Updated: Nov 16, 2019
A definition of courage and how we can learn to deal with our insecurities to become braver and to speak up for ourselves and for others
Note: This is the first article of a series called “What is…?”, in which I take complex ideas and strip them down to their basic definition to make them more approachable.
We dreamed about it when we were kids. We fantasized about being the hero — for ourselves and others. The kind of person that stands up against injustices and speaks up when needed. We were brave. We had courage.
Then for most of us, life happens. We forget what we dreamed about and visualized when we were children and we start to listen to the people that are around us and to society in general. We become self-conscious and doubts start taking roots. We are being told that we need to conform and wait ordinarily in line, that we need to be “normal” and not step out too much as to not be judged as weirdos.
Do you recognize yourself in this description? I most certainly do. Time and time again I was told what I can and cannot do, what I can achieve and what is out of my reach, or that I needed to be patient and wait. I believed all of it. It would be easier to blame society and the people around me for this, from my parents to my elementary school teachers, all the way to my boss.
The reality is, I have a choice. I can abide by the rules and have fear dictate my life or I can take responsibility for my own beliefs and actions. The choice is mine, and is yours as well.
Some people might say that you cannot achieve something out of their own set of limiting beliefs or because they really want to sabotage you. Most often though they will do it out of love, because they care about you and they think they are protecting you by setting (and limiting) your expectations.
The reason is, just like you and me, they also have forgotten what it means and what it feels like to be courageous, and same as you and me they are also told what they can and cannot do.
You cannot blame society for this either. In a way, it is actually society’s job to limit people’s courage. Here is a provocative thought to consider:
If the majority of people would be brave enough to go after what they truly want and overcome their limiting beliefs, we will probably refuse to conform to society’s principles and rules and we will end up having a revolution every other day. It will be chaos.
The price of society’s order and acceptance is that we start second-guessing ourselves and we lose sight of what we dreamed about: being courageous.
Conformity is indeed a powerful pull for everyone, since it’s much easier to agree and avoid conflict than it is to speak up and commit to the opposing side. Studies have shown time and time again how easy it is to simply comply, even it defies logic (for an interesting study on this, check out the Asch conformity experiment).
Sometimes, however, we simply need to step out of the line and stand up for ourselves. We need to look on the inside and find our old childhood friend: courage.
To me, it became a necessity at one point in my life. I was in a very dark place, I was parking myself in a corner. I was living in fear, in “survival mode,” believing that I couldn’t aspire to more because I was convinced I didn’t deserve it. I had to do something to change my life, else risking not living at all.
So, I created a little experiment for myself as a self-help tool: When something seems overwhelmingly huge and complex, I decide to start with the basics, with its very definition.
This is for two reasons. First, it allows me to gain knowledge of the thing that is causing the overwhelming sensation in the first place. Suddenly it is not an abstract idea that swirls in my mind anymore, rather it is something that I can define, put a label on, and organize as I see fit. Second, it allows me to simplify it and approach it in baby steps.
Let’s take courage and start our little experiment.
Step 1: Define
What is courage? What does it mean exactly?
According to the Oxford dictionary:
“Courage is the ability to do something that frightens us, it is strength in the face of pain and grief.”
According to Mark Twain:
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
I like Mark Twain’s definition a lot. It means that I don’t necessarily have to eradicate my fears, but learn to first identify them and second to accept them.
Taking this further, I decided to give my very own definition of the concept of Courage, something that would make sense to me and that I could identify with.
I believe that courage is the ability to overcome oneself by transcending our own self-limiting beliefs and to speak up for ourselves and for others as well.
Self-limiting beliefs are the boundaries that we set in our mind. It doesn’t matter if they are deeply ingrained in our subconscious or if we willingly abide by it. Being courageous for me is the ability to face and then actively push against those boundaries.
The other key element of my personal definition is that courageous people are able to stand for themselves and help others do the same at the same time. This is why courage for me is the basis, the foundation of leadership.
Now it’s your turn: what does Courage mean to you? How would you define for yourself?
Step 2: Simplify
So now that I have a definition (and hopefully you have one as well now), how do I go from being held hostage of my own fears and self-limitations to find the courage, to finally free myself?
First, as simple as this might sound, I started by remembering what I forgot and came naturally as a child. I reminded myself to be courageous on a daily basis, multiple times if necessary. Here is how I did it:
I wrote the word “Courage” on Post-Its and hanged those notes in strategic places at home, that I pass by more than once a day. Like the bathroom mirror, the fridge, and, most importantly, the door of my home. So, it’s the last image I have before leaving.I made the word “Courage” my phone and computer screen background. Since the key is to remind myself as many times as I can to be brave and I spend most of my time in front of screens (sad story), this is the perfect place.I made the word “Courage” my personal mantra. I whisper it to myself every time I am about to step into a meeting or catch the subway. One thing that I found most helpful is repeating this mantra in front of a mirror, by looking directly at my own reflection.
By doing those little things, I have noticed tangible improvements almost overnight. I was able to challenge my own limiting beliefs that I wasn’t enough and of what I could achieve.
Now that I was reminding myself on a daily basis of what it means to be courageous, it was time to start feeling courageous as well by taking small, consistent wins every day. Without exception.
Here are some examples, taken from a set of my personal small wins. Imagine to find yourself in the following situations:
You are in a meeting and someone is saying something you do not fully understand. Instead of nodding your head and pretending you have fully figured out the implications, speak up and ask for clarification. Chances are you are not the only person to have doubts and you will be secretly doing everyone else a favor by asking.You are in conversation with someone (mother/boyfriend/your boss, whoever this person might be) and something comes up that you disagree with. Instead of glossing over the topic for fear that an argument might ensue, calmly state your point of view. Having a different opinion will enrich your conversation and bring you closer to the other person.Are you sitting right now? If so, how are you sitting? Are you slumped, hunching your back and shoulders? Lift yourself up right now — sit straight, shoulders back. Your body and the way it moves can send powerful messages to your brain. By changing your posture and taking up more space, you are sending a clear you can do it thought to your mind.
I am going to be honest with you, taking small wins might feel great afterward, but it also made me feel highly uncomfortable. Learning to speak up and standing up for myself was difficult, especially because I was not accustomed to doing so. Furthermore, the people around me were not accustomed as well, therefore they were not quite sure of what to make of my changing behavior.
This is the time in which my newly rediscovered courage was tested. I was tempted beyond belief to back down, forget all about it, and step back in line. If you are experiencing the same, hold on with me. This is the moment that we go from the small wins to the big wins.
Because once we remember what it means and what it feels like to be courageous on a daily basis — and learn to resist the urge to go back to hiding ourselves — we are ready for the big wins.
How would it feel to have the courage to go after the big wins, to transform our lives, and go after what we truly want? What are the big wins anyway and how do we define them?
Well, this is an entirely different story, so stay tuned if you want to find out more.
Now, it’s about you. What do you think courage is and how do you express courage in your daily life? What are your small and big wins?
Leave a comment below, and share your story. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to subscribe.