How Do I Find The Courage To Be My Own Guide?

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars tackle a tough question: How do I learn to trust myself again and rekindle that childlike fearlessness to find the courage to pursue my dreams without letting the opinions of others daunt my efforts? To answer this question, the Sugars are joined by Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter India Arie. India Arie has sold more than three million records and is also credited as a musician, actress and record producer. Her most recent, song "Worthy," released in June is an affirmation message reminding everyone, "You are worthy."

Dear Sugars,

I'm a 34-year-old woman, and I'm recently coming to terms with the fact that I've spent my life being too afraid to do what I want to do. Time after time, I've let social norms guide me or I've looked to others for their opinions about my "next step," my "purpose." While I've learned a lot from many teachers, writers, philosophers and therapists, it seems crucial at this point that I learn how to listen to my own heart and be brave enough to follow it. I want to be my own guide.

It may seem ironic, then, for me to be asking for your advice. But I'm not asking you to tell me what I should be doing — it's how. How do I learn to trust myself the way I did when I was a kid, before I decided that other people knew better than me and gave them all the power? How do I learn to recognize my heart's voice and stand up for what it wants? How do I avoid falling back into that safe prison of doing what someone else thinks I should, but not what I truly want to do.

Emily Dickinson wrote, "The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care." I know this to be true, and I don't want to find myself back in a job or a relationship or a pursuit my heart doesn't care about. How do I tend to my heart and keep at bay the people, the thoughts, the fears that threaten this fledgling relationship between my heart and me?


Heartward Bound

Steve Almond: Heartward Bound, you ask these big, abstract questions: "How do I learn to trust myself the way I did when I was a kid before I decided that other people knew better than me and gave them all the power?" So my question to you is, what other people? And how are you giving them power? You write, "How do I avoid falling back into that safe prison of doing what someone else thinks I should?" Who are these someone else's? You have to be specific about who they are and how to counteract them, actively and specifically.

Cheryl Strayed: And there's only one way to genuinely counteract them, and that is to decide that they are not the voices that will determine what you do with your life. You ask, "How do you learn how to trust yourself?" This is not something you learn one time or do one time. It's something you do every day, over and over again, for years and years and years. You say, "I need to learn how to listen to my heart and be brave enough to follow it," and the way you do that is to get brave enough to take one step in the direction that you want to go. For you, Heartward Bound, I actually think it's you writing us this letter. You've popped your head above that surface enough to say, "I'm not going to listen to all of these people anymore. I need to trust myself." That's the first step.

Steve: Within this letter is this idea of getting back to a child-like state, an instinctual state. What I say often times to my writing students is: consciousness is by nature obsessive. Children come into the world obsessed — they care about things too much, and that obsession gets socialized out of us. We beat down the voices that care about things too much and that feel too much, and part of the artist's journey is to say "Screw that. I do care about it too much. I am too invested in it. I'm obsessed with it, and I'm going to be honest about that obsession rather than try to lead a safer, more conventional, 'approved' life." But it's an emotionally and psychologically inconvenient arrangement.

Cheryl: You know how kids will sometimes be at play, and they will say these absurd things and create these sort of outlandish scenarios or worlds? And those worlds don't make sense to the people around the child, but they absolutely make sense to the child. It doesn't matter if what you're doing seems crazy to other people. If it feels right to you, it's right. I agree that that can be a very hard life when you first step off the path, but I think the harder life is never stepping off the path while always aching to do so.

India Arie, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter: Everyone has a leap that they end up taking in life. If you can talk to people about the leap they've taken, you'll see that there is one there for you. You recognize the voice of your heart by going inside yourself. You, Cheryl, hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I feel like people who are thoughtful — like Heartward Bound — will find the impetus to take the leap, because you realize that there's a truth there that you want to honor more than you want to honor not making other people in your life mad. Heartward Bound knows what she doesn't want, but she's not exactly sure what she does want. When you take the time to get clear about what you want, the thing you want pulls you forward.

Steve: The word "courage" gets thrown around in our culture, and the problem is that we're defining courage the wrong way. Heartward Bound may be thinking of courage as the absence of fear, and that's just all wrong. Courage is action in the face of fear.

India: We hear about the phoenix rising from its ashes. In the mythology, the phoenix actually sets fire to its own nest. The thing that makes empowerment a journey is because no one can give it to you. You give it to yourself. You set fire to your own nest. You give birth to a new you.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to also hear from one woman plagued with guilt for missing the death of her mother.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email and it may be answered on a future episode.

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