Discovering the Courage Within
Christopher Columbus needed courage. So did Lance Armstrong when he defeated cancer and captured the Tour de France in 1999. History is littered with courageous acts and courageous people.
You don't have to be a world-class explorer or professional cyclist to have courage. Everybody needs it, but how do you get it, especially when you're like the lion before he discovered the Wizard of Oz?
As the lion had to learn, courage exists inside of you. You just have to dredge it up after years of burying it behind your safety zones.
The Inborn Courage in You
Everyone was born with courage. You may not remember learning how to walk, but you know you fell hundreds of times before you stood on your own. Learning to walk took courage. And you succeeded because you had little fear or doubt.
Eventually, that changed. Parents and other caregivers told you to be careful, to avoid dangers. Society, after all, values comfort over fulfillment. "We've been exposed to a barrage of messages that discourage us from being courageous," says Harold Bloomfield, MD, a Yale-trained psychiatrist and author of Making Peace With Your Past.
Your Adversity Quotient
As you grew up, you patterned your response to adversity on how people around you responded to difficulty. Paul G. Stoltz, PhD, president/CEO of Peak Learning International and author of Adversity Quotient, defines this reaction as the adversity quotient (AQ).
As a baby, your AQ is untested. By the time you are 12, thanks to your environment and situations you have faced, you have developed your AQ. "The higher your AQ," Stoltz says, "the better you're able to summon courage and tap your greatness in times of need."
Fortunately, your AQ can be strengthened.
Courage as a Necessity
Why do you need courage? Because courage will help you live your life the way you want. "Courage is learning to overcome fear," says Dr. Bloomfield, "and when you do that, you grow."
Today, courage is needed more than ever before. In polls that Stoltz conducted, 98% of people predicted more difficulty, chaos and uncertainty in their lives in the future. Stoltz says that 10 years ago, the average number of challenges people faced in a day was seven. Today, that number has risen to 23.
Linda Larsen, author of True Power, knows firsthand the power of courage. Over 20 years ago, she was kidnapped, raped, and held hostage for over five hours. She summoned courage she didn't know she had and escaped. "My courage didn't let me down," she says. "Once you know courage is always in you, you can start learning to act more courageously in life."
Obstacles to Becoming Braver
There are, though, things that stand between you and your courageous self. Dr. Bloomfield lists the following obstacles:
- Fear of change—Learning how to be less controlled by your fears is one key to becoming more courageous.
- Either-or thinking—You may think of yourself as a wimp and others as courageous, but there has to be a middle ground. You can live in a comfort zone, but you have to be willing to be courageous when it counts.
- Fear of failure—Failure is an important part of success, and being courageous involves being willing to fail at times.
- Lack of faith—Identify your self doubt so that you can act more courageously.
- Personal fears—These are fears such as fear of taking responsibility for your life, fear of self-discovery, fear of losing control, fear of moving forward, and fear of making the wrong decision. Know that you are bigger than your fears. Follow your instincts, and if doubts emerge, shove them aside.
Finding Courage in Times of Need
Stoltz says you draw courage from what matters to you. "The changes you're willing to make are the ones that have the greatest significance," he says. For example, if you have been offered a job that will force you to move across the country but you don't care about the job, you will have a hard time finding courage to make the move.
Once you have decided what matters, follow these suggestions for becoming more courageous.
- Recall previous times when you acted courageously. Did you move as a child and have to make new friends? Did you go away to college? "Focusing on times when you acted courageously will instill more courage in you," Larsen says, adding that you should also applaud yourself for showing courage.
- Shift your focus. Don't worry about failing or disappointing other people, Larsen says. Worry instead about failing yourself.
- Eliminate the words wish, hope and maybe from your vocabulary. "These words erode your courage by filling you with doubt, fear or hesitation," says Dr. Bloomfield.
- Do your homework. If appropriate, know the obstacles you might encounter. Talk with other people who were once in your shoes. But remember that no matter how much you analyze the situation, you'll still have unknown answers. "Courage doesn't mean waiting to act until you have no fear," explains Dr. Bloomfield. "Courage means living with heart and doing what you want when you're scared."
- Surround yourself with courageous people, Larsen says. There will always be people who say never. Find people who support and believe in you.
- Imagine what life will be like when your challenge has passed. "Courage can come from seeing past adversity and knowing that although it may be horrible now, it'll get better sometime," Stoltz says.
- Give it your all but do not expect perfection, says Dr. Bloomfield. Don't give only 50%; then you can say later that you didn't succeed because you weren't trying that hard. To find courage, you must be willing to give 100%.
- Once you've acted with courage, assess your response, Larsen says. Did acting with courage move you forward? If not, figure out how you would behave differently next time. If it did, then bottle that courage, reward yourself, and always remember this time when you acted with courage in spite of your fears.
Dr. Harold Bloomfield
Canadian Psychological Association
Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Last updated Updated: 5/16/2011
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