“Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.” - Ray Bradbury
Courage is often mistaken as the absence of negative emotion. Courage is not a fearless and cold warrior. That guy is a psychopath. If your life is hard and full of obstacles -- if you’re afraid, anxious, disappointed and stuck -- welcome to the precipice of courage.
Courage takes on many forms. As bravery, it confronts and feels fear, then acts anyway. As discipline, it encounters apathy and initiates change. As confidence, it stands stable in a world of stressful uncertainty. As vulnerability, it opens us up to take in more, even if “more” includes rejection.
In case you don’t know already, the circumstances that happen before the courage comes into play, don’t actually matter. It’s all about your reaction and action in the face of challenges. As wildly successful basketball coach, John Wooden, once said, “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It's courage that counts.”
Scientists have pinpointed the exact part of your brain responsible for courageous acts; the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). And they also identified the part of the brain that “wins” when subjects back down -- the amygdala (often dubbed our “lizard brain”). And so, as with many things in our brains, there is evidence that we can boost this activity in the sgACC, so that it can win more battles against our instinctive fears and therefore help us become more courageous.
Here are 3 effective ways to cultivate courage:
Become Aware - Awareness is key to addressing and overcoming anxiety-producing obstacles in life that disguise themselves as procrastination, self doubt, sabotage and other counters to courage. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, spoke with Forbes Magazine about the awareness needed to really become more courageous. She encourages us to identify, not just the fears that hold us back, but also the specific way in which we justify and avoid those fears.
“What’s the fear? Where and why do we want to be braver? Then we have to figure out how we’re currently protecting ourselves from vulnerability. What is our armor? Perfectionism? Intellectualizing? Cynicism? Numbing? Control? That’s where I started. It’s not an easy walk into that arena, but it’s where we come alive.”
Practice Courage - Ask any psychologist how to conquer a phobia and you’ll hear about incremental exposure. As Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.” It’s called habituation and it’s basically about making your fear less of a novel experience. Quite simply “getting used to” the fearful emotion, that comes with a particular circumstance, lessons or dulls said emotion. Scared of speaking publicly? Join a public speaking group. Each time you face down the fear, it numbs your nervous system’s reaction. Exposure is mastery. As Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
Put Emotion in Its Place - Are we Thinking Beings that feel or Feeling Beings that think? Either way, the interplay of these forces is worth addressing. As Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius said, “If you are distressed by anything external, or even internal, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Stanford Neuroscientist, Dr. Phillippe Goldin, agrees: “This beautiful prefrontal cortex that is so fully developed in the human animals, allows us to take perspective. To think, to analyze, to use language. All in the service of emotion regulation. In what ways can we actually think in a certain way that helps to change the meaning of something that’s going on right now in our life? To change its intensity, to change its duration. To even shift our interpretation of what that emotion is doing and why we’re having it. That’s this prefrontal cortical area that allows us to make abstractions, think, take perspective, apply different strategies…. I’m saying this, check your own experience.”
It is time to start addressing the things that frighten you and addressing them every day. Identify what lies at the base of these fears, inch your way closer and remember that your non-lizard brain can win the battle. Your perception and interpretation of emotion is key. So when you perceive fear, choose courage.