Reject fear, choose love. This is a popular refrain and wonderful advice. Many believe that there are only two primal emotions in the human being, love and fear, and that we cannot feel both at once. And, that in the same way that light removes darkness, love can remove fear.
But in truth, the opportunity to choose love and reject fear presents itself in the smallest moments of life, and specifically, in relationships with those closest to us.
We hurt each other in intimate relationships—intentionally and unintentionally—that’s a fact.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we discover that we have hurt the other person when they come to us and share their pain, express their experience, and verbalize what we said or did that upset them.
But often, we discover that we have hurt the person through a different avenue, that is, when they criticize us or tell us what they think is wrong with us.
In these cases, we generally feel blamed or attacked, and as a result, it can be more challenging to listen or imagine the situation through their eyes. Often, it is impossible to empathize with their pain.
We have a tendency in these situations to strike back and point the finger at them, or alternatively, defend ourselves and prove the other person wrong. It’s a survival instinct and indeed, it can feel as if our very survival is at stake.
What’s at stake is not our physical survival, but the survival of our version of ourselves. The person we are being characterized or experienced as by the other person is not the person we think or believe ourselves to be. And so, we try to protect the identity of the good self, the self who is innocent, and not to blame for what is they are being accused of.
It’s a healthy instinct to question accusations that feel unfair or unwarranted.
It’s also important to be able to set boundaries that prevent others’ projections and deflections from landing on us.
If you are being assigned intentions that don’t belong to you, it’s important to be clear about your truth. It’s also healthy and necessary to protect yourself from pain that takes the form of emotional attack. Emotional attacks and insults that are meant to harm are not okay, and need to be stopped. This is not an article about learning to be a doormat in service of some false spiritual goal.
And yet, there is an enormous opportunity in these relational moments, when someone we care about is hurt, and when—whether we understand it or not—we seem to be a part of their pain. There is an opportunity in these situations to choose to respond from love rather than react from fear.
When we feel emotionally attacked, blamed, or criticized in some way, we experience fear, even if we are not consciously aware of it. Our ego is threatened. Our identity is threatened. Our narrative on our self is threatened.
Conflict feels dangerous to the survival of the ego organism.
As a result, we react from the place of fear, which means defending our ego or attacking back, attempting to disable the threat. Fear, as a primal emotion, can sweep over us like a tsunami and cause us to react without thinking or consulting our more rational and loving self. Our reaction is often out of alignment with how we feel, in our heart, about this other person.
If we want to choose love over fear as a life practice, we don’t have to wait for a crisis to happen. We can simply use the opportunities presented in those moments that happen every day when the person we imagine ourselves to be doesn’t align with how we are being seen in that moment.
To choose love in these situations is to first pause and take a full breath before doing anything. It is to stop and get quiet, to do our best to actually hear what the other person is saying without defending our version of who we are or what we think happened.
It also means refraining from attacking back with a criticism of the other, or with something that they did or said (related or unrelated) that hurt us equally. It is to just listen—without conditions.
Operating from love is to set our own ego aside long enough to listen to the experience of the other. It is to be courageous enough to try and understand what the other person is experiencing, no matter how radically different it is from what we intended to happen, think happened, or believe was the cause of what happened.
Operating from love means having the strength of heart to understand and open our heart to what the pain is that the other is trying to express. A response—not a reaction—that comes from love is listening to the other’s pain as if we were just ears hearing, ears alone, not ears attached to a head, attached to an ego, attached to an identity, attached to a person intent on remaining intact and unchanged.
To live from love not fear, on a practical level, is to shift from a goal of protecting our ego and winning the argument and move into actually being kind and loving in our actions.
It is to be willing to stop proving that we’re a good person and actually be that good person.
And amazingly, in the moments when we have the strength to choose love over fear, we are rewarded with the gift of experiencing ourselves as love, and something infinitely more than just the small, fragile ego we thought we were and so desperately needed to protect.
We gain the dignity of knowing that we have done something incredibly challenging and beautiful.
We are rewarded with a freedom that surpasses all other freedoms.
Ultimately, it is in our willingness to stop defending our idea of ourselves that we discover our true and indestructible self.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of several books on mindfulness and personal growth. She is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com