You’ve always dreamed of taking a ballroom dancing class, but when your best friend suggests you both sign up, you feel frozen by fear. What if I look silly…or fall on my face? you fret. I’m just not a brave person. Not true! Research shows that real courage — the kind needed to follow a dream, make a tough decision, or tell the truth when it hurts — is already within all of us, and tapping into it leads to more joy, slashes anxiety, and helps us sidestep regret.
The key? Rather than putting up a shield to protect ourselves, bravery is born from the opposite impulse —letting down our guard. “Courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor, and my favorite translation of the word is a ‘greatness of heart,’” explains Tara Brach, PhD, author of Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN ($19.60, Amazon). “We’re courageous when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable for the sake of being authentic or loving. This happens when, for example, we share something that may embarrass us, or drop a task we’re anxiously trying to get done because a loved one needs us.”
Even bravery that doesn’t lead to a “win” boosts our can-do, adds Margie Warrell, author of Make Your Mark: A Guidebook for the Brave Hearted ($20.00, Amazon). “Harvard researchers found that our ‘psychological immune system’ bounces back from an excess of courage — even when a risk doesn’t result in a positive outcome—far more easily than when an excess of caution holds us back from trying,” she says. “In fact, studies show one of our top regrets is living too safe.”
Here, experts share how small doses of daring can propel you toward joy — no Superwoman cape needed!
The Fear: “I will fail.”
When your friend tells you that she’s starting her own business, you can’t help but think about your safe- yet-stagnant job and how much you yearn to follow your own dream.
I wish I could go for it, you think, but it could end badly. “When we’re unsure if we’ll succeed, the fear center of our brains becomes twice as focused on what may go wrong,” says Warrell. “So we’re doubly sensitive to potential losses and hardwired to be extra cautious.”
Bravery Booster: Step into the future.
Foil fear by creating a vision board — a poster filled with images depicting your ideal future or goal, urges Warrell, noting that in one study, pre-retirees who were shown a digitally aged image of themselves socked away more money because the photos of their future inspired them to be more goal-oriented in the present. The same principle applies to courage: By making your dream tangible, a vision board inspires the brave baby steps that spark change.
The Fear: “I’m in danger.”
You can’t wait to spend time with family over the holidays, but visiting your sister on the opposite coast means you’ll have to face one of your biggest fears: getting on a plane. “When we have phobias, our heightened stress is rooted in the belief that something is much more dangerous than it really is,” says researcher on courage Cynthia Pury, PhD, who notes that these fears snowball and we begin imagining catastrophic outcomes.
Bravery Booster: Tap your curiosity.
One of the best ways to overcome a fear like flying is to learn as much as you can about it. In fact, Pury notes that in one study, when people were able to ask the pilot about the science of flight — what turbulence really is, how the plane takes off, etc. — their fears were very often “grounded,” so to speak. That’s because specific, concrete information empowers us by demystifying what we’re afraid of and bolsters our confidence.
The Fear: “They will judge me.”
You’re doing a great job paying down debt, but the holiday gift-a-thon threatens to strain your finances. You’d love to exchange homemade presents, but you hesitate to broach the topic with loved ones because you’re afraid of what they’ll think. “Expressing ourselves can make us feel incredibly exposed,” observes Warrell. “We don’t want to open ourselves up to potential criticism, so we avoid having difficult conversations.”
Bravery Booster: Flip your fear.
To build up the social courage needed to express a potentially unpopular viewpoint, just “flip your fear,” says Warrell. “Instead of telling yourself everything that could go wrong, ask yourself, What should I be afraid of if I don’t do/say what’s on my mind?” she urges.
For example, you might regret missing the opportunity to share a more meaningful holiday with loved ones. Reframing your fear this way helps you embrace the courage to act.
The Fear: “I’ll let people down.”
The hectic holiday season has you feeling like you’re being pulled in a million directions. You wish you could take a break and cordon off some much-needed “me time” to decompress from the marathon of must-do’s, but you’re afraid of disappointing family and friends if you step away from the festive fray. “Sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is make ourselves a priority and put our needs first,” notes Brach, who says learning how to do just that takes time and patience.
Bravery Booster: Find respite in a ‘wave’ reflection.
Taking a time-out for self-compassion can help you recharge and better set healthy boundaries, says Brach, who suggests this 5-minute daily reflection: Find a quiet place to sit and take a few deep breaths. Instead of fighting any fear that arises, breathe and tell yourself, it belongs…just like waves belong in the ocean. As waves of fear wash over you, relax and let them go with each exhalation, imagining them returning to the vast ocean and leaving you feeling open, resilient and free,” Brach says. “After all, the rhythmic beat of the waves is reminiscent of the beat of your heart — the source of your courage.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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