The True Definition of Courage
For so long I thought that courage meant the absence of fear. When adults in my life would tell me stories about great heroes, whether historical or otherwise, I often pictured them as people who were never afraid of anything. I imagined them as immortal and above me. These folks were never afraid of failing or looking funny.
My definition of courage as a child was something like this: the super power that I wish I could have.
As a child, it is easy to believe such things, but as you grow older you begin to realize something: everyone is just as scared as I am. From Olympic Athletes to soldiers in the military, everyone experiences fear. Being afraid is a natural part of being human.
With this in mind, I think it is appropriate for us to change our definition of courage. Although I’m not a huge fan of simple dictionary definitions, my man Noah Webster did an excellent job on this one:
Turns out even the dictionary had a better definition for courage than I did, who knew?
Courage is literally the ability to face your fears. This means that we are all capable of great courage.
How to Overcome Your Fears
In fact, the only way to overcome any fear is to face it head on. This isn’t just something that people say because it sounds good, it is actually backed by science.
I’m going to use an example from my life to illustrate this.
I struggle with social anxiety, which, in layman’s terms, is the fear of social interaction. In reality, people with social anxiety are afraid of rejection. We are afraid that if we share our true selves with others, they will be disgusted.
There are several treatment options for social anxiety, but the one truly effective form of treatment is something called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
Here’s a quick definition of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, as the defined by the experts at the Social Anxiety Institute:
“The cognitive part of the therapy refers to thinking or learning and is the part of therapy that can be ‘taught’ to the person. The person then needs to take what has been taught, practice it at home, and through means of repetition, get that new ‘learning’ down into the brain over and over again so that becomes automatic or habitual… The behavioral component of CBT involves participation in an active, structured therapy group, consisting of people with clinical social anxiety. In the behavioral group, people voluntarily engage in practical activities that are mildly anxiety-causing and proceed in a flexible, steady, scheduled manner. By moving forward in this manner, step by step, and through the use of repetition, the anxiety felt in social situations is gradually reduced.”
Okay so maybe that doesn’t count as a ‘quick’ definition…
We’re going to focus on the behavioral component of the therapy in our discussion.
As someone with social anxiety, the only way to overcome my anxiety is to face the very things that make me feel anxious. This may include things like starting a conversation with a stranger or speaking up in a large group.
This part of the therapy is often called exposure. The name says it all, you are exposing yourself to the things you are afraid of.
This type of treatment work with other types of phobias as well.
Arachnophobia, for example, is also curable with the help of exposure therapy.
In 2012, Science Illustrated reported a study conducted at Northwest University where 12 arachnophobes went through exposure therapy. During the therapy, participants were shown images of spiders and were taught about how to approach them. After just one three-hour session, many of the patients were able to go as far as to hold a spider in their bare hands.
Changing our Relationship with Fear
It’s one thing to know that facing your fears will help you overcome them, it’s a whole nother monster to actually face them in real life.
One of the most important steps in this process is to change your relationship with fear.
Often times we associate fear with negative things. I am afraid of doing ______ so I probably shouldn’t do it.
In reality, our fear often points to something we should be chasing, not running away from. Fear is a great compass that can point you to what you really want.
Most of the time we are most afraid of what we really want because it involves some level of risk.
You might be afraid to start a business because you don’t want to end up looking like a failure.
You might not want to ask the person you like out on a date because you’re afraid of being rejected.
You might be afraid to express yourself because you don’t want to look like a fool.
Do you see how fear can serve as a great ally? Use your fear to help you, rather than letting it control you. Next time you are afraid to take a step towards a goal or do something that seems crazy, use your fear as a compass and dive right in.