The word “courage” is often reserved for entering a battlefield or facing difficult circumstances. But there’s a more subtle aspect to courage that is needed in our close relationships.
The word “courage” comes from the word meaning “heart.” The French word “la coeur” means “heart.” To open our heart to another human being is the ultimate act of courage.
Being courageous doesn’t mean being a fearless warrior. It means being a warrior of the heart. We allow ourselves to have fear, to wrestle with it, and find our way through without being crippled by it. In a relationship, this means expressing difficult truths, and communicating our genuine feelings and needs in a kind way rather than by blaming, attacking, or manipulating others. It takes inner strength to not blurt out the first thing that pops into our mind, which may be hurtful words or a critical tone of voice.
Allowing ourselves to be fully present with another person takes what the renowned philosopher Paul Tillich called The Courage To Be. Accepting and honoring ourselves as we are, even if others judge us or don’t think well of us, is the ultimate act of self-affirmation, self-acceptance, and self-love. (Interestingly, Paul Tillich greatly influenced Rollo May, who was one of the creators of Humanistic and Existential Psychology.)
Revealing Our Inner World
It takes a lot of mindfulness to know what we’re experiencing inside — what we’re feeling and wanting. And it takes great courage to reveal our inner world to another person, who has the power to accept or reject us.
We might conclude that it’s safer to keep all of our feelings and needs inside, leaving us less exposed to the possibility of painful criticism or rejection. But there are at least 2 problems with this popular strategy. First, we might live our lives in a very small way, not spreading our wings and moving toward a more fulfilling life by giving ourselves the freedom of self-expression. Secondly, we’re then not allowing the possibility of receiving a wonderful, positive response from another person, which could deepen our connection and increase our happiness.
It can be scary to let ourselves be known. Courage is needed to allow another person to see us, which is necessary if we want the possibility of a deeper love and intimacy to unfold.
We need courage to risk showing ourselves in our important relationships, but we don’t want to be foolish about it by repeatedly being vulnerable with someone who doesn’t treat us well. We need emotional safety — trusting that if we’re vulnerable, we’re likely to be heard and respected rather than shamed or criticized.
But we can’t expect 100% safety. Being authentic often feels like a risk, which is why it requires courage. But as we build trust over time with a person, we’ll experience more trust and less risk in being ourselves.
Trusting a person means that our heart feels at rest with them. We feel at ease sharing our feelings, our needs, our playfulness. We’re not bracing against the prospect of an unpleasant attack. It’s a beautiful thing when the courage to show ourselves leads to an easeful and trusting connection with another person.
The Irish author Oscar Wilde said that “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” As we move toward building deeper connections with people, we need to be willing to not do it perfectly. This means embracing a willingness to fail and learn from our mistakes. Rather than be paralyzed by shame for making mistakes, we need the courage to pick ourselves up again and again and take small steps forward.
Saying this another way, cultivating resilience is a key to building healthy relationships. Such resilience reflects an inner strength and courage to allow ourselves to have feelings such as sadness and perhaps moments of shame around our mistakes, but without concluding that there’s something wrong with us.
Realizing that what we call “mistakes” are nothing more than the ways we acted based upon our limited wisdom and experience at the time, we can learn from them and gradually move toward the deeper love and connection we want.