One of my favorite quotes about courage is Aristotle’s: “Courage is the first of the human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”
Nothing tests your capacity for courage more than when it’s the only option you have. Well sure, you can crawl into a fetal position and wish your challenges away, but if you have a modicum of fight left in you, eventually, after a good, ugly cry, you muster up the courage to act and face your challenges head-on. This becomes easier when you’ve faced challenges in the past, but less so when you haven’t, or when you’re dealt a serious blow that leaves you fearful such as a loved one passing away suddenly, a diagnosis of terminal illness, being fired from your job, or your significant other leaving you, to name a few.
Nobody makes it through life unscathed (and none of us make it out alive). Oftentimes, it comes down to your attitude or perspective, and if you’re anything like me, after you scramble to make sense of your challenges (why did this happen? What did I do to make this happen?), at some point, you recognize that it’s unproductive to constantly look backward (analysis paralysis). It’s much more productive to learn to cope by working through the challenges, lean on loved ones for support and encouragement, and take necessary steps to quell the fear and anxiety of doomsday scenarios playing in your head. In the end, everything works itself out and I’m sure most, if not all of you, can think of situations where this rings true.
This post focuses on the psychology of courage – dealing with challenges and stressors you face by virtue of being a functioning member of the human race (and yes, the previous link takes you to a handbook…you’re welcome!). Philosophers have focused on physical courage and moral courage, where the former highlights being courageous in the face of physical/bodily harm, and the latter focuses on doing the right thing even if it means going against popular views and risk being ostracized. While there isn’t an all-encompassing, agreed-upon definition of psychological courage (this article identifies at least 29), fear is an inherent component, regardless of the type of courage.
In the Ten Rules for Being Human, courage is one of the lessons of Rule #8 (What You Make of Your Life is Up to You). Put simply, courage means to be brave enough to go after what you want; to take the initial steps toward a goal; stand up for the underdog, and/or voice an unpopular opinion. Courage doesn’t mean that you’re not fearful, it’s about taking action despite your fears. Courage is also context-specific, that is, you might display courage by standing up for the so-called underdog, defending him/her, but have difficulty standing up to your parents because you’re afraid to hurt them or fear being cut off financially.
The level of courage you display is also based on socialization and life experiences. If you’re raised in a home where your role models didn’t stand up for what they believed in for fear of being shunned, upsetting someone, or losing something meaningful, chances are you internalized this approach and might not want to rock the boat. On the flip side, you could take after your grandmother Gertrude, and despite having not-so-brave role models in your home, be quite courageous and not give a shit whom you piss off, or about the consequences of your courageous action(s).
Additionally, whether you experienced your initial disappointments in the home, and HOW your parents helped you cope with challenges, will greatly influence how you handle setbacks. If your parents never said “NO!” and let you do whatever you want, or tried to shield you from challenges, then the world will seem unfair and cruel. You won’t be equipped to handle what life throws at you, most likely lacking the courage to stand up for yourself or take productive action to resolve your issues. (This article does a good job of summarizing some of what exists in the child psychology and parenting literature.)
The degree of courage you display can also be informed by your lived experience. If your life resembles the Game of Thrones series, unlike the bravery (or stupidity) of its characters, you might become fearful of trying new things, accept the blows you’re dealt, and carve out a safe space. If your life is all roses and rainbow-farting unicorns, you might be more confident and courageous, and open to new adventures and risk-taking. For most of us, our lives fall somewhere in between these extremes; made up of successes and challenges. And despite your experiences, your attitude or perspective will determine how well you cope.
Some people view challenges as opportunities, while others are plagued by fear when things don’t work out, paralyzed by the stress of the unknown. I ride this courageous-badass-woe-is-me rollercoaster often. But challenging experiences are meant to teach you lessons and help you become more courageous and convicted to work through your problems and cultivate greater resilience (yeah, I know, it’s a lot easier said than done).
I understand that life isn’t fair and some of you have had to deal with way more challenges than others. But comparisons and navel-gazing about the unfairness of life will hinder your ability to work through your challenges, and turn you into a bitter, self-pitying individual (and we don’t want that, do we?!?!).
Before walking you through some of the strategies I use to help me summon the courage and keep my fears at bay, I recommend that you review my posts on gratitude, forgiveness, self-awareness, humility, faith, and/or surrender. The aforementioned posts include personal experiences and strategies to cultivate these specific virtues. This post draws from these to help you cultivate the courage to move forward despite your fears, and work through your challenges like the badass that you are.
Understand Your Worldview
Everyone has a worldview, a perspective that helps you make sense of the world. It can be informed by many factors such as a belief in a higher being (God, the Universe), why events take place (there’s a reason for everything or it’s all random), locus of control (internal vs. external, free will vs. determinism), capacity for risk-taking and uncertainty, life experiences, cultural/ethnic background, education, your sense of self (confidence, worthiness), and the influence of others, to name a few.
My point is that before you’re able to deal with challenges and therefore display courage, you have to understand your worldview…why you think the way you do, the root of your fears, and how to change negative thought patterns into more productive ones. This might entail therapy or diving into self-help books, but whatever you choose, it’s important to put in the work to peel back the layers of subconscious conditioning that have resulted in your worldview, especially if it’s negative. Check out my post on self-awareness for specific strategies.
Is Your Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
In understanding your worldview, it’s also important to assess whether you’re a pessimist or optimist. Are you more optimistic when it comes to encouraging others and less so when it comes to dealing with your own challenges? Are you a risk-taker that thrives when challenged? Or are you risk-averse and constantly strive for equilibrium? In examining your perspective, do you find that you engage in positive or negative self-talk?
This often happens without our awareness and is the result of conditioning based on what we’re told by others (parents, educators, peers) and our life experiences. At some point, we internalize these messages and regardless of what we consciously tell ourselves (you’re great! You can do anything!), the subconscious messages are much more powerful. Reprogramming our subconscious to replace negative thoughts with positive ones takes work and can be achieved via techniques such as those identified by Dr. Bruce Lipton, a leading biologist who focuses on “bridging science and spirit.”
Acknowledge Your Fears
Once you start to understand what makes you tick and how you view the world and your place in it, you can delve deeper to examine the root of your fears. Let me just point out here that being courageous is not about eliminating fear altogether. As I mentioned earlier, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s taking action to solve problems despite your fears. The fear-or-flight instinct is a biological response that has helped humans survive, so please don’t think that fear is a negative response that you need to eliminate from your life. On the contrary, the fear response can save your life (like when you come across a bear in the woods; when someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting at you; when you’re crossing the street and a car comes barreling towards you at 50 mph with no intention of stopping…in all these instances, RUN!!!).
Here are some practical steps to help you get a grip:
(1) Identify the challenge you’re facing (loss of a job, break-up, death of a loved one).
(2) What is/are your fears (financial insecurity, being alone for the rest of your life)?
(3) What can you do to eliminate your fear(s) (job hunt, join a dating site, seek therapy)?
(4) What can’t you control (change your significant other’s mind, bring back your loved one)?
(5) Have you experienced a similar challenge, and if so, how did you handle it?
(6) What is the worst thing that can happen? Will this matter in 5 years? 10 years?
(7) What lesson(s) can you learn from your challenge(s)?
The idea is to deconstruct your thoughts and feelings about the challenge(s) you’re facing, acknowledge your fear(s), understand that you’re not helpless, that there are lessons to be learned, and that you DO in fact possess the courage to work through your issues. It’s important to break things down into digestible parts, take action, and recognize that working through your challenges is a process (it’s a marathon, not a sprint!). You might have to work through the practical steps (mentioned above) a number of times before you’re able to see progress.
We’re not automatons and don’t have switches to turn on and off when things get hairy. Denial will not get you very far, but working through your challenges will help you build confidence, cultivate resilience, and recognize that you’re stronger and much more equipped to handle similar challenges in the future.
When you’re faced with challenges and fear the worst, part of cultivating the courage to deal with your problems entails managing your stress. As much as you tell yourself that everything will be fine and that you have nothing to worry about, your subconscious conditioning creeps in with not-so-positive messages of doom and gloom. This constant mental ping-pong can be exhausting and wear you down emotionally and physically. So you have to look for ways to destress in order to deal with your challenges.
Meditation is one way to manage your stress. Quieting your mind to gain access to your inner wisdom can be a challenging, but worthwhile pursuit. Meditation practices can help you improve “sustained attention” while mindfulness can help anchor you to the present and become more aware of your choices.
Another way to deal with the challenges you face and build your courage is exercise. It’s not only physically and mentally rewarding, but also reduces stress and anxiety (that can lead to cognitive impairment if left unchecked). I started working out regularly (3-4 times a week) a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an integral part of my life. I’m not preparing to run a marathon nor aspire to enter bodybuilding competitions; I do it because at the end of a workout, I feel awesome and I’m so exhausted that stressing out isn’t an option.
When I’m not in the mood to workout, I push myself harder to do so because afterward, I feel great…like I accomplished something. This, in turn, gives me the courage to take action in other areas of my life. You don’t have to get a personal trainer and spend a lot of money (unless you want to). There are a lot of workout videos on YouTube and classes offered at your local gym; you just have to take the initial steps. Trust me, if I can stick to a program, you can too, and at some point, it’ll become so much a part of your life that NOT working out is no longer an option.
Be Grateful, Even When Things Look Bleak
No matter what challenges you face, there are ALWAYS reasons to be grateful. Practicing gratitude has mental and physical health benefits (see my post on gratitude for details). It also puts things in perspective and enables you to see that maybe…just maybe your challenges aren’t as horrific as you imagine. When I catch myself thinking about the “what-ifs” and all that can go wrong in life, I bring myself back to reality and think about what I’m grateful for. I list about 4-5 things, and just like that, my mood turns positive. Try it! It really works but you have to keep at it until it becomes an automatic response (like breathing).
I understand that experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing. Practicing gratitude can become an integral part of the healing process, and there are many exercises that can help you to give thanks and build your courage.
It takes courage to push yourself out of your comfort zone and commit to taking action after you’ve been knocked down. Often, the enormity of your courage becomes apparent in retrospect (it does for me). Every step you take to solve your problems illustrates trust in your abilities and boosts your confidence to stay the course. Sure, the moment you experience a setback you might doubt whether you can keep going, but you CAN and MUST keep moving forward.
You can exist and let life happen to you, or LIVE by recognizing that you’re an active participant in shaping your life. The choice is yours…so make it a good one. Lastly, take Seneca the Roman philosopher’s words to heart: “There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Indeed!
Love, peace, and blessings,