Is Fear Holding You Back From Change?
Do you have changes you really want to make in your life, but you’re finding it difficult to start? Perhaps you know what you need to do, but can’t seem to do it. Maybe you feel trapped in your current situation.
This often happens when on some level we are fearful or anxious about taking action. We need courage to face those fears… and if we don’t find it, we end up stuck.
In the absence of courage, we must rely on other coping strategies to get by. That may mean constant distraction, e.g. through TV or social media or ‘busyness’. Or unhealthy self-soothing, e.g. through alcohol or food or shopping. Or that time-honoured classic: ignoring-the-problem-and-hoping-it-goes-away.
Some of these strategies can work well in the beginning. But over time they can cause real suffering, with serious side effects including depression, addiction, low self-worth, and relationship difficulties.
People will often seek counselling and psychotherapy to resolve all this. But courage is needed in therapy, too – to make a first appointment, to voice things that may feel shameful, and to endure the kind of difficult emotions that may come up as we talk.
So, What Is This Thing Called Courage?
For thousands of years, philosophers have thought deeply about courage. And more recently, modern psychologists have explored how courage actually ‘works’, in practice.
Courage is consistently defined as a highly positive attribute. It is strongly connected to ideas of heart, energy, strength, and endurance. Courage is not about reckless bravery, or being fearless. Rather, it is when we have full knowledge of both risk and fear, and we act regardless.
We all have an intuitive understanding of how important courage is. Every single culture, throughout human history, has reflected this in stories about a hero going forth on a courageous journey, overcoming difficulties and returning fundamentally changed.
These stories are often entertaining adventures. But they are also, in each case, a metaphor for the inner quest of the individual, taking on his deepest fears and undergoing a positive transformation of the self. The story of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is an example known to many people in the western world today. When we hear these stories of courage we can feel inspired and emboldened ourselves.
What Do We Need Courage For?
Courage is not just for big adventures. It’s useful in everyday life, too.
Firstly, it enables us to look situations in the eye. It helps us be bold and strong when we decide to name what’s happening and face our problems, head on.
Courage is also what helps us endure the darkest periods. It helps us persist through times of adversity. It gives us fortitude when we might otherwise be tempted to give up.
Finally, and crucially, courage can spur us to take action. It helps us find a way, where needed, to challenge and confront, to stand our ground. It’s what enables us to make the changes we really want to see in our lives, even when we’re feeling nervous or scared.
What Does Courage Feel Like, When It Appears?
I’ve conducted real-world research into people’s experience of courage in therapy. In my interviews, participants spoke about what it felt like when their courage began to emerge. Certain experiences turned out to be shared by almost everyone:
- Vitality: Courage brings with it a sense of aliveness. It generates a strong internal energy, and often a sort of joyfulness too – a delight in life, a fizz of possibility and potential.
- Hard Work: Putting courage into practice can feel like starting to exercise. There is a sense of striving, of effort, of tiredness afterwards – and also a clear awareness of building strength over time.
- Confidence: Courage builds confidence from the inside out. It gives us a clearer, more solid sense of ‘who we really are’. We discover a growing sureness of identity; an authenticity. We walk taller in the world.
- Release: Courage enables us to do something that we don’t always associate with change – letting go. All change involves a release of old ways, old habits. Courage brings us to the point where we can finally allow that to happen.
How Can You Enable Your Own Courage To Grow?
One thing the research made clear was how hard it is for most of us to find the courage to tackle our problems, even if we’re suffering quite severely. Often it takes a real crisis for us to begin naming and facing our difficulties.
But everyone has the capacity for courage, even if we struggle to express it – just like everyone has muscles, even if we haven’t built them up yet. My research (and my experience as a therapist) shows there are certain things everyone can do to help nurture the seedlings of their courage more effectively:
1. Know what motivates you: We all need something to give us a sense of purpose for change. It’s what underpins and sustains courage when the going gets tough. But what motivates each person may be completely different. In my studies, people talked about being motivated by all sorts of things, such as wanting to be a better dad, or caring-for-self, or religious faith, or an “I’ll-show-them” anger at past ill-treatment. So it’s important to identify and continually remind yourself of your own personal motivators.
2. Seek out a trusted companion: In my research, people often spoke about the difficulty of making changes on their own. What made a huge difference was to have a trusted companion on their journey. There was a profound sense of safety and acceptance in having someone simply walk beside them. It became an active catalyst for their courage to flourish and grow. For some people that trusted companion could be a counsellor; for others it could be a close friend or partner. Either way, finding someone with whom you feel completely safe to talk, and not judged in any way, will be a vital part of your journey towards courage… and change.
3. Notice your courageous ‘qualities’: Many people would hesitate to say they were feeling courageous. But they may well be able to notice certain aspects of courage beginning to appear in their lives. These may be internal experiences like a growing sense of energy, confidence, strength, or feeling heartened. Or they may be external behaviours such as speaking out, setting boundaries, or challenging the status quo. Simply recognising these qualities as they begin to emerge – either in your counselling sessions or in your life in general – can give your courage the air it needs to grow and flourish.