Fearlessness vs. Courage: How to Cultivate Each
What keeps you up at night?
While many people do face real threats to their physical or psychological safety on a daily basis, most of the time, your worries are not about life-and-death situations. Yet these issues do produce fear—or one of fear’s milder and more prevalent cousins, such as stress, frustration, anxiety, antagonism, dread, worry, or hostility. There’s nothing wrong with these emotions; they exist for a purpose. Specifically, fear exists to keep you safe, to keep you away from things that might hurt or destroy you. That’s a good thing!
Sometimes, though, fears get off-balance. Sometimes fears keep us away from things that might actually be good for us, though they make us nervous. Your fears can hold you back in your career: perhaps you don’t speak up in meetings or seek constructive feedback or give presentations. Your fears can hamper your relationships: maybe you can’t bring yourself to meet new people or maintain boundaries or listen carefully or be honest. Your fears can keep you from living a full, congruent, meaningful life.
Happily, there are two traits you can cultivate that help you overcome these barriers. The first trait is fearlessness. There are some things you don’t actually have to be afraid of. If your toddler runs into the street, that is a legitimate time to feel fear! But most of the things we stress, worry, or fume about do not deserve the mental and emotional energy we devote to them. You can reduce the amount of fear (or anxiety or frustration—insert your favorite fear euphemism here) you feel.
The second trait is courage. You cannot eradicate all fear from your life (nor would it be wise to). But you get to choose your response to fear. You get to decide if it’s in your best interests to listen to fear and hold back or to move forward in spite of your fear. With courage, fear doesn’t paralyze you.
The first step in cultivating both fearlessness and courage is to acknowledge the fear. So often we ignore it, dismiss it, pretend it’s not there. We accept it as “the way things are” without examining it. Dig in. I’ve known people who couldn’t make much money because they were afraid family members would expect them to give it away. I’ve known people who couldn’t lose weight because they were afraid a slimmer body might attract predators. I’ve known people who couldn’t give up an alcohol addiction because they were afraid they’d lose all their creativity, spontaneity, and personality. It wasn’t until they actually uncovered and acknowledged those unconscious fears that they were able to finally make some changes. What are you really afraid of?
Once you’re aware of your fear, you can choose to release it or to face it. To release the fear, cultivate fearlessness. To face it, cultivate courage. Here are some ways to do both:
1. Broaden your perspective. Evaluate the risks and put your fears in context. How likely are your fears to actually come true? Most of the time, we focus on the 1% risk instead of the 99% benefit. We remember the one time things went badly instead of the hundreds of times they went well. In general, increasing your positive emotions can help you overcome fear and anxiety. Cultivating joy, hope, gratitude and kindness also cultivates fearlessness. Specifically, when you’re facing a threat, check to see if you are giving more weight to the fears and risks than they deserve.
2. Choose your response. Your body deals with threats (stress) in a variety of ways. Often, we go to fight-or-flight by default. Is your life actually in danger? Is this threat—this conversation, this deadline, this presentation—something you could actually handle? If so, the “challenge” response will be much more helpful than fight-or-flight. By choosing to see the risk as a challenge instead of a threat to your survival, your body and your brain become allies providing you with increased energy and clarity when you need it. Plus, it’s way more fun! You know what it’s like to face a challenge with a “Bring it on!” mindset. It’s exciting!
3. Expand your comfort zone. Tim Ferris suggests “fear-setting,” or thinking through your fear to its conclusion. What is the worst-case scenario? Would you be able to survive it? How? Once you’ve actually walked through it mentally, most of the time you realize that even the worst-case scenario, which isn’t very likely to happen, wouldn’t be SO bad. You can probably prevent it. You can definitely handle it. With that knowledge comes confidence that you will be okay regardless. Fear shrinks. The more comfortable you are with all the possible outcomes, the bigger your comfort zone is!
Often, you don’t have to be afraid; it’s just a habit. With time and practice, you will find that situations or people that used to stress or upset you are just no big deal anymore. There are, of course, legitimate reasons to be nervous or irritated or downright terrified. And sometimes, even though your fear may be unfounded, the emotion might simply be too big to or too new to reason your way out of it. I remember the first time I faced a bully who had been plaguing me… I thought I would faint! It’s in those situations where instead of fearlessness, you need courage. You know what you need to do, and the only way to do it is to do it afraid. Here are some suggestions for doing so:
1. Know your “why.” Your motivation to act must be greater than your fear. What is bigger than how you feel right now? What goes beyond this transient emotion and will outlast this situation? What value or purpose are you upholding that is greater than just you? When you love or believe in something beyond yourself, you find courage.
2. Get out of your head. Once you’ve found your motivation, get out of your head and into your body. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk suggests focusing on your extremities—hands and feet. These parts of the body are the farthest removed from the part of the nervous system that makes you, well, nervous. Look at your hands, wiggle your fingers, feel your feet firmly planted on the ground. Another great way to quiet your swirling thoughts, calm your emotions, and access your body is to breathe deeply. It’s much easier to face your fears when you feel like your body is working with you and not against you.
3. Take action. You gotta love inertia. The first step is always the hardest. Getting up off the couch is the hardest part of the workout. Picking up the phone is the hardest part of a difficult conversation. Walking out on stage is the hardest part of the presentation. A college music teacher of mine used to say, “The only cure for butterflies in the stomach is to start the performance.” Once you start, you’re in it, you’re working it, you’re facing it, you’re doing it. And then inertia becomes your friend. It’s easier to keep moving than to get moving. Courage builds courage.
Cultivating fearlessness and courage takes work and not all fears are worthy of the investment, frankly. Every day, though, I see fear making a mess of communication. Fear keeps us from speaking up and speaking out. It keeps us from shutting up, too, when we need to. It keeps us stuck in old, unproductive patterns and builds barriers to understanding, forward movement, and connection. Tackle those fears. Face them. Dismantle them. Send them packing! With fearlessness and courage, you can handle the challenges—communication or otherwise—that come your way.