By Dan Mahle
I always wanted to belong; to feel connected, feel loved, feel alive. I wanted people to like me, to respect me, to recognize my contribution in the world. I wanted to do something worth remembering, to create something beautiful, to help heal the suffering. I wanted my life to matter. But I was afraid.
I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t feel my power. I didn’t trust my heart. I was anxious – afraid of failure, rejection, and isolation. And I felt stuck playing a small game in a big world that I knew needed my gifts, my skills, and my heart, now more than ever.
It wasn’t long ago that I discovered a lesson that is changing my life forever: When I believe that I am powerful, connected, and capable of love – beyond my wildest imagination – I am.
My fears are all illusions; ancient stories that my younger self created to ‘protect’ me from harm. The only way to release them is to honor them; to tell that younger place within me that I am safe now and I no longer need them to protect me.
When I deny or fight my fear, it strengthens its choke-hold. When I embrace it and give it space to breathe, it loses its power over me.
Fear is rooted in shame. Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is fueled by silence and the illusion of our fundamental separateness.
I find myself sitting in shame when my words & actions are not aligned with my deeply-held values. I am afraid of my own hypocrisy. I am afraid because I know that I’m better than that. I am afraid because I love, because I care, and because I know I’m not in control.
Love and fear are not opposites. They are intricately interwoven into the fabric of life. My fear is simply a reminder of how much I care. Embracing fear means stepping into vulnerability. Every expression of conscious vulnerability is an indication of my courage, a torch that lights my path of self-discovery and illuminates my heart’s deep purpose.
But none of this is really about me. I know that we are all powerful, connected, and capable of loving – beyond our wildest imagination. Now it’s time we start acting like it.
Here are 5 examples of how I’ve leaned into vulnerability, embraced my fear, and re-awakened into a life of purpose, connection, and contribution:
1. Find Self-Compassion through Gratitude
When I’m afraid of not having the love and belonging that I long for, it’s often because I’m playing out old stories in my head. These voices tell me “you’re not ready” “you’re not good enough” and “you don’t deserve it” – they are the voices of fear that used to protect me. But now they deflate me by keeping me feeling small and alone.
The best way that I’ve found to counteract this self-fulfilling prophecy of isolation is to drop into my heart and express gratitude for the people in my life. I can only love others – and receive their love – to the extent that I am willing to love myself. Expressing gratitude for the people in my life, in turn, connects me to the compassion and gratitude that I feel for myself.
2. Be Worthy of Your Own Love
Nobody else can give me the gift of worthiness. I must declare myself worthy. It is 100% up to me to recognize the sacredness of who I am; to see that I am inherently worthy of love and belonging, with all of my imperfections. I choose to love myself audaciously. It is a love that faces many setbacks and challenges, but one that is worthy of my faithful and wholehearted dedication.
Shame always lingers, just around the corner. But I picked up a new motto at a men’s training about a year ago that stuck with me. It goes like this: “Fuck shame!” “It’s not my fault” “I am somebody!” “I’m a beautiful man.” “Fuck shame!” – now imagine screaming this at the top of your lungs in the middle of the woods with a group of 75 other men. It was powerful. And I’ll never forget the shift I felt in my body that day.
3. Abandon Superficiality and Risk Everything
Connecting deeply with another person is an incredibly vulnerable act. When I allow myself to be present – to see and be seen in full authenticity – I willfully subvert my ‘protective’ defenses and leave my heart vulnerable to the possibility of pain. That’s a hell of a risk! But the question I keep asking myself is this: What matters to me so much that it is worth risking everything?
For me the answer is twofold: My love and my deep purpose. I would rather risk everything and fail miserably in loving service to my deep purpose, than remain numb, ‘safe,’ and comfortable. I would rather die for a cause that I know in my heart is right, than live a long life void of passion and purpose. I would rather tell you the scary truth about what I am feeling, instead of comforting you with reassuring half-truths. This is what love looks like.
4. Connect to Your Deep Purpose
As Dr. Cornell West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” With the incredible intensity of distractions all around us, it can be hard to remember the truth of who we are and what we’re here on Earth to do. It’s easy to get swept up into the rat race of consumption, status and image. But these pursuits will never quench the longing in our hearts.
I know that I am here for a reason. Each of us is. We have gifts to offer that cannot be replaced: gifts of healing, creativity, and curiosity that collectively compose the blueprint for what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible.”
While the challenges we face can feel overwhelming, I remind myself that hope is not an idealistic fantasy, but rather a practical strategy for resilience in the face of great odds.
As the former Czech playwright and President, Vaclav Havel, notes: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
5. Love through the Fear
When I feel afraid and alone, I contract. I pull back from self-love and I step away from my deep purpose. I try desperately to fill the void with food, the internet, and other distractions. I distort my sense of integrity and diminish my capacity to show up with and for the people I care about. When I feel afraid – but stay connected to myself and others through the fear – then I can honor and expand the fear…and ultimately step through and release it.
I have started to learn how to love through my fear. And it started when I really began to take seriously the 4 practices, listed above. Life offers no guarantees, no assurances that our love will be reciprocated, and no control over the outcome of our efforts. Living a big life, full of purpose, connection, and contribution, requires an unprecedented act of trust and vulnerability.
It invites us to love ourselves and others so intently – through all of the ups and downs – that our hearts are broken wide open, vulnerable and strong. That our conviction in doing what is just and what is right starts to outweigh our fear of failure. That our very presence is an embodiment of the more beautiful world that our hearts tell us is possible. That we believe without a doubt that we are powerful, connected, and capable of love – beyond our wildest imagination.
Never forget: “Fuck shame!” “I am somebody!” “I’m a beautiful man!”
With fierce loving compassion,