you have to tell anyone else about it; that’s too much pressure.
2. Check in with your agenda — are you reacting because you don’t want to feel your or another’s feelings, or are you responding. They are different.
3. When you are feeling a strong emotion — take a breath, slow down, and just allow your body to feel it. Open yourself to welcome it, like a houseguest.
Resist the urge to label it, or go down any mind chatter rabbit holes.
4. Let yourself be porous — welcome the sensations of the entire world. Feel everything as you walk through the grocery store, the mall, at your in-laws. Now that you are a superhero, you can be brave on behalf of everyone.
5. Be grateful — being alive, feeling all that there is, as an amazing expression of life, is awesome.
We need superheroes. We need them now. Your cape awaits.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.