I got rear-ended this week (fortunately all the damage was to the car and not to the people). The driver was uninsured, the car they hit has been in our family for barely three months. To say that this is a pain in the rear is an enourmous understatement. And I noticed that my self-talk after the accident included thoughts like this: “Maybe I should have just stayed home, because then none of this would have happened.” and “It’s so unfair that they chose to drive without insurance–I was following the rules!”
What I really meant by that was, “Maybe if I lived in total cloistered isolation, I’d be safe from the random accidents and bad stuff that can happen out there in the world, because playing by the rules doesn’t seem to keep me safe.” I hear variations of this from my clients on a regular basis. I hear this theme about the past: “If I hadn’t taken a chance on that relationship, I wouldn’t be hurt right now.” or “If I hadn’t tried for that job, I never would have had to deal with this difficult boss.” I hear the same thing about the future: “I don’t know if I should reach out to that person/apply to that college/take charge of my health because I’m not sure that it will work out.”
The difficult reality that I have to confront for myself, and that I often invite clients to confront with me, is that we don’t get any guarantees. Each of us is going to face challenges and experience loss–even if we “play by the rules” or “do everything right. There is a lot of pain out there, and it doesn’t appear to follow any rules of “fair” or “right.” And there is not much that we can do to control when or how we experience life’s “random bad stuff” whether it’s a car accident, a tornado, or a heartbreak.
For most of us, this is a hard reality to accept. The idea that we can’t fully protect ourselves from bad stuff is frustrating, and sometimes frightening. It’s no surprise that our frustration and fear result in self-talk that encourages us to “play it safe,” “hide out,” or “avoid risks.” This is the kind of self-talk that prevents us from taking risks in relationships, pursuing jobs that are fulfilling, and following our dreams. It is the kind of self-talk that limits us in the name of trying to protect us. And for many of us, this fear-based self-talk is pretty persuasive. After all, it offers the promise of avoiding pain by avoiding risk. Especially if you have recently experienced a loss (or a rear-ending!).
But the idea that we can protect ourselves by simply not taking risks is false. When we avoid risk in order to try to “stay safe,” we are creating small, un-fulfilling lives for ourselves. We’re letting our potential go untapped. We’re missing chances for rewarding relationships. The reality of this false safety is isolation–which is truly harmful.
So today, I want to recognize each of you who had the courage to get up this morning, leave the house, connect genuinely with another person, learn something new, apply for a job, plan a trip–to live life. Everyday living takes continuous choices, which require continuous courage. And after a setback or a loss, the choice to engage in the activities of everyday living requires a higher level of courage.
If you’re struggling with this courage, there is all kinds of great support out there. Call a psychologist, talk to a friend, connect with an online support group. You’re not alone in your fear, and there is room to grow and change.
This morning, I got in the car and drove again. What brave everyday living activity have you done recently? Please share so that we can cheer you on!