Sorrow taught me about fear, and fear gave me courage.
I used to believe that I wasn’t afraid of anything, because my fears weren’t the obvious ones. The fear of losing someone you love, of embarrassing yourself in front of a crowd, of not being able to pay the bills.
Those fears hide in plain sight.
But other fears are craftier. They disguise themselves as rational truths and weave their way into our identities so that we hold onto them like a safety blanket rather than throw them out with the trash.
That’s my kind of fear. That fear came from a place of strength, and it took a season of brokenness to finally confront it.
My husband and I have been good friends with another couple for the length of our 17-year marriage. We’ve played in bands and taken road trips together; we’ve celebrated the birth of each other’s children and mourned the loss of people we love. We’re the kind of heart-friends who aren’t often in the same place, but who remain connected in spite of the distance. When something happens to this kind of friend, you feel it, even if you’re not with her.
So it made sense, some years ago, for the four of us to pursue a joint mission. We had a mutual excitement about uprooting our families to do something completely new together. The sacrifices paled in comparison to the vision we had for our shared future. Everyone who knew us encouraged our partnership and sent us off with love.
I believe that hard things don’t break us; they only expose the cracks that were hiding there already. Our friendship had been built on fun experiences, but the four of us had never worked together. Our hearts were entwined but our heads were in very different places, and as we slowly began working on our dream, it became clear that a gulf of differences existed between us.
That gulf grew wider as we tried, in vain, to patch it. And everything came to a head one warm spring evening when we had an ugly confrontation that left me convinced our friendship – and certainly our partnership – was over.
That night was the first of 60 sleepless nights, sobbing prayers, and endless examination of everything we had done together. And in this deep, dark sadness, I discovered my fear – a fear I had never even imagined existed.
Growing up, when I faced adversity, I had formed an identity to match it: I am strong. I am capable. I don’t need anyone.
Like all identities, this mantra was a defense mechanism against pain. Something uncomfortable happens – my strength covers up the tears. Someone tells me I’m not good enough – I prove him wrong. My peers exclude me – I don’t need them anyway.
These beliefs became my survival tactics for all the punches life threw at me. They’re what made me look fearless and brave. But that night with my friends, when I looked into the eyes of people I loved and wasn’t convinced that they loved me back, I got the wind knocked out of me. Suddenly, I had to ask myself:
What if I’m not strong? What if I’m not capable? What if I do need people (these people) – and they don’t want me?
Before that moment, it had never occurred to me that I was afraid of rejection because I had convinced myself that I didn’t need anyone in the first place. But when I realized there was a chance that I would lose my friends, and I embraced the powerful sadness that such a possibility engendered, my fear became crystal clear.
How do you deal with that fear? What does courage look like when all I want is my friends back?
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
― Brené Brown
I can’t make anyone else love me, but I can invite them to. And the invitation starts with telling the truth.
So that’s what I did. In my sorrow and fear, I spoke to my friends, even though my voice shook and tears rolled down my face.
I told them that I had never been afraid of losing someone before, but that I was now.
I told them that, without realizing it, I had knit them into my heart and that, for all the fighting and confusion and sadness and pain, I really just missed them.
I put my fears into the circle of our friendship, not knowing what would happen next.
Letting myself feel weak is what truly made me strong. Acknowledging where I failed taught me how to do better. And admitting that I needed my friends was the first (courageous) step in closing the gulf between us.
We are still together these years later, and I think we’re all a little more courageous about our friendship. Being broken down helped me find the courage to be built back up – choosing to be vulnerable about my flaws and fears laid the foundation for stronger relationships.
I embrace adversity differently now. When a situation feels too difficult to bear, I refuse to tell myself “I’m strong. I can handle this.”
Instead, I admit, “I’m limited. I can’t face this alone.” And when I have the courage to ask for help, I find that I’m stronger with someone else beside me.
Nicole Devereaux helps mission-driven leaders and their teams create a more authentic, focused, and better business (and self!). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two spirited daughters, where they regularly host dinner parties, practice Conversational Intelligence®, and spontaneously dance in their kitchen.