02/13/2015 04:26 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2015

Face Your Fears (and Valentine's Day)

I've lived most of my life like a bird in a cage with the door wide open. At any time, I could have hopped over to the opening, soared to new heights, and explored new horizons. All along, I've had the ability to fly, but my own fear and self-imposed limitations kept me there. I was my own prison guard.

Sure, I got insanely tired of living a numb existence in my box day after day, but at least I always had food, water, and shelter, and knew the routine. The cage was my comfort zone - even if it was uncomfortable as hell - and was preferable to me than the big, scary unknown.

At the end of my 18-year marriage, I lived in an elegant home complete with a laundry chute (I never used it. But my sons found that it made an awesome slide for Pokemon.), a swimming pool, marble counter tops, and a Porsche in the three car garage. Despite this to-die-for lifestyle, I was miserable. It was a fashionable cage, but still a cage.

Even with my plush surroundings, I didn't feel joyful or grateful and knew that something was definitely wrong. "There has got to be more than this," I told myself. Just below the surface, I was always boiling, ready to explode because I wasn't living authentically or meeting my own needs. I desperately wanted out of my cage, but was terrified of taking the big leap and stretching my wings. Every time I even thought about it, my heart pounded in my throat, and I got that panicky, bug-eyed feeling.

Finally, I mustered the courage to step through the door of the cage. While there have been legendary crashes at high speeds and many out-of-control tail spins since then, I've also learned to gracefully glide and even soar at times. Out of my cage, life isn't near as cushy, but I feel so much more alive and like I'm living a life that's true for me.

Fear is a prison. It's a box in which we keep ourselves to avoid failing, to avoid being laughed at or judged, to avoid feeling disappointment or hurt, to avoid all kinds of experiences that make us feel uncomfortable. However, if we shield ourselves from these things, we're also shutting ourselves off from the many possibilities and joys of living life to the fullest.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times writes:

We regard discomfort in any form as bad news. ....feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we're holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we'd rather collapse and back away. They're like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's wherever we are.

What scares us and what we try to dodge often turns out to be the most beneficial bringing growth, wisdom, and happiness - along with pain and anxiety. If we can allow ourselves to move through the dreaded experience feeling all the emotions, letting things unfold, and not tensing up and resisting, we can eventually find ourselves in a better place.

While I still feel the fear more often than I'd like to admit, I forge ahead anyway because I've learned that happiness and freedom are on the other side and that fear is part of the texture of a rich life. Learning to face my fears has allowed me to see the humor and wisdom in, and even have gratitude for my previous circumstances.

I'll face Valentine's Day like I approach my life these days: alone, thankful, and happy. Some lessons I've learned along the way are:

  1. I've learned that getting a coffee maker on Valentine's Day is better than getting nothing from anyone.
  2. I've learned that certain electric appliances given as wedding presents may be embarrassingly stained and crusted, but will still work long after the marriage doesn't.
  3. I've learned that the local book store/coffee shop is a great place to pick up three books that you didn't know you needed and a colossal piece of carrot cake that you definitely didn't need.
  4. I've learned that practicing the advice in the books can help you heal and get stronger, even if you don't really believe it all at first.
  5. I've learned that the hair on your legs will eventually stop growing.
  6. I've learned that you can survive on nutrition drinks and coffee for weeks.
  7. I've learned that you can't survive without your sense of humor and that it's possible to laugh with tears rolling down your cheeks and snot pouring out of your nose.
  8. I've learned that certain males will be impressed by the fact that you can still do a split at your age, but it doesn't really come in handy, except in yoga class.
  9. I've learned that every man over 40 years old is going to snore at some point during the night.
  10. I've learned that goodbyes are just as much a part of life as hellos and that you better get used to both of them.
  11. I've learned that what you think about the person staring back at you in the mirror matters a heck of a lot more than what others think about them.
  12. I've learned that it can take a few years, lawyers, therapists, and antidepressants, but there's life, love, and joy after divorce.