Courage encompasses both the inner strength and the vulnerability required to authentically share ourselves and our experiences, good and bad. Some of us need to gather the nerve to speak up, while others may find it hard to resist the natural rush to anger, defensiveness, or aggression. In both cases, we suppress the vulnerability that true courage requires.
Best-selling author Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has written and spoken extensively about courage — and states that “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional,” Brown writes in Daring Greatly. “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage.”
Yet there are material reasons why some people are able to summon courage more easily than others.
“We’re cued by our environments and conditioning,” explains Brooke Deterline, CEO of Courageous Leadership,. “If we had a lot of role models early on who reacted with an open heart when stressed, then we’re lucky with our conditioning, not necessarily inherently better than someone who didn’t have those role models.” Courage is something we can all learn, regardless of our conditioning. “Our brains are not our fault,” she says, “but they are our responsibility.”
Taking responsibility means being responsive to challenges, rather than reactive. “We often refer to courage as giving someone a piece of your mind,” says Deterline. “But courage is actually giving someone a piece of your heart. It’s staying open-hearted in conflict, and that is hard.”
The following areas can help you cultivate courage and develop deep moral behaviors in your life.
Courage is defined not by lack of fear but by a willingness to experience it. Pema Chödrön, renowned Buddhist teacher and author of The Places That Scare You, points out that irritation, disapproval, indignation, inadequacy, guilt, and shame are all barriers we create to avoid feeling our fear of pain. The courageous path, on the other hand, requires what she calls “tender-hearted bravery,” or a willingness to engage with that fear.
Foster a Sense of Worthiness
Confidence and self-love facilitate courageous behavior. Yet, because of particular childhood experiences or cultural and social conditioning, many of us feel unworthy.
Many of us believe we’ll be fully deserving of love and belonging only when we meet certain external expectations. It’s an attitude that not only keeps us from living fully in the present moment, but it also undermines our ability to stand for our values. Yet each of us is born worthy; it’s not something we earn. “There are no prerequisites for worthiness,” says Brown.
When we understand our worth is innate, we extend that sense to others. We grasp that others matter, no more or less than we do. So everyone benefits from developing a sense of self-worth, whether it’s by building confidence in a dance class or working with a therapist to uncover outdated beliefs.
Identify Your Patterns
Learning to identify familiar signs of a stress reaction, as well as the habitual thought and behavior patterns that follow them (like freezing, fleeing, or lashing out) offers an opportunity to make a more clear-headed choice. Building empathy and compassion helps people realize that everyone struggles with this same stuff.
You can create your own stress profile simply by noticing how your body and mind respond to fear. Write it down, and carry the list with you so you can refer to it when you start to amp up; it may help give you the distance you need to diffuse a reaction.
Own Your Power
It’s easier to act courageously when we believe our actions can make a difference. “We often think power is just political or military might,” says University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor Dacher Keltner, PhD, author of The Power Paradox. But social behavior is contagious, and this can make our individual actions surprisingly powerful. Likewise, awareness allows us to take advantage of our innate tendency to mirror each other.
“If you’re aware of how people’s conformist tendencies operate, you can try to harness them for good,” notes Elizabeth Svoboda, author of What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness. “When you speak out about injustices happening in front of you, you can help tip the social balance toward truth.”
We’re not meant to change the world alone. Acting with others who share our values and beliefs is a time-tested tactic for bolstering our courage and amplifying the power of each member of the group. “One person standing up is honorable, but not always effective,” says Deterline of her observations in the business world. “One ally is better, and two allies start to represent an organizational point of view, giving the individuals more leverage in changing group dynamics and systems.”
Practice and Prepare
Like pilots and doctors who train in simulated high-stress circumstances, we can prepare ourselves to respond skillfully under pressure. Practice courageous conversations or interactions, such as an unplanned altercation on the street, a scheduled meeting with a colleague, or a tough talk with a family member or friend.
Better yet, find a friend who can practice that challenging conversation with you (yet another benefit to having allies). Self-defense workshops and mediation training sessions also provide ample opportunity to rehearse difficult encounters. The benefit is that you’re teaching your body to know what to do, even when your mind goes blank.