Relationships and the Meaning of Courage
"Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen."
Brené Brown, "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead."
There was a time when courage and heroism meant the same thing. The presumption was that the hero was courageous because he felt no fear and moved ahead directly into danger. Examples abound in such as when a fireman rushes into a burning building and rescues a man, woman or child. Another example is when a soldier risks his life when he puts himself in the direct line of enemy fire in order to protect his buddies. There are many other such examples whereby ordinary people risk themselves to save others despite facing mortal danger.
However, years of psychological research has shown that there is another kind of courage and that the former assumptions of what courage is really about are not true. For example, is it true that courageous people do not experience fear? In point of fact, many writers explain that real courage demands the presence of anxiety. The point is that the courageous person moves ahead despite feeling enormous anxiety not because of it's absence. Yes, there are people who might not feel anxiety in a dangerous situation. That may be due to the fact that they lack the ability to feel much of anything, such as the sociopath, or, they react so quickly that they have no time to think about the danger. A person who runs out into the street to rescue a child from an oncoming car.
One of the things we know for sure is that people experience anxiety and fear in situations that pose no threat to life and limb. Examples of people experiencing fear even though there is no apparent danger are those with phobias, general anxiety and social avoidance, among others. The phobic person may experience intense fear about going into an elevator, airplane or closet and etc but most of us would not feel concerned about these things. Another source of fear that some people experience is of being open and self disclosing with loved ones. In these situations an individual might avoid intimate relationships or may withdraw from socializing because they fear letting themselves be known by others. Or, the might put on a false self in order to convince others that they are different from what they feel inside. This is a kind of presenting an inauthentic self to the world.
In actuality, everyone experiences fear and anxiety. It is facing daily life despite those fears that makes people courageous. Real courage is functioning despite fears. In the case above, the phobic person who faces their fear by going to psychotherapy and engaging in the recommended activities suggested by the therapist, is being very courageous. One method for treating phobia is by gradually exposing oneself to the very fearful situations they want to escape.
All of this has important meaning for relationships with family and friends. It takes courage to be honest and self disclosing with people because there is always a risk involved. The risk is of being judged, criticized or rejected. One good example is that those of us who write these blogs for Mentalhelp.net run the risk of having our work judged or even ridiculed. That is why it takes courage to write and it takes courage to be self revealing to other people.
The idea is to not shrink from your anxiety but to embrace it, and accept it. Remember, anxiety is not weakness, facing it is strength.
Are you open and honest in your relationships and is your spouse open and honest with you?
Your comments are welcome.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD