Three Tricky Ways to Cultivate Courage

Photo by Megan Wycklendt
Photo by Megan Wycklendt
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The Challenge:  Fear can hold you back from realizing your full potential.
The Science:  Research suggests fear can help us cultivate courage.
The Solution: Try these 3 tips to conquer your fears!

Last week, I led a workshop for 20 top female executives from around the world—it was a great pleasure, and a great honor. We worked on the issues that are holding them back at work, as well as the things that are keeping them from enjoying the lives they’ve worked so hard to create. Not surprisingly, there are many structural and cultural aspects of their workplaces (male domination, for example) thwarting their careers and their lives.

These brilliant executives didn’t just need strategies for changing their workplaces. They needed strategies for cultivating courage, given the difficulty of the work ahead of them.

Isn’t that what we all need? Courage to live lives where we can fulfill our greatest potential at work and at home? Where we can fulfill our potential for joy?

Here is my question for you: What are you afraid of? Where is your fear holding you back? If we are to live and work from our sweet spot—that place of great strength, but also great ease—we need courage. Courage to be authentic, to take risks, to be different.

Here are my three favorite tactics for building bravery.

1. Manipulate your thoughts

Our thoughts profoundly influence what we feel and what we do. When we think about times when we’ve done poorly at something, we are likely to feel insecure and weak, upping the odds that we’ll actually do something insecure and weak.

That said, trying to control what we don’t think about doesn’t work. (Consider the old experiment where researchers tell their subjects not to think of a white bear: Most people immediately start thinking about a white bear.) In other words, it doesn’t work to say to yourself, “I have to stop being afraid.”

Instead, take a two-pronged approach to thinking brave thoughts. First, pay attention. If you notice yourself having a thought that undermines your attempts at bravery, simply label it as such: “Oh, there’s a fearful thought.” For example, say you are trying to get yourself to ask a question at a conference, but you are too afraid to raise your hand, and you notice yourself imaging that the presenter thinks you are dumb. Say to yourself, “That is a thought that will make me feel afraid to ask my question,” and take a deep breath. Noticing your not-brave thoughts can give you the distance you need to not act according to that thought and the feeling it produces.

Second, actively fill your mind with courageous thoughts. Consider times when you’ve been brave before. Focus on how people just like you have done what you are mustering the courage to do. Think about how the last time you did it, it wasn’t that hard. Think about how you’ll regret it if you don’t do it. Think about how the worst-case scenario is something you can deal with. Remind yourself of your long-term goals.

2. Consider that your fear isn’t legitimate

Sometimes fear is more about excitement and thrill and passion than it is a warning that you are about to do something dangerous. As Maria Shriver writes in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring… part of your agitation is just excitement about what you’re getting ready to accomplish. Whatever you’re afraid of—that is the very thing you should try to do.

I love Harvard-trained sociologist and life-coach Martha Beck’s advice about how to know whether or not your fear is holding you back. Legitimate fear, she says, tends to make us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in. I once lived in a really nice neighborhood, but I had a really scary neighbor. Every time he’d stop to chat with me, friendly and normal-seeming as he was, the hair on my neck would stand up, and my heart would start racing and thudding in my chest. It was all I could to do not run and hide from him. It turns out that my fear was legitimate: After I moved, I found out that he was fresh out of a maximum security prison for violent sex crimes.

Not-helpful fear, on the other hand, makes us hesitate rather than bolt. We are afraid of looking stupid, and so we don’t ask a burning question. We fear failing, and so we don’t even try. Years ago, I was terribly afraid to make a desperately desired career change. I wasn’t happy, but my current job brought me a lot of security. What if I couldn’t make it in my new field? I waffled—hesitated—for more than a year before making the leap into a new profession. My fear was unfounded. I was immediately far happier and just as successful as I had been in my old job. I wished I’d had the courage to make the change sooner.

The key is knowing the difference between legitimate and not-helpful fear. Do you have the desire to get the heck out of whatever situation is making you fearful? If so, your fear is likely legitimate. Run like the wind, my friend.

But if your fear is making you hesitate, consider that your fear is unfounded. Take a deep breath, and make the leap.

3. Make specific plans for obstacles you might face

This is an important technique not just for being more courageous, but also for being more successful in your endeavors.

Ask yourself: What obstacles are you likely to encounter? People who plan for how they’re going to react to different obstacles tend to be able to meet their goals more successfully; in other words, scary challenges don’t stop them, especially when they formulate “If X, then Y” plans for each potential difficulty. For example, say you’d like to stop working weekends but are afraid that your team will start to question your dedication. Here is what an “If X, Then Y” plan might look like:

  • IF my team grumbles or pushes-back because I’m not working on the weekends anymore,
  • THEN I will forward them Leslie Perlow’s Harvard Business Review article about how ‘Predictable Time Off’ improves both work quality
  • AND quality of life, even in client-oriented businesses.

It is important to remember that the hard things we have to do or say are actually rarely what make us uncomfortable. It is the fear we feel that makes us uneasy. Fear is the thing that in truth makes actions hard, not the action that we think we are afraid of.

Not doing something because we are afraid is actually not the easy way out in the long run. Though it might seem counterintuitive, it is finding the courage to try, or push ahead, or speak up, or make a change that will help us live and work from our sweet spot. Ironically, when we do the hard thing, ultimately we find more ease.

What is your favorite way to cultivate courage?

This article originally appeared in Greater Good Science Center.

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Christine Carter

Christine Carter

Christine Carter, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow at the Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine Books, 2015) and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents (Random House, 2010). A former director of the GGSC, she served for many years as author of its parenting blog, Raising Happiness.
Christine Carter

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