Building Your Courage Muscles

Building Your Courage Muscles

I was talking to my massage therapist the other night about a workshop called Courageous Choices that I led recently for a group of senior executives. I was preparing them to exit their companies and discover a legacy beyond just money.  Helping people make courageous choices is at the heart of what I do as a Transition Coach.

Our lives are filled with moments of choice that lead to transitions. Whether it’s taking a new job with a different company, asserting new boundaries within an important relationship or a significant transition like exiting your business – each step toward change requires moving beyond a well trod comfort zone and that takes courage.

For most of us, the path from the Land of Wishing to the Land of Having requires us to step through the Gate of Doing. Typically, we step through that gate only when a) the pain of staying where we are is too great to stay put or b) the desire for that for which we have been wishing becomes strong enough to overcome the inertia of resisting. I’ve seen that pain come from any of a thousand different avenues for the people I work with – getting fired, not being able to raise the next round of financing, learning your spouse is preparing to leave you, a serious medical issue, death of a loved one, the empty nest or a gnawing restlessness that you just can’t put your finger on but you know you just can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing any longer.

Nearly everyone finds that “wanting” something to be different may be the starting point, but as the old saying goes “nothing changes if nothing changes.” Change requires action, plain and simple – there’s no avoiding it.

It is often fear that keeps us from taking the action we most need to take to see the changes we desire. Fear is not the enemy, inertia is. Fear challenges you to build your courage muscles and when you make friends with fear by stepping outside of your comfort zone, your comfort zone expands.

Too often we hold ourselves back from taking the steps that will improve our lives and fulfill us, hoping that our fear will go away. The fear that you might not make enough money or that you won’t be viewed as successful after you leave your company or that someone is going to be upset about your decision can keep you stuck where you are, hoping that “some day” you’ll wake up and feel the courage to try something new.

Believe me, courage is not going to find you, you’re going to have to tackle that fear and step into the courage whether you want to get a new job, give a speech or leave a relationship that just clearly isn’t working anymore.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneering psychiatrist in the work of grief surrounding the dying, found that the most oft-cited fear was the fear of death, even though we all know that it is inevitable and unavoidable. Her research showed that those who felt they understood and acted on their purpose in life or found special meaning in what they had been able to do were the ones who faced significantly less fear and despair in the final weeks of their lives than those who had not.

Identifying the work we are meant to do in this world and the strength of character to do something that frightens us and then deploying the physical or mental or emotional willingness to do it is empowering and exhilarating. It requires reflection, introspection, a willingness to look at things in a new way, and the courage to actually step out of one’s comfort zone and do something different and unfamiliar and yes, sometimes, frightening.

Often I hear “What will other people think or say if I (fill in the blank)?”

Self-esteem is frequently measured in terms of our perceived value to others.The fundamental question here is how you feel about yourself. What is the value you place on your very existence? I mean this as much in the deep dark of night when you might be alone, as during the day when you are actively serving a purpose, or some other time when you may have company around you.

What do you believe is the source of your value? We could cast this question many ways: economic value, intellectual value, emotional value, companionship value — or something much closer to the core of who you are.

I’ve suggested before that self-esteem is the single most important issue we face as individuals, and which aggregates into a collective situation that is holding back the progress of all of society. Imagine if we could all feel better about ourselves, love ourselves more, and be in close harmony with the fact of our existence. What, then, might you find the courage to really do with yourself?

In esoteric studies, the concept of death is synonymous with the concept of change. Without change, progress is impossible, and the resistance to change, progress and the mere consideration of death are the same thing.

It’s fair to say that most people avoid the topic of death, to the point of rarely if ever talking about it, thinking about it, planning for it, or seeking some true, personal understanding. Typically, the only time there are actual confrontations or conversations are when it’s right in our face.  Besides that, death is usually relegated to the realm of unspeakable inner fear of the unknown.

It is my observation that a significant part of the obsession around professional and financial success in society are rooted in struggles with both self-esteem and a sense that we can somehow avoid the inevitability of our own death by accumulating enough praise or resources.

A fellow I’m working with has become clear about the specific step that he needs to take to have the life of his dream, one he’s been dreaming of for as long as he can remember. He admitted that he was worried about what his family and friends would say if he took this step. He wasn’t sure he could stand up to their criticism of his decision, even though he knew that if he didn’t act soon his dream would really be beyond his reach. I shared with him a favorite quote: The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. – Rollo May

Courage is the willingness to act in accordance with one’s beliefs, especially in spite of criticism or disapproval of others.

Many people stay in jobs they detest, continue to run companies they have outgrown and go to events with people they despise or behave in certain ways that violate their integrity just to please other people, all the while draining their life force into the pit of conformity for the poison pill of approval. To me, it is a sad waste of a life. After all, I often half-joke that if your friends think less of you for chasing your dream, you need some better friends! And, families often use the tool of guilt to manipulate their loved ones into conformity because of their own fears and wants.

While it’s easy to confuse courage and bravery, I think courage is not the absence of fear, but the resistance to fear and mastery of that which you have not yet achieved.  How long will you wait to claim the life that is yours alone to live?

Here are some questions I use to regain my courage:

1. What do I really (in my deepest heart) want? (Be precise)

2. What do I need to do to have that? (List every action)

3. What am I afraid of? (List every fear, no matter how silly it looks in writing)

4. What does avoiding this fear cost me?

5. What would I do if I weren’t afraid? (List every action)

6. At the end of my life, will I regret not having done this?

7. How will my life benefit from facing this fear?

8. What else might I be able to do if I faced this fear?

9. What specific actions must I take in spite of this fear so I may have what I want?

10. What one action am I willing to take today and who can I ask to support me?

We might come up with a thousand reasons why we are all unequal, and why some people are seemingly more powerful, though we all face the same fate, and we all live on Earth with limited time. Were we to admit that fact, we might want to have more fun and do something more meaningful while we’re here.

Dear friends, I want for you the life of your dreams. You deserve it, you’re worth it and as Christopher Robin said to Pooh, “Promise me you’ll always remember you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.” If you need me to be your Christopher Robin, I’m here.