This will be the last post in my blog series on The Art of Living Courageously. As we look at how to nurture courage in others and ourselves, we round up the main ideas from the class I’ve been teaching at Yale this semester.
I’m going to be taking a short break from the blog to wrap up the semester, mark papers, and have a mini-vacation. I’ll be back on May 18th.
Can courage be taught?
I’ve faced this question quite a number of times this semester, and I’ve changed my mind. At first I was a little defensive: “Well, of course it can be taught – else what am I doing here?!” But on reflection, I prefer to say that I don’t know whether courage can be taught, but I know it can be learned – because I’ve learned it, and I have no doubt that others can too.
The most important thing to know is that courage is not the absence of fear. That is fearlessness (which on occasions can look startlingly similar to stupidity). Courage is feeling the fear, and being able to do the thing anyway, because you are highly motivated to take action – and more on that later.
Even just taking a class on courage, and reading 150-200 pages a week about courage, and spending 2 hours a week discussing courage will, I believe, increase courage. The word is always on your mind. You start noticing and appreciating courage in others, and in yourself.
And where attention goes, energy flows.
Although it’s possible that courage can’t be taught, I’m sure it can be un-taught, or prevented from developing, and I’m thinking specifically of children. It is well documented that many western children now are allowed a lot less freedom than they used to be – freedom to roam, play, be in nature, get messy, walk to school, even get hurt or get bullied. Naturally, parents want to protect their children from harm (and social services will make sure that they do), but it may not be healthy to protect them from ALL harm.
Children who grow up in an over-sanitised and over-sterilised physical environment don’t develop physical resilience to germs. Likewise, children who grow up in an over-protected environment don’t develop psychological resilience to knocks and setbacks. They don’t learn boundaries, what risks to take and which to avoid, or how to look after themselves.
And it’s tougher for girls. I was listening to an episode of Gayle Allen’s wonderful Curious Minds podcast (I can’t remember which one, but I recommend them all anyway) in which the interviewee described research conducted in a children’s playground. Around the climbing frame, parents were conspicuously more protective towards girls than boys, warning them against going too high or being too adventurous. What will that do to a growing girl’s courage, when she is consistently warned not to go outside her comfort zone?
How do we nurture our own courage?
I jotted down a list of techniques that I’ve used over the years to get myself past my fear, and when I took a step back, I realised that they all boiled down to:
This is seeing courage as a question of identity. Do you want to be the kind of person who lives courageously? Or not so much? There is no right or wrong answer. Courage is not compulsory. The point is to choose consciously who you want to be, and if you’re not happy with who you’re being, change!
Changing yourself is hard, but it’s not impossible. Trust me – I’ve done it.
We all have a self-concept, a story about who we are, and we tailor our behaviour to make that story be true. The story may be conscious or subconscious. You may only become aware of a subconscious story when you do something that is entirely against your own interests, and find yourself wondering – why did I just do that? The good news is that your subconscious story has just become conscious, so now you can do something about it.
Here are some ideas:
When your motivation is greater than your fear, you get courage.
So if you’re feeling too afraid to do what you want to do, pump up your motivation and/or find ways to decrease your fear.
TO INCREASE MOTIVATION
Motivation requires CONNECTION.
Connect with your values and your sense of purpose. Don’t know what they are? Do the Values Worksheet from Week 4 to figure out your values. As to purpose, take some time (and maybe your journal) and find that sweet spot in the intersection between what you love to do, and what will make the world a better place.
Motivation requires CARING.
Decide what you care about. What values would you go out of your way to uphold? What inspires your stewardship? What touches your heart?
Motivation requires AGENCY.
If you don’t believe you can affect the situation, you won’t feel like taking action. If you don’t believe you can affect the situation, why not? Do you really know that for sure? What are your assumptions? Are they really true? Have they ever not been true?
Make your future self proud. You might be feeling afraid and powerless right now, in the moment, but how will you feel about yourself afterwards if you have felt the fear and done it anyway? And how will you feel if you don’t act?
CREATE A NEW YOU
Albert Camus said, “Life is the sum of your choices” – and it’s true. Every day, with everything you think, say, and do, you are declaring who you are – to the world and to yourself. You are constantly redefining your story about who you are. You are not the same person you were 10 years ago. And 10 years from now you will be a different person again. What kind of a person are you creating? And is that who you want to be creating?
KEEP PUSHING YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Denholm Elliott said, “Surprise yourself every day with your own courage”. You will end up a very different place over time if you keep challenging yourself to live more courageously.
USE CONFIDENT LANGUAGE
It’s easy to slip into a habit of using “hedging phrases” to diminish expectations, both our own expectations and those of the people around us. We say we will “try to” do something, rather than committing to making it happen. We diminish ourselves by saying “just” (see this seminal article by my dear friend Ellen Leanse). We take the edge off our voice of authority by saying “kind of” or “like”. We make our declarative sentences into questions by lilting our voice up at the end.
Especially as women, seeking to avoid being labelled “strident” or “bossy”, we undermine ourselves so as not to over-impress. This article in the Washington Post would be funny (and still is) if it wasn’t so close to the bone. e.g. “I came. I saw. I conquered.” would be said by a woman in a meeting as: “I don’t want to toot my own horn here at all but I definitely have been to those places and was just honored to be a part of it as our team did such a wonderful job of conquering them.”
The point is: speak confidently, and you will feel more confident.
There are tried and tested ways (i.e. tested by me, often in very trying circumstances) to diminish fear.
Remind yourself of a time when you acted courageously, especially remembering how you felt afterwards, and draw on those inner reserves again. Remind yourself what really matters to you, feel the importance, and allow that feeling to fuel you.
Evaluation of worst case scenario (decatastrophising)
It’s easy to let our imagination run away with us when we’re afraid. If you’ve seen the animated movie Inside Out, you can picture Fear freaking out at the slightest thing.
It might sound contrary, but the best way to calm Fear down is to take a look at the worst that can happen, and figure out whether you can handle it. If you can’t, fair enough, but more often than not you’ll realise, when you look calmly straight at the thing that you’re afraid of, that it shrinks dramatically.
Have you heard about the cows and the buffalo? When cows see a storm coming, they try to outrun it. They can’t, and because they and the storm are moving in the same direction, they spend a lot longer than they need to under the rain and thunderclouds. Buffalo, on the other hand, run straight towards the storm, so very quickly they’re out the other side. You get the message.
Breathing: always a good idea. When you’re afraid, it’s an even better idea. Close your eyes for a moment and breathe deeply, slowly, and mindfully. You will feel your shoulders drop, and your whole body relax. Adrenaline decreases, and oxygen to the brain increases, sharpening your mental faculties for whatever comes next.
Emotional detachment: Get over yourself. You’re very important to you, of course, but when you take a big step back, you are just one small person on a ball of dirt (and of course, water) whizzing through space. Everything passes.
Supportive belief system: “There is no such thing as an atheist in the Southern Ocean”, said Sir Robin Knox-Johnston (allegedly). If you have a faith, use it. It helps to believe/know that somebody has got your back.
Journaling: Not so useful in the burning-building kind of scary situation, but if time allows, sit down somewhere peaceful with a good notebook and a smooth-writing pen, and let the words flow. Write until you can’t write any more. See how much better you feel.
Share with a friend: with wine if necessary – but pick the friend even more carefully than the wine. The right kind of friend will let you talk. They won’t try to “fix” you, or the situation. They might offer a few well-phrased questions to help you work through the fear. Mostly they will give you love and support and the knowledge that you are not alone.
A Final Word on Fear
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but FEAR has been described as False Evidence Appearing Real. The point is that fear exists only in your mind. Even the sweating palms and the rapid breathing and the tightness in your chest, which feel so real, are triggered by what is happening between your ears.
So because it exists only in your mind, you can choose whether to hold onto it, or drop it.
Breathe deep, reach deep, and draw up strength through the very soles of your feet.
You are capable of so much more than you would ever dare to believe. All it takes is a little courage.
See you on May 18th!