There are two methods I will suggest for building courage. The first approach is similar to progressive weight training. Start with weights you can lift but which are challenging for you, and then progressively train up to heavier and heavier weights as you grow stronger. So tackle your smallest fears first, and progressively train up to bigger and bigger fears. Training yourself to lift 300 pounds isn’t so hard if you’ve already lifted 290. Similarly, speaking in front of an audience of 1000 people isn’t so tough once you’ve already spoken to 900.
So grab a piece of paper, and write down one of your fears that you’d like to overcome. Then number from one to ten, and write out ten variations of this fear, with number one being the least anxiety-producing and number ten being the most anxiety-producing. This is your fear hierarchy. For example, if you’re afraid of asking someone out on a date, then number one on your list might be going out to a public place and smiling at someone you find attractive (very mild fear). Number two might be smiling at ten attractive strangers in a single day. Number ten might be asking out your ideal date in front of all your mutual friends, when you’re almost certain you’ll be turned down flat and everyone in the room will laugh (extreme fear). Now start by setting a goal to complete number one on your list. Once you’ve had that success (and success in this case simply means taking action, regardless of the outcome), then move on to number two, and so on, until you’re ready to tackle number ten or you just don’t feel the fear is limiting you anymore. You may need to adjust the items on your list to make them practical for you to actually experience. And if you ever feel the next step is too big, then break it down into additional gradients. If you can lift 290 pounds but not 300, then try 295 or even 291. Take this process as gradually as you need to, such that the next step is a mild challenge for you but one you feel fairly confident you can complete. And feel free to repeat a past step multiple times if you find it helpful to prepare you for the next step. Pace yourself.
By following this progressive training process, you’ll accomplish two things. You’ll cease reinforcing the fear/avoidance response that you exhibited in the past. And you’ll condition yourself to act more courageously in future situations. So your feelings of fear will diminish at the same time that your expression of courage grows. Neurologically you’ll be weakening the limbic control over your actions while strengthening the neocortical control, gradually moving from unconscious mouse-like to conscious human-like behavior.
The second approach to building courage is to acquire additional knowledge and skill within the domain of your fear. Confronting fears head-on can be helpful, but if your fear is largely due to ignorance and lack of skill, then you can usually reduce or eliminate the fear with information and training. For example, if you’re afraid to quit your job and start your own business, even though you’d absolutely love to be in business for yourself, then start reading books and taking classes on how to start your own business. Spend an afternoon at your local library researching the subject, or do the research online. Join the local Chamber of Commerce and any relevant trade organizations in your field. Attend conferences. Build connections. Enlist the help of a mentor. Build your skill to the point where you start to feel confident that you could actually succeed, and this knowledge will help you act more boldly and courageously when you’re ready. This method is especially effective when a large part of your fear is due to the unknown. Often just reading a book or two on the subject will be enough to dispel the fear so that you’re able to take action.
These two methods are my personal favorites, but there are many additional ways to condition yourself to overcome fear, including neuro-linguistic programming, implosion therapy, systematic desensitization, and self-confrontation. You can research them via an online search engine if you wish to learn such methods and increase the number of fear-busting tools in your arsenal. Most of these can be easily self-administered (implosion therapy is the notable exception).
The exact process you use to build courage isn’t important. What’s important is that you consciously do it. Just as your muscles will atrophy if you don’t regularly stress them, your courage will atrophy if you don’t constantly challenge yourself to face down your fears. In the absence of this kind of conscious conditioning, you’ll automatically become weak in both body and mind. If you aren’t regularly exercising your courage, then you are strengthening your fear by default; there is no middle ground. Just as your muscles automatically atrophy from lack of use, so your courage will automatically decay in the absence of conscious conditioning.
Now this may sound overly gloomy, so here’s a positive way to look at it. Heavy weights can be a physical burden, but they are helpful tools to build strong muscles. You would not look at a 45-pound dumbbell and say, “Why must you be so heavy?” It is what it is. Heaviness is your thought, not an intrinsic property of the dumbbell itself. Similarly, do not look at the things you fear and say, “Why must you be so scary?” Fear is your reaction, not a property of the object of your anxiety.
Fear is not your enemy. It is a compass pointing you to the areas where you need to grow. So when you encounter a new fear within yourself, celebrate it as an opportunity for growth, just as you would celebrate reaching a new personal best with strength training.
Catch a Glimpse of Your Own Greatness
Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to the dark place where it leads.
– Erica Jong
The highest courage is to dare to appear to be what one is.
– John Lancaster Spalding
Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
So what do you do with your newly developed courage? Where will it lead you? The answer is that it will permit you to lead a far more fulfilling and meaningful life. You will truly begin living as a daring human being instead of a timid mouse. You will uncover and develop your greatest talents. You will begin living far more consciously and deliberately than you ever have before. Instead of reacting to events, you will proactively manufacture your own events.
Courage is something you can only truly experience alone. It is a private victory, not a public one. Summoning the courage to listen to your innermost desires is not a group activity and does not result from building a consensus with others. Kahlil Gibran writes in The Prophet, “The vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.” The purpose of your existence is yours alone to discover. No one on earth has lived through the exact same experiences you have, and no one thinks the exact same thoughts you do.
On the one hand, this is a lonely realization. Whether you live alone or enjoy the deepest intimacy with a loving partner, deep down you must still face the reality that your life is yours alone to live. You can choose to temporarily yield control of your life to others, whether it be to a company, a spouse, or simply to the pressures of daily living, but you can never give away your personal responsibility for the results. Whether you assume direct and conscious control over your life or merely react to events as they happen to you, you and you alone must bear the consequences.
If you commit to following the path of courage, you will ultimately be forced to confront what is perhaps the greatest fear of all – that you are far more powerful and capable than you initially realized, that your ultimate potential is far greater than anything you’ve experienced in your past, and that with this power comes tremendous responsibility. You may not be able to solve all the woes of this planet, but if you ever do commit yourself 100% to the fulfillment of your true potential, you can significantly impact the lives of many people, and that impact will ripple through the future for generations to come.
What is the difference between you and one of those legendary historical figures who did have such an impact? You both had many of the same fears. You both were born with talents in some areas and weaknesses in others. The only thing stopping you is fear, and the only thing that will get you past it is courage. What you do with your life isn’t up to your parents, your boss, or your spouse. It’s up to you and you alone.
Catching a glimpse of your own greatness can be one of the most unsettling experiences imaginable. And even more disturbing is the awareness of the tremendous challenges that await you if you accept it. Living consciously is not an easy path, but it is a uniquely human experience, and it requires making the committed decision to permanently let go of that mouse within you. Going after your greatest and most ambitious dreams and experiencing failure and disappointment, running butt up against your most humbling human limitations instead of living with a comfortable padding of potential – these fears are common to us all.
The first few times you encounter such fears, you may quickly retreat back to the illusory security of life as a mouse. But if you keep exercising your courage, you will eventually mature to the point where you can openly accept the challenges and responsibilities of life as a fully conscious human being. Continuing to live as a mouse will simply hold no more interest for you. You will acknowledge within the deepest recesses of your being, I have awakened to this incredible potential within me, and I accept what that will require of me. Whatever it costs me, whatever I must sacrifice to follow this path, bring it on. I’m ready. Even though you will still experience fear, you will recognize it for the illusion it is, and you will know how to use your human courage to face it down, such that fear will no longer have the power to stop you.
Embrace the Daring Adventure
Before you embark on any path ask the question, does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it and then you must choose another path. The trouble is that nobody asks the question. And when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart the path is ready to kill him.
– Carlos Castaneda
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
– Kahlil Gibran
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.
– Dale Carnegie
As you develop a sense of your true purpose in life, you may begin to feel an uneasy disconnect between your current life situation and the one you envision moving towards. These two worlds may seem so different to you that you cannot mentally conceive of how to build a bridge between them. How can you balance the practical reality of taking care of your third-dimensional obligations like earning money to pay your bills and taxes, pleasing your boss, raising your family, and maintaining social relationships with people who can’t even relate to what you’re experiencing vs. the new vision of yourself you desperately want to move towards? A whole host of new fears may crop up related to this seemingly impossible shift. How will you support yourself? What will become of your relationships? Are you just deluding yourself?
The best advice I can give you here is to forget about trying to build a bridge. Focus instead on independently beginning the process of manifesting the new vision of yourself from scratch, as if it were a totally separate thread in your life. If this creates a temporary incongruence in your life, just do it anyway. For example, suppose you currently work as a divorce attorney, but your courage tells you that you must eventually abandon such adversarial work. You envision yourself passionately teaching couples how to heal their broken relationships. But you can’t even fathom yourself as a trial lawyer trying to speak about healthy relationships, and on top of that problem, you can’t see any way to make a decent living in this new career, at least not quickly. There’s just too big a disconnect between this new vision and practical reality. So instead of trying to bridge this gap, just begin building your new vision completely from scratch in whatever time you have, even if it’s only an hour or two each week. Keep doing your regular work as an attorney, but in your spare time, start posting anonymously on relationship message boards to give couples advice on how to heal their relationships. Use the oratory skills you developed as an attorney to begin speaking to small groups about healing relationships. Perhaps create a new web site, and start writing and posting articles about your new passion. You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re an attorney, but don’t worry about bridging these two worlds. Live in paradox. Just start developing the new you, and allow the old one to continue in parallel for a while.
What will happen is that you’ll develop skill in your new undertaking, and you’ll eventually be able to support yourself from it, even if you can’t see how to do so right away. You may not be able to see a way to support yourself in your new vision right now, and that’s fine. Just begin it anyway, doing it for free, without any concern of how to turn it into a new full-time career. Patiently wait for clarity; you will eventually find a way to make it work. Then when the time is right, you’ll be able to peacefully let go of the old career and focus all your energy on the new one. At some point you’ll be able to commit fully to your new self. Your passion for your new work will eventually overwhelm your fear of letting go of your old source of stability. So instead of trying to transform your old career into your new one, just start the process of building your new one, and let your old one gradually fade. Even if you can only invest an hour a week in your new undertaking, you will probably discover that this hour is more fulfilling to you than all the other hours put together, and that passion will drive you to find a way to gradually grow this presence until it fills up most of your days. The most important thing is to begin now by introducing your new vision of yourself to your daily life, even if you can only initially do so in a small way.
No matter how difficult it may seem, make the choice to live consciously. Do not succumb to that half-conscious realm of fear-based thinking, filling your life with distractions to avoid facing what you feel in those silent spaces between your thoughts. Either exercise your human endowment of courage and progressively build the strength to face your deepest, darkest fears to live as the powerful being you truly are, or admit that your fears are too much for you, and embrace life as a mouse. But make this choice consciously and with full awareness of its consequences. If you are going to allow fear to win the battle for your life, then proclaim it the victor and forfeit the match. If you simply avoid living consciously and courageously, then that is equivalent to giving up on life itself, where your continued existence becomes little more than a waiting period before physical death – the nothing as opposed to the daring adventure.
Don’t die without embracing the daring adventure your life is meant to be. You may go broke. You may experience failure and rejection repeatedly. You may endure multiple dysfunctional relationships. But these are all milestones along the path of a life lived courageously. They are your private victories, carving a deeper space within you to be filled with an abundance of joy, happiness, and fulfillment. So go ahead and feel the fear. Then summon the courage to follow your dreams anyway. That is strength undefeatable.