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Richard Zinbarg Ph.D.
Richard Zinbarg Ph.D.

The Meaning of Courage

Does fear or being fearful make one cowardly?

Does fear or being fearful make one cowardly? Certainly, many of the patients who I have treated for anxiety disorders over the years have espoused the view that the high levels of fear and anxiety they experienced were signs that they were weak and cowardly. In my view, however, we cannot be courageous or strong in situations in which we have no fear or anxiety whatsoever.

I am guessing that my patients who equate fear with cowardice are not alone. defines courage as "the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear". Both and the Meriam-Webster online dictionary list fearlessness as a synonym of courage. Thus, one not uncommon school of thought about courage in our culture is that it relates to the absence of fear. This is clearly not the only way to think about anxiety however. Stanley (Jack) Rachman, in his wonderful book Fear and Courage, offers one such alternative view. According to this view, courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc. despite anxiety or fear. That is, if one does not experience anxiety or fear about doing something then it is easy to do and does not require courage or strength. Rachman's perspective suggests that the more anxious or fearful someone is to do something but does it anyway then the greater the courage or strength! (I don't agree with everything that Rachman says in this book but for so clearly articulating this alternative view of courage and strength, it is one of my favorite books about anxiety of all time.)

So, which definition of courage makes more sense to you? Imagine that there are three people who are watching a house burn down and they become aware that there is someone in the house. The first person, Jim, runs in to the house to try to rescue the individual inside and doesn't experience any fear. The second person, John, also runs in to the house to rescue the person inside but feels some strong fear. The third person, Rick, feels strong fear and does not attempt to rescue the individual inside the house. Who do you think exhibited the most courage? I think we can all agree it is not Rick. But what about Jim and John? In my view, the answer is clear that John exhibited courage whereas Jim did not. In fact, it is not entirely clear to me how to account for Jim's behavior. Two possibilities that come to mind are either that Jim exhibited a lack of intelligence or that he didn't perceive danger in this situation. What is also unclear to me is whether John already had a reservoir of courage that he drew from that enabled him to run into the house despite his fear or whether the act of running into the house created courage or perhaps both things are true. Another possibility is that just as paper has the potential to burn but that potential remains latent until we hold a match to the paper, perhaps we all have the potential for courage but that potential is latent - it doesn't exist - until we are confronted with a situation that we find anxiety-provoking but act despite our anxiety. Thus, it is never clear to me what verb to use when discussing my patients' courageous acts but one thing is clear to me is that their anxiety does not make them weak or cowardly and I am constantly inspired by their courageous confrontation of their fears and anxieties.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life. I find it hilarious and it also contains what I consider to be a profound and powerful message: growth is all about confronting one's fears. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend it. If you have already seen it, but it has been awhile, I recommend watching it again.

Jack Rachman's and Albert Brooks' definition of courage suggests a pathway to cultivating courage. Feel the anxiety or fear and do it anyway! Of course, one needs to use common sense in applying this motto. I also recommend that people take a gradual approach to confronting one's fears. If, for example, one is afraid of dogs and has been avoiding dogs with the amount of fear and avoidance being proportional to the size of the dog, I suggest starting by exposing oneself to a small dog over and over again until you aren't very afraid of it anymore. Then move up to a larger dog and keep repeating the process until you have worked up to Great Danes. Of course, if you are willing to go from being fairly avoidant of your fear to "jumping straight into the deep end" much as Albert Brooks' character does at the end of Defending Your Life, by all means go for it. For most of us, however, the preferred route to cultivating courage is one small step at a time. Another movie that is somewhat relevant to this discussion is What About Bob? In this film, Bill Murray plays the part of a very anxious and avoidant man and Richard Dreyfus plays his therapist. Dreyfus' character has become famous by publishing a book entitled Baby Steps and whereas the movie portrays this as being farcical and overly simplistic, I think a lot of the work I do with anxious patients could be described as "baby steps". Whichever phrase you prefer - "one step at a time" or "baby steps" - I can virtually guarantee that if you follow this path, you will cultivate courage.

About the Author
Richard Zinbarg Ph.D.

Richard Zinbarg, Ph.D., is a psychology professor and director of the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program at Northwestern University.