How to Live Courageously
By Peter James Field
This article was kindly authorized to be uploaded to my blog by Peter Field, Fellow of the Royal Society of Health, a British psychotherapist and hypnotherapist in Birmingham and London (UK).
The first thing we need to do when it comes to living more courageously is to understand what courage is and what it is not.
There are a lot of misconceptions around the word, and many of us go through life never really understanding what it means to have courage or to be courageous.
From our earliest years we have known of people who are courageous. They might be real people we know, or simply know about, people who have won through despite the challenges or the odds. Or they might be fictional characters we've seen on television or read about in books. Usually they are people who don't seem to feel the fear that we feel. But if we reflect for a moment, we may just realize that fear itself isn't the actual problem. It just might be our relationship with fear that keeps us from being courageous.
Most of us like and admire courageous people. We want to be like them -- or at least feel like them. We want to never have to suffer fear, self-doubt, or anxiety again. The problem is that most of us will never experience this perfect 'fearless' self. That sort of courage might exist in story books and movies, but it is not real.
Psychologists now largely agree that courage is not the absence of fear; it is the determination to take action even in the presence of fear. It is pushing on, despite the fear, because you have a goal that you believe is worth the effort and discomfort. So many people feel bad about themselves for being afraid or anxious. They believe 'courageous' people simply don't experience these emotions. But they do.
The real difference is that courageous people just don't allow their feelings of fear prevent them from doing what they really want to do. Courageous people do uncomfortable, knee-shaking things all the time, and they, too, feel fear. It's just that they consider their fear and discomfort to be a necessary part of living a full life, and so they push on, in spite of it.
It is natural to feel nervous on a first date, or at a first kiss. Driving for the first time can be both intimidating and exciting. The first day at school or in a new job can be absolutely terrifying! Yet fear is part of what makes these experiences meaningful. As Mark Twain once said, 'Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -- not absence of fear'.
One of the most important things to understand about fear, is that it is never going to completely go away. It's part of every single human being's emotional vocabulary, our repertoire of feelings. Doing something new, something daring, something important, is always going to challenge you, often bringing with it those feelings we know as 'fear'.
According to Brené Brown, qualitative researcher and TEDx speaker, when we try to repress one emotion -- such as fear or shame -- we effectively numb all other emotions, even positive ones like joy, excitement, and even love.
Simply avoiding fear triggers -- snakes, job changes, public speaking, or a difficult mother-in-law, for example -- is no solution. Run, and you'll be forever running. Instead, Brown encourages people to face their feelings of vulnerability, and see them as a crucial part of being human -- courageous and daring -- even if it means opening up to judgement, hurt or disappointment.
Being daring is all about leaving your comfort zone and jumping into the arena of life. Choosing to live how you want and being yourself can be uncomfortable at times. Understanding and accepting your feelings of discomfort are the first steps to being truly courageous.
What gives a person courage can be deceptively simple at times. When you are feeling challenged in reaching a goal, realizing a dream, or making a decision (be it asking someone out on a date or climbing Mount Everest), sitting down and scribbling a list of what you need in order to move forward can be really helpful.
If you want to be a writer, and you haven't written anything since high school, then of course writing a novel is bound to feel overwhelming, even terrifying. What about joining a writer's group, or taking a single weekend workshop in writing where you'll meet others struggling with similar difficulties? The trick lies in beginning -- and then keeping on. Take things one chunk, one step at a time. Begin with those first few steps and let yourself be surprised by your own ability. If you're feeling nervous about asking someone out on a date, ask yourself what would help you feel more confident -- a new haircut, your best pair of shoes, a session at the gym? Off the top of your head, what are the two or three things that would make the biggest difference to you feeling braver?
Maybe you need more support, a new location, some more training, or just a new attitude. Perhaps it's something concrete and basic, like equipment, software, clothes, licensing, or money. What are the first things you need to prepare in order to bring just a bit more courage into your life and help you realize your dreams? Don't let this be an excuse for inaction, telling yourself you just can't do it because you don't have this or that yet. Decide what you need -- and then go for it!
Our lives can be either enhanced or restricted by the stories we tell ourselves. A single, isolated event that produced feelings of intimidation or fear can alter a person's story, casting him or her into the role of victim, a role in which they live their life believing they are small, afraid and weak. A whole sense of identity can be based on such negative experiences. But it really doesn't need to be this way. It is within our power to change our stories, and we can do this whenever we choose. Here expert hypnotherapy can help clear past programing so that you can move forward, writing your own story.
You are the author of your life. Make a decision about how you want to progress with your life: who do you want to become from now on. When things are getting tough, take another look at your situation, your script. See it from another perspective.
Remember to acknowledge your accomplishments, your talents and your gifts. Write a list of the times when you have pushed through in spite of fear or anxiety, times when you acted courageously or in a more confident manner than usual. Is there a pattern? What can you learn from these experiences that you can apply going forward?
In your present circumstance, see yourself now as a person who is doing something (or contemplating doing something) that scares not only you, but possibly other people, as well. Maybe you'll want to overcome your fear of public speaking by joining a group of like-minded people in Toastmasters International, or be really brave and challenge your fear of heights by skydiving or bungy jumping. Hypnotherapy can be really useful here, too, helping you to condition your mind to let go of past experience, face your fears, and live much more in the now. Mindfulness can help, too. How about something a little less challenging to begin with? Learning to cook or ride a unicycle? You get the idea.
No matter the roadblocks, the setbacks, or the anxiety, praise yourself. You are ahead of the rest of the crowd who are not yet willing to try. Consider the worst case scenario, the one where you crash and burn and fail in every possible way. How bad is that, really? What is the positive that might come from that experience? Going there in your mind can de-sensitize the subconscious fear response, lessening the anxiety.
This really can take the venom out of the deepest fear; it demonstrates that even if the worst came to the worst, life still goes on; we will survive. Ask yourself to think of three or four positive things that you might get from such a worse case scenario that will help you going forward. Mental rehearsal in which you succeed can be a powerful way of conditioning the mind to do just that.
Living courageously takes effort. It takes practice. But each time you do it you increase your inner steel, you win through and grow stronger. Go ahead now -- strike out! You just might surprise yourself.