“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” – Nelson Mandela
He ought to know, don’t you think?
Not a lot of empirical research on courage exists, but there is some, and it is important. Courage happens to be a pet topic of mine. A pet that I love and feed, and take to the vet when necessary. I give it a lot of attention. It sleeps, curled up, at the bottom of my bed. I take it for walks. We spend a lot of time together, Courage and I. I’ve been trying to get to know Courage better, but it seems that more often than not, when I get close, Courage snarls a little bit, and I retreat, frightened. And so it goes.
I like Mandela’s definition of courage, and it is actually very close to how researchers define courage. According to Paul Tillich, “Courage is self-affirmation ‘in-spite-of,’ that is in spite of that which tends to prevent the self from affirming itself” (1959). In 2004, we got that courage is “persistence or perseverance despite having fear or apprehension (Woodard). And, my favorite, because I think this definition encompasses all aspects of courage: “Courage is the willingness to act even in the presence of fear, risk, and threat” (Biswas-Deiner 2012).
Here’s a cool thing about courage: it can be studied, measured, quantified. And it is a quality that has been correlated with happiness in study after study. Happy people are courageous people.
And what do we fear? Lions, tigers, bears, certainly. Spiders sometimes. The fears that hold us back though, and require daily courage, are fears that we may not even recognize as fears. We need courage to change what needs to be changed. We need courage to face tough decisions. We need courage to confront what needs to be confronted in relationships.
Courage, in my book, is the thing, along with love and gratitude, that can transform lives! And as it turns out, courage isn’t something you are either born with or not – courage is a skill that can be learned! Isn’t that cool? And the more you practice courage, the better you get at it, just as any skill. In the interest of space and time, I’m going to recommend two books that I wish everyone would read. The first is The Courage Quotient, by Robert Biswas-Diener. Biswas-Diener approaches the topic of courage scientifically – in fact, the subtitle of the book is “How Science Can Make You Braver.” You will love this book, I promise. It is so much fun to read, and there is just so much to learn and then act on within its pages. The second book is Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown, which discusses the courage to be vulnerable. Below is a link to a Ted talk by Brene Brown, where she introduces the topics that she explores in her book. This talk is just PACKED with delicious aha moments; I have listened to it several times, and I just cannot feel good about merely referencing it then moving on. Please take the time to listen to this talk! I am going to summarize what I deem to be the most important points of the talk, but listen to the whole dang thing!
Brene Brown, information collected through research:
- Connection with others gives purpose and meaning to our lives.
- In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to truly be seen for who we are (vulnerability).
- People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe theyare WORTHY of love and belonging (whole-hearted people).
- These “whole-hearted” people have some striking commonalities:
1. They share a strong sense of COURAGE, including the courage to be imperfect.
2. They have the ability and the compassion to be kind to themselves (we can’t be compassionate to others until we learn to treat ourselves kindly).
3. They display authenticity (willingness to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are).
4. They have fully embraced vulnerability – they see vulnerability not as comfortable, nor excruciating, but as necessary.
- Because so many of us do not have the courage to be vulnerable (to risk whatever it is we need to risk to connect whole-heartedly with others), we numb our vulnerability.
- The problem is that we cannot selectively numb emotion. If we choose to stand back, not connect, because it is too hurtful, we are also numbing from other possibilities. When we numb out from the hurt, we also numb out from the joy.
- We need COURAGE to be vulnerable.
In conclusion, you must be willing to persevere through your fears. You must be willing to ACT, even though the thing you fear (conflict?) is hovering RIGHT THERE! You must have the courage to take those necessary risks, to face the threat and move forward, and to be vulnerable. And then … happiness.
peace and love,
Biswas-Diener, R. (2012). The courage quotient: How science can make you braver. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York: Gotham Books.
Tillich, P. (1959). The courage to be. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Woodard, C. R. (2004). Hardiness and the concept of courage: categorization and measurement. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 135-147.