Without courage to draw upon, we can't be our best selves. Our lives become narrow, our hearts small. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage” Anais Nin wrote. How true.
But what is courage? In a world saturated with images of action-figure bravado, we may mistakenly believe that courage is the absence of fear. Instead, it is the capacity to think, speak and act despite our fear and shame.
Over more than three decades as a psychotherapist, I have watched people act with enormous bravery. Women and men feel fear, and they do the right thing.
Or they don’t feel the fear until after they start doing the right thing, but still they persist.
To many observers, the following actions might not appear heroic--or even especially noteworthy. No one rushed into a burning building. No one opened up a deeply painful subject like abuse or neglect with a family member. No one took a principled position that might cost him or her a relationship or a job.
Nonetheless these 5 behaviors required enormous courage. It is never easy to experiment with bold new behaviors because there is always a powerful pull to stay with habitual, safe old ways.
Consider the following bold acts of change:
1. In the middle of an intense marital fight, a wife suddenly stops arguing and tells herself that for the rest of the conversation, she will simply ask questions and try to understand her husband’s point of view. She shifts into a place of pure listening, detaching from the question of who is right or what is true or how she can best make her case.
2. A man, in the midst of a painful divorce, shares his vulnerability with his racquetball partner, whom he knows is also divorced. It is the first time he has revealed something personal to a male friend.
3. A man arranges to take two days off work when his mother visits, instead of assuming that his wife will entertain her. He arranges a day trip for just the two of them and gets to know his mother better.
4. A woman takes a bottom-line position with her chronically critical husband. She says, “I love you and I want to be your partner. But I can’t listen when you approach me this way. You need to approach me with respect, or I won’t be in the conversation.” She sticks to her position over time, refusing to continue a conversation at her own expense.
5. A husband tells his wife at breakfast, “I was thinking about the conversation we had last night.” He then says, “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry.” The last time he said these words to her were...well, he can’t remember.
I help people practice courage in any context they dare to. If I led wilderness treks and outdoor adventures, like my intrepid psychologist friend, Marilyn Mason, I’m sure I would be more attuned to different aspects of courage that she describes--the courage to prepare for a difficult mountain climb, the courage to keep climbing when you’re scared or tired, the courage to trust yourself and your fellow travelers, the courage to honor your fear and limitations by saying, “I can’t continue. I need to go back down the mountain.”
Given my own professional interests, I pay careful attention to relational courage--the courage to observe and change oneself in key relationships. It's the royal road to happiness, maturity, and personal integritty. If you don't identify with any of the five things I listed, you can make your own list.
Consider how you define relational courage in your own life and how you might practice more of it. Don't plead ignorance. No expert in the world knows better than you do about how to warm the other person's heart, lower the negative intensity, and bring more of your authentic and best self into a relationship.
Let the examples above be your guide. It's the small acts of everyday courage that make the biggest difference over time. It's a matter of motivation, a genuine wish for a better relationship and a willingness to practice bold new acts of change.
Everything in this world that is truly worth doing takes practice. Courage is no exception.