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How to Cultivate the Courage to Deal with Daily Challenges
Diana Dyer (not her real name) knew something was wrong when her mouth continued to ache and throb days after the root canal. Then, another dentist confirmed it: During a routine procedure, the previous dentist had accidentally damaged her tooth. Now, the tooth needed to be removed, requiring more than a thousand dollars of additional care. Dyer knew she needed to confront the doctor who caused the damage. But the idea was unsettling to the 40-year-old woman from Beaverton, Ore., who — like many of us — hates conflict.
“It was really stressful thinking about the confrontation,” she says. “I felt so nervous. But, what happened was wrong and, based on principle I guess, I felt like I had to say something.”
The conversation was difficult and awkward. The dentist was defensive. But ultimately he did accept responsibility. Dyer got her tooth fixed — by another doctor. And when it was all over, she says she felt powerful and even a little courageous.
Dyer’s act is hardly heroic — it’s not like she ran into a burning building. But she did stand up for herself — even under duress — and that takes courage, says Cynthia Pury, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Clemson University, who studies courage and what motivates people to act courageously. She writes about it in a chapter in Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best in People, edited by Shane Lopez.
Courage isn’t only about physically heroic acts that draw accolades, such as charging into the pounding surf to rescue a child or climbing the tallest peak. It is also required to navigate the moral and internal challenges of daily life such as job loss, economic stresses, health crises, divorce, parenting dilemmas and assaults on our values and ideals.
“You can use it for small or big things,” Pury says. “It’s the motivation that is crucial to whether you’re going to take action and be courageous or not.”
And while evidence is scarce, many experts do believe courage can be developed and strengthened.
What is courage?
Historically, courage has proven hard to define and, therefore, difficult to study, says Peter Norton, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston and author of The Anti Anxiety Workbook: Proven Strategies to Overcome Worry, Phobias, Panic, and Obsessions.
Some view courage as a noble act resulting in a positive outcome. Others argue that a form of courage is also required for destructive and detrimental acts such as terrorist bombings.
In nearly every case, though, courage requires people who are motivated by a clear goal or sense of duty to take a personal risk though the outcome of their actions remains uncertain, Pury says. It’s an intentional act — you decide to do something, even when you could choose something else.
And while there is little empirical evidence that explains unequivocally how courage manifests, preliminary research and anecdotal evidence does suggest that people who act courageously share some common behaviors. Those commonalities offer a clue into what we can all do to boost our own courage quotient.
How to foster courageous action
Most people, when asked to recount a time when they acted courageously, said they had a clear goal in mind and pursued that goal despite feeling intense emotions such as fear and even anger, Pury says.
Staying focused on your goal might help you muster the courage needed to take action despite daunting circumstances. Try it. Next time you’re faced with a situation that feels scary and difficult, yet important — such as interviewing for a job after you’ve been laid off or dating again after divorce — keep your goal clearly in mind. It will motivate you to act despite the fear.
3 tips to cultivate courage
- Prepare for potential outcomes. Long before firefighters run into a burning building, they practice and train for the experience. You can do the same. Look for ways to mitigate the potential for damage in the situations you face. Educate yourself; know your facts. Preparing for a presentation? Practice the speech over and over. About to blow the whistle on workplace impropriety? Document the infractions. If you’re ready to leave a bad marriage, find a safe place to go before you call it quits. Ready to follow your dream? Make a list of some of the things you’ll do first to gain momentum.
- Step out of your comfort zone. Take baby steps into low-risk situations that make you uncomfortable. That will help boost your confidence and courage when it comes to coping with more difficult scenarios, Norton believes. So, stick your neck out. Speak up when you’d usually keep quiet. Take a new exercise class, even though you don’t know the moves. Go to that party where you don’t know anyone. Practice facing your fears.
- Evaluate and celebrate the end result. When you do take on something that requires a good dose of personal courage, like Dyer did when she confronted her dentist, recognize the achievement. Notice that you took a risk and survived. You stood up for something that mattered, and you persisted. Give yourself credit and know that you can do it again, if you have to.
“There are a lot of things out there that are causing people to feel nervous or anxious right now,” Norton says. “Build up your confidence in those situations by acknowledging the risk and recognizing that you can handle it. Then, take action to deal with the situation. That’s courageous. And that’s something we could all use and benefit from every day.”