How to Be Brave: Two Steps to Grow Your Courage
ONE: Acknowledge What Makes You Feel Afraid.
Holding your fears up to the light can help you to define and confine them. It's a way to make them less like imaginary monsters in your closet and more like the reality of actually stubbing your toe: the former leaves you helpless, but the latter empowers you to do something about it and put on shoes. Gaining clarity about the specifics of your fears can help build a logical fence around them to keep them in line when they agitate for attention.
Also, know that your fears do not make you a bad or lesser person in and of themselves. Fear often grows out of experience, so it must be framed within the proper context of the experience in which you found it, and because of this it cannot be used as a generalized excuse for judgment. Also, some fears may be genetically handed down to you by your ancestors. If you still have an unreasonable fear of the dark as an adult, that might just be your great-great-grandma Ida's fear creeping up through your DNA.
25 things that make me feel afraid:
I am afraid that we are just as smart as we think we are.
- I am afraid that, when I finally do go to a dentist, they are going to have to do something, anything, to my teeth and/or gums.
- I am afraid that I will die by freak electrocution if I bathe during a rainstorm.
- I am afraid that I will have to spend my elder years living in a tent without electricity because we killed the earth.
- I am afraid that something might be in my closet when the door is closed, but I feel insecure, as though I need to batten down the hatches, when the door is open.
- I am afraid that I might be the only one who loves this hard.
- I am afraid that, when I give blood, the little finger-pricker thing will be missing its spring and will stab me in the bone again like that one time in 1995.
- I am afraid that I might not have my words when I need them.
- I am afraid that there might really be ghosts in my apartment, and I just can't see them.
- I am afraid that Aidan will die before we have a chance to get very old together.
- I am afraid that I will die before Aidan and I have a chance to get very old together.
- I am afraid that I will run out of my allotment of near death experiences.
- I am afraid that I will get cancer again, because I had it too easy the first time.
- I am afraid that, because my apartment building is old, I could fall through the floor into the basement at any moment.
- I am afraid that I will never have a really restful, comfortable sleep again in my life.
- I am afraid that I will never be great, or even very good.
- I am afraid that one of the small planes that buzzes our building on the way to the airport will smash into my living room.
- I am afraid that I will become one of those old people who ends up forgotten and eating cat food until someone finds her body months later because I had no children.
- I am afraid that someone will shut down the internet.
- I am afraid that I will somehow end up unconscious in the hospital, and someone will decide to give me penicillin, and I will swell up like one giant hive.
- I am afraid that I will never write books.
- I am afraid that, if I do write books, they will be terrible, and I will look back on them years later with shame.
- I am afraid that my adult acne will never go away, and I will be the only eighty-year-old still using zit cream.
- I am afraid that this is it, that there is no real narrative beyond the one we knit together, that the meaning within individual growth and change never extends beyond the individual.
- I am afraid that addiction to the pablum that is Full House is actively destructive on some level.
Boil your fears down to their essentials.
My above 25 fears can basically be boiled down to the fear of three major themes: dying, abandonment, and a meaningless universe. You know, nothing big.
Knowing this, though, helps me plough through some of my anxieties when they pop up, because I recognize that my actual fear is often less about the specific thing I am focusing on (Full House as a destructive force) and more about a fairly normal human concern (the universe is devoid of any real meaning). I can't solve my deeper fear very easily, but I can at least quit worrying about whether the two episodes of Full House I just watched destroyed some important function in my brain.
TWO: Do Things That Create More Good In the World, Even If They Frighten You and Feel Hard to Do.
Do things that frighten you, even seemingly little things, because every small victory impresses upon your brain that you are strong. Even small acts of accidental or spontaneous bravery are signals to your mind that you are capable and sometimes surprisingly so.
Don't forget the all-important second element, though: couple doing what frightens you with creating more good in the world. This helps actively replace at least some of your fear with memories of well-being and satisfaction. Fear runs from those kinds of good feelings, and your wonderfully plastic brain can start the work of morphing your fear into a space occupied with practical achievement and positive emotions.
For example, a small but brave good thing I did today was doing laundry in our building's basement when Aidan wasn't home. I had to sweat through some fear, because the basement feels like a good place for a hidden torture bunker, and my mind likes to go oooh ghooosts. I did it, though, and we both got clean underwear out of the deal, so I am now more likely to do laundry in the future, and I accomplished something that sincerely makes our marriage happier.
25 things that make me feel brave:
- I feel brave when I put on my shoe without thoroughly shaking it out to see if there's a critter in their who will eat my toes.
- I feel brave when I tell someone straight up that I will not be treated in a certain way.
- I feel brave when I stand up and don't let people tell what I am or am not.
- I feel brave when I confess to someone that I need their help.
- I feel brave when I face the deep winter with my seasonal depression and make it through with fewer battle wounds than the year before.
- I feel brave when I hold someone's hand so that we can feel the weight of their pain together.
- I feel brave when I tell someone how much they mean to me.
- I feel brave when I own up to doing something I'm not proud of rather than cover it up.
- I feel brave when I use the toaster oven and don't have to go through my ritual of unplugging it and using plastic tongs.
- I feel brave when I remain open to another's religious beliefs even though I am still dealing with the pain the religious beliefs of others created in my life as a child.
- I feel brave when I accomplish something now that an earlier version of me never thought I could.
- I feel brave when I think about 2007, which let Aidan and I know that neither broken backs nor cancer, even when found together in the same marriage at the same time, cannot sink us.
- I feel brave when I make myself available to hear someone's difficult story.
- I feel brave when I look back and realize that I haven't smoked for well over six years now.
- I feel brave when I stand my ground about not wanting children.
- I feel brave when I manage to pull back from the irrational fear that my cats will set out to consciously hurt me.
- I feel brave when I go to blogging conferences, because I am naturally quite shy.
- I feel brave when I stand up to say something in front of a group of people and don't whither in a dead faint.
- I feel brave when, on a particularly difficult evening, I don't drink.
- I feel brave when I actually enjoy hanging out with a baby, because, although I like babies, I am certainly not used to them.
- I feel brave when I write something powerful about my personal history.
- I feel brave when family and old friends find me on Facebook, and I let them in to see who I am now.
- I feel brave when I walk through -40° weather.
- I feel brave when I talk to people whom I greatly admire.
- I feel brave when I help someone else to be brave in the face of their smaller and larger fears.
Take time to acknowledge and remember when you were brave.
That list of times I felt brave up there? Write your own list. Be creative. Even lie a little if it gets you thinking about your own courage in new ways.
When you take the time to acknowledge your own bravery, no matter how small the action, it's like studying for an exam. You are literally creating a pathway in your brain that translates its message into something like I am brave, and this is how I showed courage. Write that list, add to it, reread it now and again, and really work the groove of that knowledge into your mind. I promise you, it gets more believable over time.
Now it's your turn. What are some of your fears and scary things you accomplished. Did you successfully use a toaster or save someone's life? Go!