Are you living a courageous life? Or do you succumb to those negative voices in your head?
Learning strategies to deal with your fears can help prepare you to take risks and change your life.
On any given day, many of us wrestle with our fears. We might be contemplating a career change, telling someone we love them, or wanting to speak up for what’s right when we see injustice. But a voice within us pipes up saying that there’s no point, or that we aren’t really capable of creating the life or world we desire.
Whether you call it “fear” or some other name—anxiety, stress, discomfort, life challenges—the cycle often plays out in the same way. We have a desire for change, but our fear of what might happen or the worry that we are somehow not enough can keep us stuck.
In my new book, The Courage Habit, I argue that when it comes to dealing with fear, we often go about it all wrong. Instead of seeing fear as bad and trying to get rid of it when it arises, we can choose to accept fear as part of the process of change and instead practice courage. This choice can help you to feel more emotionally resilient as you make life changes or go after big dreams.
The courage habit
Though courage is often thought of as an inborn character trait, it’s actually a way of being and a practice that can be learned for coping with difficulty. In other words, courage can become a habit.
Usually, we think of habits as actions, like brushing your teeth or exercising. But habits also consist of our behavioral responses to different emotions. For many people, fear-based responses are the natural, habitual response to adversity, because our brains tend to seek the fastest, most efficient way to relieve stress when we feel it.
That means we rely on solutions that have provided short-term stress relief in the past—like procrastinating in response to feelings of self-doubt, or putting perfectionism into overdrive (which eventually ends up sabotaging us through burnout).
Your brain likes predictability, and it’s primed to “reward” you for choosing familiar responses and routines. So, if you ditch the plan to go after that dream and instead choose what’s known and therefore safe, you’ll be “rewarded” as the brain relaxes.
How do you manage fear differently? You can understand that it’s part of the human condition and aim to work with it rather than against it.
Drawing from research on habit formation and stress reduction—and my own work with clients facing fear—I have discovered
Four useful strategies for dealing with fear and moving closer to a courageous life
1. Access the body
Fear shows up in the body, often as sweaty palms, a sick-feeling stomach, or a vague sense of discomfort. Once our bodies head into fear mode, we need a way to recognize the signs and work with what the feelings are telling us. A body-based practice can help.
Using focused breathing or body scans—both practices associated with mindful meditation—can help us tune into our body’s sensations without trying to change them or judge them. In this way, we can access our fear without rejecting it or being pulled into an old fear routine. That leaves us freer to better identify the source of the fear and pursue the things we want and live a more courageous life.
If mindfulness practices don’t cut it for you, you can also try dancing, running, yoga, stretching, hiking, or even sex. Just increasing your enjoyment and acceptance of your body can help you listen to it when it’s telling you something’s wrong.
2. Listen without attachment
Many of us who are stuck in fear have an inner critic, constantly feeding us misinformation about our abilities and telling us we are doomed to fail. Often, we’re not even aware of that voice. Or, if we are aware of it, we try strategies to quiet or get rid of it—like ignoring the critic entirely, placating it by trying to do things perfectly (so there won’t be anything for the critic to focus on), or attacking it directly by saying to ourselves, “I’m not going to listen to you—shut up and leave me alone!”