Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Your Zesty Self

The Vitamin Cocktail of Courage

Nourish your zesty self with daily acts of pluck.

Posted Jun 09, 2017

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage — Anais Nin

Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently — Maya Angelou

Choosing to take even tiny courageous actions can be a powerful antidote to shame and a vitamin cocktail for our Zesty Selves. While the academic research on courage is in its infancy, we all know the potent tonic effects our acts of courage have upon our self-respect, self-confidence, and general vitality. This blog post considers several varieties and the necessary elements of courage, everyday situations in which we need it, and three practices to supplement our personal reservoirs of courage.

Varieties of Courage

Over the course of time, different aspects of courage have been emphasized. First, Physical Courage was recognized. Think cavemen or knights battling in shining armor. Later, a chemical metaphor developed; courage was viewed as fear, neutralized by a stronger feeling.  An expression of that purpose-oriented perspective is the understanding that courage is the recognition that something else is more important than our fears. I think of the 17th-century cavalier poet, Richard Lovelace, and his famous lines, “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more.” Most entrepreneurs know that a strong conscious connection to one’s life purposes and missions can shore them up against the many necessary business risks.

Existential Courage is expressed by authenticity despite a perceived threat to survival or social standing. I experienced a burgeoning of the value of authenticity in the 70s.  I heard public speakers venting their anger to crowds before they could authentically continue speaking.  Currently, transparency, from both therapist and client is valued in many therapeutic orientations. The public has come to require transparency from our politicians and feel outraged at opaque or non-existent responses to questions.

And lastly, I note Psychological Courage. It focuses on the transcendence of our limiting personal patterns. I think as a society we have become more conscious of our limiting personal issues. A song played over and over on the radio right now includes the lyrics “I have issues; you have issues.” We also have learned that we not only continue to grow new brain cells but that we can rewire our neurons and revamp our habitual and automatic behaviors. And, I believe, the more we learn about the possibilities for us to change, the more psychological courage we require of ourselves.

Whose Courage? One Person’s Bravery Is Another Person’s Whimpery

Aristotle recognized that what is a courageous act is different for everyone. One person’s courage might be to speak their whole heart and mind. That would be scary for them—going against a pattern. For a different person, remaining quiet, listening and refraining from giving advice, directions, and opinions might be their against-pattern bravery.

The Calls for Courage: When Do We Need It?

The following everyday situations typically call for courage. They involve uncertainty about our actions and unknown reactions by others. How do I do it? What do I say? When? Where? With whom? What if....?

  • Trying something new/Stopping something old
  • Breaking up/Falling in love
  • Being in grief/Celebrating a win
  • Sharing something you created/Refraining from showing yours first
  • Getting pregnant after miscarriages/Discussing birth control
  • Initiating sex with your partner/Saying no to sex
  • Laying off employees/Hiring new employees
  • Asking for help/Showing your expertise or competence
  • Standing up for yourself/ Standing up for friends when someone is critical
  • Waiting for a biopsy result/Showing sympathy for another’s diagnosis
  • Admitting you’re hurt or afraid/Admitting you’re angry
  • Bringing a boyfriend/girlfriend home/Telling family you’re divorcing

The Elements of Courage: What Makes An Action Courageous?

The above situations demonstrate the necessary elements in an act of courage:

  1. We have a worthy goal, purpose, or desired outcome
  2. We perceptive a risk of loss—loss of love, loss of respect in the eyes of another, loss of control, loss of money, loss of opportunity, etc.
  3. We make a considered, conscious choice to risk
  4. We commit and resolve to do it
  5. We complete the act

Shame researcher, speaker, and author Brene Brown, has done a great service in educating the public about the elements of shame and its antidote, courage. Below is a potpourri of some of her profound statements about courage.

Vulnerability is the greatest measure of courage. . . It is the courage to show up and be seen when you have zero control of the outcome . . . It is the ability to perceive we are at risk. . . [Courage] will appear when there is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. . . Heroics is about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world that’s pretty extraordinary.

3 Ways to Nourish Your Zesty Self with Courageous Acts

1. Be on the lookout for demonstrations of courage in others. It’s contagious.

Reading about and watching stories of real or fictional courageous people primes us for acts of our own bravery. Being up close and personal with someone while they are acting courageously is also a potent tonic. Our undercover pluck resonates with their determination. So courage, just like anxiety, is contagious.

I witnessed the vitalizing contagion of courage during a recent performance of August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In the scene, Blues singer Ma Rainey storms into the studio to record her songs. She is determined that her nephew, Sylvester, speak the intro to one of her tunes. Trouble is, Sylvester has a severe stutter. We watch him do take after take struggling to get through the intro without stuttering. He desperately presses his hands together in front of himself and pushes them against his chest. With each attempt, he wrestles both his inner fear of failure and the external threat of ridicule by the musicians, manager, and producer.

All seems lost. Then suddenly, Sylvester makes it all the way through without a single stutter. The audience bursts into wild delighted shrieks and roaring applause. We admire his persistence; he doesn’t avoid the seemingly insurmountable challenge. We admire his authenticity; he doesn’t pretend either mastery or indifference. We admire his self-discipline; he consciously chooses to risk humiliation at each take. All of these qualities combine to make this everyday courage.

2. Start a courage journal and create a list of your own past courageous acts.

Research shows that the belief that we operated with courage in the past contributes to the increased likelihood of more courageous acts. Leave plenty of room to add to your list of historical incidents of bravery, because once you start the list, as the days go by, you will probably remember more and more instances of your past mettle. That’s the same way when we are about to buy a new car, we become more aware of cars on the road. Your courage consciousness increases.

3. Make a daily review and record your acts of courage.

Instead of reviewing merely what you have done, review your pluck—the thing that made your accomplishment possible. That way, you are focused on you and your strength, not merely your activities of the day. All the accomplishments you ever make will not add one inch to your reservoir of that delicious zesty feeling that you have what it takes.

As an example, for your daily review, instead of listing only the accomplishment “I read a poem in class,” write “l read my poem in class even though I was terrified.” Instead of “Made vacation plans,” write “I talked with my partner about my hopes for our family vacation, in spite of my worry they would refuse to go.” Or instead of “I hired a new secretary,” write “I was concerned about making a wrong choice, but hired someone anyway.”  It’s the in spite of, the even though, or the anyway part that makes the act courageous.

I was afraid of ________________________ and I __________________anyway.

In spite of _______________________________I _________________________.

I did _____________________________ even though ______________________.

To fully acknowledge yourself requires that you track yourself during the day to notice your moments of fear, resistance, dread, pain, discouragement, and intimidation (we all have them). The point is to nourish yourself by acknowledging the reality of your moments of courage. Even if, in the moment, you don't reach your ideal choice, give yourself credit for increased awareness, and for any attempt to do the courageous act!  

Reviewing these collected moments of courage fortifies your Zesty Self and reminds you that you do have what it takes and you are indeed enough.  


Brown, Brene. (2012). Daring Greatly; How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York City, NY: Avery.

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