How to build your psychological courage
When we hear the word courage, we most commonly visualise scenarios around defending ourselves or others from attack — physical, verbal, emotional or psychological. Yet our personal courage ranges deeper than just fight or flight and, when triggered, can have significant positive benefits for our health and wellbeing, opportunities for success and our ability to move forward from crisis.
The concept of courage has been a subject of much discussion for philosophers across millennia and is a source of interest and investigation within a range of research interests, including psychology, sociology, leadership and education. While there is some debate around the mechanisms that make up courage, there is a general agreement that courage involves persistence in the face of danger or hardship and that we draw on courage to affect some kind of change. There is also agreement that we tap into different types of courage in various contexts to manage the specific demands of that particular situation. These include physical, moral and, more recently, psychological courage.
Bringing more psychological courage to life can bring all kinds of opportunities leading you towards the life you want to live and the person you want to be.
Physical courage is perhaps the easiest that comes to mind and is generally defined as the kind of courage we draw upon when facing a physical threat. It relies on us to put our physical selves at risk to protect self or others from some kind of bodily harm or assault. Moral courage, on the other hand, is the type of courage we need when we must stand up to a social wrong or social hypocrisy and is the kind of courage most often represented in stories and fables. It relies on us risking our social standing and the support of our peers but is embedded in our values and sense of right and wrong.
The main focus for this article, however, is psychological courage. Psychological courage refers to the strength we have to confront the truth of ourselves and our behaviours and to act where required to elicit change. This kind of courage involves facing our deep-seated fear of acknowledging and accepting our faults and vulnerabilities. It is about confronting the fact that we all behave badly at times, have blind spots as well as dysfunctional or unproductive habits that not only impact on our physical wellbeing, but our emotional and psychological wellbeing, too. It is the kind of courage required to acknowledge and accept the dissonance or gap that may exist between who we think we are and who we actually are. That is, the differences that often exist between our ideal and actual selves.
Strengths of courage
In positive psychology, psychological courage allows us to overcome our personal limitations in order to pursue a fuller life. Being courageous in this context helps us to maximise our chances of growing and evolving throughout life to become the best version of ourselves that we can be. It is about choosing to risk being vulnerable in order to pursue our greatest aspirations. To achieve this, positive psychologists have aligned the idea of psychological courage with four strengths: integrity (acting with authenticity), bravery (expressing moral courage in the face of opposition), persistence and vitality (being wholehearted in your approach to life).
At the heart of any definition of courage generally is the idea that there needs to be some kind of catalyst and risk. Whether this catalyst is always fear is up for debate. Discussion around the role of fear in the concept of courage is ongoing and the basic questions are these: Do we need fear to be in play to draw on courage? Is fear the only catalyst for courage to be engaged? While some psychologists believe fear must be in play for courage to be triggered, others suggest that other prompts can be just as useful in galvanising it.
These theorists suggest that in everyday circumstances it is perhaps more a sense of discomfort or disquiet that can trigger the use of courage. That is, the feeling of conflict between the life we’re living and the life we want to live. This theory suggests that psychological courage is a necessary part of an ongoing process: the first part is about recognising the need for self-reflection, the second is about using courage to practise self-reflection and the third requires us to engage our psychological courage to do something about it. And this is where the four strengths associated with courage can be used to help us to learn how to engage with the mechanism of courage in order to initiate the kind of change that will reduce our disquiet.
The first strength, integrity, is about acting with authenticity; being true to yourself in terms of your values and ethics but also about being honest about who you are. That is, about taking responsibility for how you think and feel and what you do. While it is not about seeking perfection — because such a thing cannot exist — it is about rooting out the things about us that stop us from achieving our goals and actively managing or changing those things. While this might, at first glance, look contrary to the idea of integrity, integrity has an adaptive component to it, allowing us to modify our behaviour so that we can be more effective in living an authentic life.
The desire to live an authentic life is universal and has been a topic of instruction in religion and philosophy for millennia, yet we still struggle to understand what it means and to apply it to our daily lives. Arguably, all that we really need to understand is that at the core of most ideas around integrity and authenticity is that we not only need to know ourselves, but we need to beourselves as well. And this is where the strength of bravery is enacted.
Bravery, in the context of psychological courage, is expressing moral courage in the face of opposition — that is, opposition from others and the innate opposition we tend to hold around truly knowing and accepting ourselves. The difficulty attached to developing psychological courage is that it can really only be drawn upon within moments of trouble or disquiet. It relies on us being on the edge of some kind of precipice, where something has to give. It relies on us being at the point where, to be able to move forward, we must take a deep breath and choose a different path or accept a difficult truth. In essence, it requires change.
While bravery requires us to see the truth of something and act upon it, it doesn’t necessarily mean acting alone. Indeed, it can require just as much (if not more) bravery to ask for help than it does to act in isolation. While it might not seem like it, there is bravery in drawing strength from your social network, not only because it requires us to outwardly admit that something needs to change but because it also requires us to act with an audience who may help to keep us accountable.
It should be remembered though, that there is a very big difference in asking for support and being proactive, and asking for support and being passive. The first requires bravery and action: asking for what we need and using that help actively. The second passes on action and responsibility to others — that is, we rely on someone else to “fix” what needs changing, rather than acting to elicit change ourselves. This difference between action and passivity is where the third strength of persistence comes in.
Persistence is an important strength attached to psychological courage because it reinforces the fact that this kind of courage isn’t about one moment in time, but instead many moments — in the face of many obstacles both internal and external. As such, psychological courage must be thoughtful for it isn’t about being frivolous or throwing caution to the wind. Instead, it is about planning and understanding the challenges you will face and how you might manage them as the change process is enacted.
This means drawing on, or building from, our ability to self-regulate so that when we enter the zone between the now and the achievement of our goals, we can maintain our courage to work through risk, fear and uncertainty. It means being realistic about timeframes, about the hurdles we may expect to encounter and having multiple strategies to deal with these, including drawing on our social supports.
It is, therefore, all about taking action. Action inevitably takes courage and is intrinsically linked to risk. When we find the source(s) of our dissatisfaction, we need to act to change what needs to and can be changed as well as to manage what needs to be managed. This process, like the process of discovery, takes time, conscious effort and commitment; it also requires that we accept risk and all that it entails. When we do this, we exhibit the final strength linked to psychological courage: vitality.
Vitality is being wholehearted in your approach to life. It is about launching yourself into each and every day prepared to succeed and prepared to fail. Our psychological courage prepares us for all that may come, the good and the bad, the dreams that come true and the hopes that are dashed. Psychological courage in this context is accepting that with life comes pain and disappointment but that this fact shouldn’t diminish our sense of hope, wonderment or determination to keep moving forward.
Taking back control
While all of these strengths help us to define psychological courage, at the heart of it is a need to take ownership and control over self. Typically, we seek external explanations for our discontent or failings. We see the failings of others as influencing our own: a romantic partner who doesn’t “get” us, a boss who isn’t fair, family members who expect too much. We often look everywhere else except at our own actions when trying to sort out what is wrong, yet bringing a mirror to our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours is really the most valid place to look.
In the end, we cannot control others but we can control ourselves — what we think, what we feel and how we respond to what is happening around us. Yet we often abdicate this control when we look to others to make us happy, to provide a smooth path to our goals, to give us the life we think we deserve and to take responsibility when things go wrong.
To counteract this instinctive desire to keep our egos safe from the truth, we need to remember that wecreate the world we live in: with our choices, with the way we interpret the events that happen to us and the people we give our power to. We may suddenly realise we’re not sure how we got where we are; how on earth we ended up in this place, this job or this relationship. Other times our habits keep us making the same mistakes, reacting the same way in certain situations and playing out the same scenes with partners, employers, colleagues, friends and family.
Persistence is an important strength because it reinforces the fact that this kind of courage isn’t about one moment in time, but instead many moments — in the face of many obstacles both internal and external.
Moving from a place that isn’t what we want or where we want to be requires us to find the courage to face our role in it. It begins by getting a clear picture about what it is that we most want from every part of our lives. It’s about unpacking the parts of life that aren’t satisfactory and then identifying the fears, habits, behaviours and choices we’ve made and continue to make that may be inadvertently holding us back from having it.
It isn’t a pretty process and it’s not something you can come to overnight. It is a process of slowly but surely uncovering and taking ownership of the things that don’t feel right and finding solutions to them. Sometimes these solutions aren’t going to require huge shifts in life but instead more subtle changes. For example, discontent in a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean divorce or a split, nor does discontent in a job necessarily require a complete change of career. Instead, it could simply be a matter of recognising that our ways of seeing life mean that we focus on problems and not problem-solving. It could be a matter of improving our communication skills, learning to understand our triggers or sensitivities and developing strategies to better manage them. It could be about learning to appreciate our strengths and successes, expanding our skill set at work, becoming more assertive or selfish, or understanding the patterns that exist in our lives.
All of these outcomes rely on psychological courage and the leap we must take to engage it. Bringing more psychological courage to life can bring all kinds of opportunities leading us towards the life we want to live and the person we want to be.
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