Courage is considered by many to be one of the most important human virtues. In fact, in Medieval times it was considered one of the four cardinal virtues, and modern psychologists agree.
Learning how to be courageous, even if it is just to ask out that person you’ve had your eye on for so long, doesn’t mean not being afraid. It means learning to do things despite your fear.
Part 1 of 3:
Building a Courageous Mindset
Embrace your fear. Being courageous means doing something despite the fear. Fear comes from the body’s natural response to the brain’s fight or flight response. The brain sends cortisol, a stress inducing hormone, throughout the body’s nervous system, making the body go into hyper-drive. Fearfulness is a learned behavior, based in our brain chemistry, but strengthened by the world around us that has trained us to be fearful. Learning to work through fear and step beyond it is about retraining your mind.
Avoiding fears actually makes them stronger and scarier. There’s a certain mindset in Western culture that views emotions as weakness and seeks to suppress them. But suppressing negative emotions only heightens the fear of the negative emotion itself, strengthening them the more they are avoided.
Exposing yourself to things that you fear (while being sure to stay safe and be smart about it) can help the brain become desensitized to the fear and make it easier for you to face.
Try not to hesitate. The longer your brain has to come up with excuses for not being courageous, the more time you will have to panic about hypothetical negative outcomes. If you are in a situation where you have to pick up a spider, jump out of an airplane, or ask someone on a date, do it without hesitation if you’re going to do it at all.
Reinforce your successes by giving yourself a reward when you do deal with your fear. This could be a physical treat, like a nice bottle of wine, or a mental treat, like taking a break from human interaction and binge-watching a show on Netflix.
Learn to be mindful. Being mindful is when you are fully present in the current moment. Mindfulness can help change your brain to deal with fear in a more effective manner. You have to give yourself time to learn this skill and it takes practice.
Meditation is one way to help improve your mindfulness. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably. You can meditate on the bus, at an airport, or any busy place, but it is best to start by learning in a quiet place with few distractions. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing (thinking “in” when you breathe in and “out” when you breathe out can help with that focus.). Do this for twenty minutes. Be aware of the moment and of your sensations. If you do find yourself becoming distracted with other thoughts, direct your attention back to your breathing.
When you do find yourself overwhelmed by fear, using the practices learned from meditation and mindfulness can help you overcome. Focus on your breathing and take deep breaths. Allow yourself to feel the negative emotions, but label them as emotions you are having (for example: if you are thinking, “I am afraid,” rephrase it as, “I am having a thought that I am afraid.”). It’s a subtle distinction, but one that helps you not to be ruled by your thoughts.
Visualizing your mind as the sky and your emotions, both positive and negative, as clouds passing across the surface of the sky can help you see them as being a part of you, but not dictating your life.
Get outside your comfort zone. Stepping outside your comfort zone may cause anxiety, but it’s a great way to learn courage.
Doing something you don’t normally do helps you cope with the unexpected, which is where fear often springs from. Learning to deal with that fear, in a situation you have chosen, can help you perform courageously when the unexpected happens.
Start small. Start with the actions that induce less fear and require less courage to accomplish. So, send a friend request on Facebook to that girl you like, or have a small conversation with the person behind the register before moving on to asking someone out.
Know your limits. There are certain things that we just cannot do. Maybe you absolutely can’t pick up that spider, come out to your homophobic boss, or go skydiving. That’s okay. Sometimes these are fears or limitations that can be worked up to and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes it is highly adaptive not to be courageous; it may not make sense to do something you can’t get yourself to do. Focus on building your courage for other things, like putting a glass over the spider so someone else can take care of it, or coming out to your parents instead of your homophobic boss.
Build confidence. Having confidence allows you to trust in your abilities and yourself, and realize that you are more than your fears. When you have confidence in yourself you will find it easier to take courageous action. Learning to have confidence takes practice.There are a number of ways to build confidence:
Fake it until you make it. You can trick your mind into confidence by pretending that you are confident. Tell yourself you can ask that girl you like on a date and, whatever she says, you won’t care much. You can also expand your posture and actually feel more confident and powerful. Open up your arms or place them behind your head, and push out your chest.
Don’t let your failures or limitations dictate who you are. Failure simply means that you are trying; it is something to learn from, not to avoid. Make sure to remind yourself that your failures do not define you unless you let them.
Have faith in yourself. Courage involves trusting yourself and believing in yourself. Tell yourself that you have something to offer. Remember arrogance and confidence are different.
Part 2 of 3:
Having Courage in the Moment
Build your courage for specific scenarios. It takes different kinds of courage to ask out someone you are interested in, to speak to your boss about a raise, or to confront a bully. One thing all of these scenarios will require is a show of confidence, whatever you actually feel. Confidence and courage come through acting as if you are unafraid, even (and especially) when you are.
For example, it takes a certain kind of courage to follow your intuition when making big decisions.
Have courage when you ask someone out. When you ask someone out, the best way is to be direct, even if it is scary to put yourself out there. Practice what you’re going to say ahead of time. If you can, talk to her in private. Think about how great it might be if she says yes; isn’t that worth the risk?
Remember, if she says no, it isn’t a reflection on you or your desirability. Be respectful of her decision and be proud of yourself for being courageous!
Display courage when you speak up to your boss. It can be scary to talk to your supervisor, especially if it’s about problems you’re having at work; it’s also awkward to have conversations about money. However, if you frame it more as a conversation than a confrontation, you may be more likely to get your way.
Ask to speak to her privately and plan out what you’re going to say ahead of time. It’s okay to feel nervous, don’t fight it. Make sure to breathe normally and speak with conviction.
If the conversation backfires, step back and re-assess. If you think about it and feel that you were in the right, consider getting your human resources department involved.
Alternatively, sometimes the better thing to do is change jobs; some people are very stubborn and choosing not to fight every battle doesn’t mean that you lack courage.
Part 3 of 3:
Conquering Your Fears
Identify your fears. What is it that you are afraid of? Before you can overcome your fear and act courageously you need to know what makes you scared. There are a number of things that tend to make people afraid, including these:
Snakes and/or spiders
Acknowledge your fear. Once you have identified your fears, do not try to brush them under the rug; do not avoid them. Do not try to convince yourself that you simply aren’t afraid; it will take more work than that to conquer your fear. Instead, accept that you do have fears so you can work productively to overcome them.
You can acknowledge your fear by writing it down or saying it out loud.
You can assess the degree to which you are afraid by writing down on a scale from 0 (not at all afraid) to 100 (very afraid), just how scared you are of the thing in question.
Try gradual desensitization. In this technique, you slowly but increasingly allow yourself to approach or come into contact with whatever you are afraid of.
For example, if you are afraid of leaving the house, you might start by putting on your shoes as if you were going to go outside, but not actually go outside.
Next, you might open the door and take two steps outside, and then four steps, and then eight steps, and then walk down the block and back home.
Try direct confrontation. This is also called “flooding.” Force yourself into the scenario you are afraid of and allow yourself to be fully afraid. Feel the fear pulsing through you; observe it but try your best not to be overcome by it. It can help if you imagine yourself in the 3rd person by saying things like, “he seems really scared right now.”
In this method, if you were afraid of going outside, you would go out down the block on your first try. You would then try to think about how it actually isn’t that bad to be away from home.
You would then repeat this process until you were completely unafraid of going outside.
The idea is to show you that there is no need to fear what you do; as such, this method is best used for irrational fears.
Try visualization. When you find yourself afraid of something, try getting your mind off of it by focusing on more positive thoughts. Do your best to visualize something that makes you happy, such as your dog or a loved one. Use this positive emotion to overpower the fear.
Visualize the thing that makes you positive. Try to imagine it with multiple senses to make it more real.
For example, if you are thinking about your dog, think about how your dog smells, how she feels when you pet her, how she looks, and how she sounds.
Talk to someone. Talking out your fears with someone, a licensed therapist, a trusted family member or friend can help you to figure out where your fear is originating; it can also help you overcome your fear and act courageously.
There are also websites that you can use, if you need to talk anonymously.
It may be time to talk to someone if you find that your fear is interfering with your life in a way that you want to change.
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