Join Me in the Arena with Brené Brown

by | May 19, 2019 | Anxiety, Relationships, Trust Yourself | 47 comments

Last weekend, I watched Brené Brown’s show on Netflix and this line, among many others, took my breath away (and gave it back):

 

“Today I choose courage over comfort.”

 

She talks about the shame-storm she fell into after reading the comments when her TED talk went viral in 2006. After numbing herself on food and TV for seven hours – which she shares with her trademark humor and vulnerability –  she came across this quote by Theodore Roosevelt, which she describes as a God moment:

 

 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

 

 

There are many ways that I throw myself into the arena. Every time I hit “publish” on my weekly post, I choose courage over comfort. Every time I release a course, I choose courage over comfort. Every time I walk against the mainstream, especially around parenting, and trust my own voice and decisions, I choose courage over comfort. With the upcoming release of my new book, The Wisdom of Anxiety, I choose courage over comfort.

 

But nowhere do I experience more vulnerability, and thus, the daily decision to choose courage over comfort, than in my relationships: with my husband, my kids, and my friends. As Brené writes here in Daring Greatly:

 

“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow — that’s vulnerability.”

 

It’s not always easy, this warrior path called loving. There are times, especially when I’m in conflict with someone I love, that I want to run for the hills or the safe haven of a different life. The escape-hatch fantasy doesn’t last long, for invariably there will be a moment of tender and vulnerable repair that swings the doors of my heart wide open, but in those moments when it feels like the world is caving in and the ground beneath my feet is crumbling, the moments when it feels like this loving is too much to bear, being in the arena sounds like a very bad idea.

 

On the Warrior Path

 

For those of you struggling with relationship anxiety – or any anxiety –  this probably sounds familiar. At the core of all of your intrusive thoughts is the attempt to find certainty: the ego’s attempt to find a foothold amidst the shifting ground of this uncertain world. You desperately want to know, without doubt, that you’re with the “right” partner, as the ego tells you that this unshakable knowing will safeguard you against future hurt and loss. It’s this fear of loss, which, when we extend the coiled strand out, is actually the fear of death and also the fear of feeling the big feelings of life (which, to a young child, feels like death and loss of control without the comfort of loving arms to walk her through the emotional storms). These fears show up in childhood as the fear of losing a parent, the fear of one’s own death, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being “bad”, then later, in early adolescence, the sexuality spikes and health anxiety. Eventually, in your twenties, thirties, or later, relationship anxiety takes center stage.

 

If we were taught early in life how to attend to the tidal waves of emotions that pour through tender and sensitive hearts, we wouldn’t fear quite so deeply. If we had a loving and wise elder to hold us through the fear of death that so often plagues young, thoughtful minds, we could address the fear directly so it didn’t have to siphon off into obsessive thoughts and mutated forms of anxiety.

 

If you’re here, reading this blog, slogging through your anxiety in all forms, you’re in the arena. You’re taking the risk of living life fully, which often means loving and risking fully instead of remaining in the small, safe corner of a cave on top of a mountain. You may want to run; that’s normal (as I shared above). But you don’t run. You’re here doing the brave warrior’s work of peeling back the layers of fear-walls that are protecting your vulnerable heart, excavating the faulty beliefs about love and life that you’ve absorbed from a misguided culture, and learning about what it means to surrender and let go. It will be the hardest work you ever do, and the most essential.

 

Thank you for joining me in the arena. We’re all in this together. And thank you @brenebrown. You are a brave warrior who is charting the path of vulnerability, shame, and courage for so many.

 

***

Note: I welcome your comments, insights, and thoughts that are directly related to each week’s post. If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and are a member of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course, please bring your questions there. If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and are longing to break free from its stronghold, I strongly encourage you to join the course. 

 

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47 Comments

  1. I thank the universe for your work, Sheryl <3

    Reply
    • Ever since stumbling across your work several months ago, I have been immensely blessed by all you offer Sheryl. As someone else commented, its such a comfort to see my exact experiences articulated into thoughts and words I’ve never been able to fully form. The part of your post that particularly resonated with me was the paragraph about relationship anxiety and how the core of intrusive thoughts is a desire to find certainty. I’ve never thought about it in this way, but it is so incredibly true, and I am walking away with a lot to reflect on. It’s both soothing and scary, but I’m excited to start this new journey of deeper self-understanding and being able to love more fully. I’m thinking about enrolling in your relationship anxiety course too. A big thank you and hug to you Sheryl! May you be so blessed.

      Reply
  2. “There are times, especially when I’m in conflict with someone I love, that I want to run for the hills or the safe haven of a different life.”
    I fall into this so often whenever my partner rubs on my wounds. Its so soothing to see my exact feelings in word form! What an insightful article.
    Doing your work and commiting to courage over comfort has allowed me to live out my life dream of living in Japan! I leave in 3 months, its terrifying and beautiful at the same time and I wouldn’t have without your work Sheryl. Thank you.

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    • That’s amazing to hear, Raven! What an exciting and brave adventure awaits – and that’s stepping into the arena, indeed.

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  3. Sheryl, yours is one of the few newsletters I read and resonate with.

    Your sharing is timely and a message from the divine to keep being in the arena with my eyes and heart wide open. I am now rereading Daring Greatly and resuming sporadic journaling.

    The line in her book that I’m sitting with is “what would I still do if I fail?” And I take a breath with that question. I feel goal-less at times when I look around me, I feel anxious, I should have a goal, a tangible one. And yes …. anxiety in some form.

    Excitedly awaiting the arrival of your book which I ordered. Just want to say thank you Sheryl. Bless you for your wisdom and your courage.

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    • Thank you for this beautiful comment, Gennet Song. I can hear your devotion to your path of healing, including finding gentleness for the inevitable struggles along the way. Sending blessings back to you. x

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  4. You hit the nail on the head with your comment about weighting fear vs. intuition. Most of the time, for me, it’s my intuition telling me the relationship is out of balance. That I’m feeling more than my partner. It’s very difficult to stay in a relationship where you know they’re not in it the same way. It does not feel safe or satisfying and creates anxiety.

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    • If you know that your partner isn’t fully committed that will certainly create real anxiety, especially if you have more of an anxious attachment style. Is it possible that your partner is struggling with relationship anxiety?

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  5. Thank you for speaking to this conundrum -whether to choose comfort or courage in each moment, each relationship, each opportunity to express and experience our potential is the essential question on the noble path of growth. I too have been quite moved and inspired by Brene Brown’s work, but found myself struck by this particular piece, and would love your wisdom. As a woman oriented toward growth and leading a meaningful, purposeful life I often find myself pushing to be better – a better mother, partner, therapist, daughter, etc. And upon hearing Brene’s words felt my stress response get triggered. I thought, “is it ever enough?” …Do we ever get to just be comfortable and at ease with what is? My reaction to her challenge to choose courage may come from a misread of what it means to be courageous vs. comfortable, but as I age sometimes I want to just relax and let go of the “push and strive” mentality that has always driven me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Reply
    • It’s a great question, Crystal. The way I understand it is that there’s absolutely a time to relax and accept, and that this is an essential part of the growth path. What I’m hearing in your comment, however, is perhaps a common confusion about what it means to grow – that we have to “push and strive”, which often comes from a mindset of, “I’m broken in some way and I have to fix myself.” We actually grow best from a mindset of complete acceptance, and from there we find the genuine motivation to take the next action that invites us into stepping into the next layer of the arena. Does that make sense?

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      • Thank you so much for the helpful reflection on the essential aspect of acceptance in this process of jumping off the wheel of push, strive, fix thinking!

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  6. Sheryl as you know I have been following your work for almost 3 years now. And I owe you all the work and process i walked through that eventually got me to this quiet certainty that my partner is just who I want to be in a team with in this crazy life.

    I just wanted to say that this must be one of your most touching posts.
    It hits me today in particular because ironically, after years of being one foot out of the door as I finally decided to walk in, my partner is struggling.
    He feels like the past heart ache that we have gone through mostly due to my relationship anxiety and confession ocd have scarred in a way which he doesn’t know how to handle. And he doesn’t know how to move forward in this relationship.

    I read this post and I see myself reflected in it. instead of spiraling down into panic, I know I want to stay and continue taking this risk. And that whatever the ending of this story: I will be fine

    Reply
    • Beautiful, Linda, especially this last part: “And that whatever the ending of this story: I will be fine.” WOW. Blessings to you.

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  7. Sheryl, thank you once again. I was thinking about the ‘being brave’ aspect of anxiety when I was running Parkrun this week (running is what I’ve found helps with my anxiety). Your work has made me very pround of myself because I know I’m the bravest.
    For my relationship anxiety I was the bravest everytime I walked through my front door knowing my husband would be there. I was the bravest everytime I stood and accepted a hug. I was the bravest everytime I actioned daily lifes goings on knowing that I’d made the decision to ‘just stay.’
    I may falter sometimes and let the reins on the intrusive thoughts slacken, but everytime they do I pull them back in, continue with the work, review your work for any new insight and continue to carry on fighting.
    People with anxiety are the bravest.

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    • Thank you for sharing this. I’m struggling to walk towards my partner and knowing that it is a struggle for others helps me to feel seen.

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      • Hannah, I’ve found that running has given me such positive thoughts and feelings about myself. I don’t find running easy at all, but the sense of achievement I have when I finish a run is immense.
        I find it mindful because I’m having to consciously think about my breathing, what my legs are telling me, what my arms are doing etc. I focus on the the wind as it blows over me as I run or the rain on my skin and how it cools me (the latter being my favourite).
        Because I find running not the easiest it tells me every time I finish a run that I can make myself do things that are hard and indeed a little bit scary. Ultimately it tells me I am more than my anxious thoughts. If I can set out hoping to put one foot in front of the other at speed to do this over and over to go the distance of 3, 4 or 5 miles when it’s not the easiest I can surely stand in my husbands embrace for the few minutes until I know the fear dissipates and I find myself in the place that is my oatmeal (thank you to Sheryl for that analogy).
        I also find that going running with some upbeat music to run at my fastest gets rid of the nervous anxious energy like nothing else.

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    • Yes – exercise is so helpful for anxiety. It literally changes your brain, causing it to form new neurons/neural connections. After having stopped my exercise regimen and restarted it again a few weeks ago, there’s a huge difference in my ability to process emotions, work with thoughts, and consider things from a new perspective. It helps to maintain equilibrium (or get back there) – a super valuable habit.

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    • AMEN! Thank you for sharing here, Donna. x

      Reply
  8. ‘These fears show up in childhood as the fear of losing a parent, the fear of one’s own death, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being “bad”, then later, in early adolescence, the sexuality spikes and health anxiety. Eventually, in your twenties, thirties, or later, relationship anxiety takes center stage.’

    Oh my goodness – this describes exactly my anxiety trajectory and it is so reassuring to see it laid out here to be totally normal and natural. Thank you Sheryl.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Katherine. It’s such a common trajectory. Extraordinary how the archetypal fears show up in these areas.

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    • I was going to write the same comment!
      Amazing how alone We feel, when We are all a part of an invisible tribe!

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  9. I realise that I still understand “being in the arena” as “getting out there and doing great things” and therefore get impatient with myself that I haven’t found a job yet that fits with who I am.
    But your words make me see that I am already in the arena, challenging my fears, by getting married in 3 months and buying our first house. And that I can trust my feelings of needing time and space for this all to settle before venturing in a new job adventure.
    Your words always feel like a fresh shower of the Soul. Thank you so much for being you!

    Reply
    • YES! You’re already in the arena. It’s not something “out there.” It’s not a big accomplishment or a certain job. It’s exactly what you’re doing. Blessings to you.

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  10. Thank you.

    Of late I’m observing also that the “arena” may just be the beach; it doesn’t have to be a place of fighting. Although I haven’t sorted how yet, I’m working on allowing the internal fight to be just part of the beach experience. I mean, surely battling sunburn and salt can be enough for a day?

    It often helps to reorient the metaphor to what feels like an internally comfortable space, with the same materials.

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    • I love this, J. Yes to the beach and the sand, sweat, and waves.

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  11. Thank you.

    Maybe too, sometimes the “arena” can just be a beach: sand, sweat, ocean waves, the fight of a sunburn or heatstroke. A day at the beach can be just as fraught without being a quantifiable fight.

    I find it soothing to reorient the metaphor towards a normal, comforting activity that inheritly holds risks.

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  12. It feels surreal – like an oasis in this world of fear and hatred – that you and Brene Brown come to us, show us what warriors in the arena do, and invite us to step in. The strength you’ve given me to be me and confront my fear and BE VULNERABLE deepens my belief in me and the relationships with those I love. We are a growing army of aware, open and accessible combatants, and we need to bring others into the arena with us. I cannot begin to thank you for all you have done, so I’m committed to pay it forward to those I love and those who I will love when they are ready. It feels surreal…and thankfully it is not – IT IS REAL!

    Reply
    • Real, indeed: the commitment to face our fears and join hands as we do so. Together we are forging a more conscious and loving world.

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  13. This may be an elementary question but how do I know if it’s anxiety or I really don’t want/like the person I’m with. I stay because I have very strong beliefs around keeping promises but I don’t feel the “he’s everything I’ve ever wanted” and I know that the programs that embedded for me as a child were “marriage is worse than death” and “marriage is a horrible burden.” I’ve worked through those programs in therapy. Those programs caused me to pick the person I did. The scenario fit those programs and the frustrated trapped feelings were oh so familiar even though I hated them. I felt like a moth to the flame. So now what? I don’t feel anxious as much as disappointed and heartbroken.

    Reply
    • Yet you still believe that your partner should be “everything you’ve ever wanted.” This is the place to continue working. And then turn it around: Are you everything you want to be? Are you accepting yourself as you are?

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      • I read people say that on this site quite often. “He was everything I wanted, so why am I anxious?” That wasn’t my experience. That’s what I mean. I realize neither one of us is perfect but I don’t think that would matter very much if it were a suitable match.

        Reply
        • Some people say that but certainly not everyone. I hear that your anxiety hangs its hat on that line. What would it be like to accept that neither of you are perfect and work with your anxiety as it presents inside of you – separate from him? As long as you’re committed to believing this thought, you’re going to remain stuck.

          Reply
  14. Sheryl,
    I feel still very bad and anxious and can’t concentrate at work right now. I just want to escape and go home and cry. Everyone (my coworkers, etc.) is irritating me and I just want to be left alone.
    I feel so devastated. Right now I am afraid that our relationship is just really not right but toxic/unhealthy.
    Nothing special occurred currently, but… As I have posted before, on your blog post about „relationship anxiety and red flags“, there is this thing/issue with vacation/work/his self-employment. Since yesterday my anxiety has strongly latched back on to that and makes me feel like I just have to leave immediately – but I don’t want to leave! Even thinking about it makes me feel horrible! This thoughts make me very sad, despaired and distressed because I just don’t know what to do. I just want to cry. Why can’t my partner be just like me (working a normal Job as employee with regular work schedule) or just don’t own this stupid company. Right know I hold this whole thing responsible for my anxiety!

    Sheryl you mentioned that it is not about the vacation etc. but that the deeper issue is about his attachment to his family of origin (since they all work at their company together etc.). My therapist said something like that too. I am so afraid that our relationship is doomed. But I don’t know why this is a red flag? In your red flag list something like that is not set out, is it?

    I have still not talked to my partner about it yet. I am to afraid to ask him and I don’t know how to ask the question if he is willing to work on it! I think he might not even get the issue/problem? I don’t even know for sure what the explicit problem is for me! So what shall I bring up explicitly?
    How can I clarify (to him) what IS the Problem at all?
    I feel like this question („are you willing to work on this“) will be the all-dominant one.
    And if his answer is „no“ or „I don’t even know where the problem is“ our relationship is doomed anyway and I will have to leave. This is why I don’t even ask. I just ruminate all the time and already have a headache and feel just tired and terrible in general.

    I am also afraid that he is not willing to grow in general since you have mentioned in blog posts that it matters foremost to be with a partner who is willing to grow. How can I determine/detect if someone is willing to grow? (This is really important for me to know)
    You said growth doesn’t necessarily mean going to therapy, and my boyfriend never did go to therapy or did work like I do here (I guess he never had a reason to do so because he seems to be confident and content with his life in general and is far from struggling with life like I do). I am super afraid that he isn’t „willing to grow“ at all but I don’t know how to find this out.

    Sheryl could you please give me an advice. I’m sorry for posting again, but I am so despaired right now. I just need help. I slowly continue with the ecourse but I get stuck all the time and right know I feel an strong urge to figure this (above) out at first!

    Reply
    • AprilLove: I’m so sorry but, as I’ve mentioned before and at the bottom of each blog post, I can’t read and respond to comments of this length asking for advice. I know how scary it can be to be in the trenches of relationship anxiety, and I hope you’ve been able to find support on the forum and/or with a local therapist who understands anxiety.

      Reply
  15. Every post you write and i read bring so much joy, light and happiness to my heart. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  16. Dear Sheryl,
    This is the converging of the rEVOLVEolution as I read your words quoting Brené. Brené’s work has provided the framework and research for being in vulnerability & courage; your work has been the blueprint for me to understand what it means to be in sustained “discomfort” (aka: anxiety) as I choose courage over comfort each day. You bring the well of self rituals of compassion, self-love, and intimacy with ourselves that is needed as we embrace vulnerability in our relationships personal and professional. Knowing that “discomfort” will being intrusive thoughts and we have the tools to be curious about that which our anxiety in that moment is asking us to feel… knowing that discomfort doesn’t mean “don’t do it, or don’t love deeper” … it’s knowing that in the discomfort of choosing courage we don’t have to be ice and break… we can be water and flow with the wisdom of our anxiety! Thank you deeply … in gratitude for you and this merging of Brené and Sheryl. Love and light to your unfolding. Ps: cannot wait for “Wisdom of Anxiety.”

    Reply
    • Thank you for this beautiful and rich reflection, dear Patricia!

      Reply
  17. Not sure if you’ll see this, since it’s Thursday, but I have a question. Is it fairly typical for highly sensitives to take awhile to forgive their partner for hurting them (not in the sense of physical/emotional abuse), which happens once in awhile in long-term relationships? I find it really hard to accept something he did that hurt me, and end up becoming more critical of him instead of coming to terms with his humanness. What seem to be small slights to non-HSPs are nearly catastrophic for HSPs, it seems…

    Reply
    • Yes, it’s common, and also likely an indicator of the degree to which you have difficulty forgiving yourself.

      Reply
      • Yes, probably – a reflection of my own critical inner chatter. Growing up his mom always had unrealistic expectations for him, which caused a lot of pain. Nothing he did was good enough for his father, who constantly rejected him. So my relationship anxiety, which often magnifies faults and obsesses about what’s missing or what could be better, is reminiscent of his childhood. Now he needs someone to love him for who he is, faults and all.

        Reply
  18. Thank you, Sheryl, as always for this beautiful wisdom. My question is- how do you forgive yourself if you lost the person you love because of your relationship anxiety? I lost my partner of 8 years for, probably, more than one reason- but, above all- I think it was due, mostly, to my relationship anxiety. Now, I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I was; what a beautiful partner I had; how I didn’t do the work. What do you do when you failed to overcome your relationship anxiety?

    Reply
  19. Thank you so much, Sheryl! I hadn’t seen this article before. My wise therapist had mentioned something similar…that the well-intentioned neurotic makes the break up their “fault” as a (unfortunately ineffective) way to try to get some sense of control over the heartache/situation. I’m very thoughtful about this.
    Do you think your course “How to Heal from a Breakup” would be appropriate/helpful in a serious heartbreak situation?

    Reply

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