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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Courage as an Antidote to Fear


The difference between the diminished individual, wistfully yearning toward full humanness but never quite daring to make it, versus the unleashed individual, growing well toward his or her destiny, is simply the difference between fear and courage.
~Abraham Maslow
Courage is an antidote to the fear bred in our society.  Without courage, even tasks that require minimal effort can become difficult and seem insurmountable.

I gain comfort, and the insight necessary to face the situations requiring courage in my life, when I remember self-help author Byron Katie’s philosophy: “Reality is always kinder than we think it is.”  Intellectual courage often requires questioning our thinking. 

Intellectual courage also involves the choice to accept the circumstances of our lives, whilst clearing away the mental phantoms standing in our path towards creating what we want in our life and in the lives of our children.  My daughter and I have read Byron Katie's children's book together, which helps teach younger children (ages 4-10) the concept of 'questioning your thinking'...a self-reflective intellectual skill kids typically begin to develop around age 7.  I have also used this book with children I've treated as a child/family therapist who are dealing with worry, anxiety, or social distress. 

Here's a quick test, when you ask a young child to sing "Happy Birthday" to themselves (in their own heads), you will likely hear them sing "Happy Birthday to you!...out loud and proud! But, around age 7, when you ask a child to sing the song to themselves, you will not hear anything...that's the beginning of inner dialogue!  Therefore, especially when my kids were young, I was very mindful of speaking lovingly to them...knowing full well our dialogue would soon become part of the background track for their own inner dialogue.


My most courageous moments often boil down to telling or acting from truth (however painful, shameful, risky, or embarrassing).  I can also think of many times which required the courage to ask questions and admit my mistakes (no matter how uninformed or stupid I may seem, and no matter how painful or unsettling the answer).  Times when I’ve mustered the moral courage to do the right thing, even at the risk of being unpopular, fired, or physically harmed. 
Given my genetic make-up (let's say I agree with current research that nature=50% in terms of influence, particularly intelligence and temperament) combined with how unsettling my own childhood was at times (nurture=the other 50%) = I’m definitely wired to ‘feel the fear’.  That said, thanks to many of my life experiences (loving relationships, especially) and clinical training, I’ve developed the intellectual, emotional, social, physical, spiritual, and moral habits to ‘do it anyway’.  We'll be discussing these courage habits a great deal in this blog. We welcome you sharing your own!

It sometimes requires physical courage to try new things or foods.  I'm a bit high maintenance and a picky eater, which you should probably know right off the bat.  My kids love it, though, when I’m trying things for the first time with them (like one bite of some weird food I'm reticent to try).  Well, what's really the worst that could happen? Food poisoning? Treatable. Disgusting taste? Wash it down with water.  You get the point.

My kids also delight in trying and surpassing me in things that I may be doing for the last time (I think, for example, that my rock climbing days may be behind me now, but indoor rock climbing walls are still a fun challenge).  Kids love when we show them our lack of mastery, our humility.  Heck, they conquer new things EVERY DAY!  I'm sure when they see us struggling to draw a person, answer one of their truly difficult math homework questions, or make our first-ever pie, they might think we've drunk some of Alice's potion, made ourselves small, and pulled up a seat beside them at the playhouse table. 

Sometimes developing physical courage requires taking gradual, thought-out risks to gain the mastery, experience, and confidence to take on personal courage challenges like riding a roller coaster, snorkeling and eventually scuba-diving, or white water rafting.  Or training for and completing a marathon, and in my case my first half-marathon after babies at age 41.  I'm confident I can now run for safety, if need be, and maybe even escape a lion's reach! 

Traveling or living alone in new places (where I may not know a word of the local language)—especially when I fear that danger lurks in dark corners—also requires me to have physical, intellectual, emotional, and social courage.  I have made a point of telling my kids about these experiences and letting them know how scared I was and what I did to overcome my fear (i.e. asking for help, walking fast and holding my money belt close, or changing my thinking which results in a change in my feeling).

Asking for help and risking my own or another’s judgment or rejection can sometimes take more emotional courage for me than just going it alone.  Trust me, as a trained child/family therapist the irony of this one is not lost on me.  The truth is I deeply admire in others their ability to ask for help and to receive it.  Every client I've ever worked with is a shining example of emotional courage!  Alas, we often teach what we, too, need to learn...which is why most counseling grad schools (including the ones I attended) require their students to do their own therapy first. Since walking my talk is very important to me, I reach out a lot to friends and family for the support I may need, and gain immense strength through that sharing and their love.  Raising my kids without asking for help could be so isolating and difficult—so I've become adept at offering and receiving help and model this for my kids every time we extend our circle and allow others in to offer or receive a meal, a ride, a last-minute sleepover.  Without such support a courage project like this would barely be able to take flight and reach the heights it is quickly beginning to! 

More often than not, courage requires moving out of my comfort zone and putting myself out there for others to evaluate:  writing a blog, for example!  Public speaking, learning a new skill or hobby (especially in adulthood), admitting and facing the consequences of my mistakes/wrongdoings, trusting and following my heart (even if it means switching course midway or midlife), making new friends—all these acts require me to muster social, intellectual, emotional, and moral courage. 
All too often courage requires the deeper emotional work of forgiving and letting go of hurts.  Being brave enough to create my own family, share my heart, continue to be a loving and generous human being in the world...even risking heartbreak (whilst not expecting approval or reciprocation)—all of these emotional courage challenges cause me to take heart, open my heart, and be brave of heart. 
At times, I want to shrink from life’s challenges in favor of some romanticized easier path.  At times, I'm even the cowardly lion.  That's when I dive down into the comfort of my quilt, hide my head in the sand, or swim down da' Nile.  Afterall, defense mechanisms do offer some short-term psychological protection.  But fearful thoughts that create stressful responses can lead to significant physical, social, and psychological costs over time. That's when it's time to muster the courage to question our stressful thoughts and shift our focus to positive, life-affirming thoughts—gratitude for example! I need only think of any number of brave friends or inspiring families I've worked with facing devastating diagnoses or difficulties, to be inspired not to sweat the small stuff in order to save my energy so I'm better prepared to deal with the big stuff when it's my turn. 


Thankfully, more often that not, like most of you reading, I choose to live life head-on, instead of shrinking from life’s demands and responsibilities—that choice, for me, for us all, I believe takes courage!  For every parent, the choice to get up some mornings—tired, sick, or just plain bored with the routines associated with raising children well—requires courage.  It takes courage to put our children and their needs above our own, especially on the days we’d much rather get some much-needed rest.  But, they and we are so worth the effort! Today, it's my kids who inspire me with their courage: moving countries, starting new schools, traveling on their own for school trips, climbing trees, performing in front of an audience, standing up for a friend or cause they believe in, forgiving quickly and continually moving our family forward in the direction of love. 

Parenting is the perfect opportunity to put into practice what we've learned about courage, to continue to mindfully develop our courage muscles, and to stretch ourselves in ways we never imagined. 

I’ll leave off with Anne Sexton’s poem on courage.  One of America’s foremost poets—and a deeply troubled one—I think she summarizes well courage throughout the human lifespan.  The courage it takes to face life in all its possibility for both beauty and pain:

Courage

It is in the small things we see it.
The child's first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.



Later, if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.



Later, if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.



Later, when you face old age and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you'll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you'll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you'll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

Dr. Lisa’s Parenting Tip:

When have you had courage in your life?  What moments can you recall that required you to be courageous?  Is there a thread that connects these events, like telling the truth, trying new things, or sharing your heart, that helps you string together and see the areas where you are strong and the areas that require courage strengthening?  If you want some help, check out our page with the definitions for the six kinds of courage.

You will be drawing on these stories to not only lead by example, but also inspire your kids to be courageous in life.  Once they know courage is a quality that you both value and practice, chances are much higher that they will follow in your footsteps courageously.  Start talking with them about the different kinds of courage possible.  Post comments from your family discussions.  We want to hear from you!

Books I recommend:











3 comments:

  1. enjoyed your blog- it reminded me of so many children I have worked with who are afraid to take risks--and of their parents, who sometimes pander to their fears in the mistaken belief that they are protecting them.This is a great blow to their self esteem, as it leads them to believe they cant do anything.

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  2. Thank you inkadog, for taking the time to share some of what you've noticed about how to coach kids to be courageous. Getting ourselves, specifically our fears, out of the way to allow the space for our children to spread their wings is indeed important! Fear is contagious...and spreads like wildfire. I often coach parents to first ask their child what the child's experience is, for example "How does it feel now that you are on out on that tree limb? Now that you've reached high enough to almost touch the sky!" Instead of "Careful, you'll break your arm!" It's natural to feel apprehension when our children are trying new things or taking calculated risks. However, it's important to coach them to focus on a developing an internal locus of control (paying attention to their own body, thoughts, feelings, hopes, and even fears). Instead, of turning their gaze outward, placing their locus of control externally on what others think, predict, believe. To all those like inkadog who work with children, keep posting your comments...we so appreciate hearing from you!

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  3. I love your essay on "Courage as an Antidote to Fear". Beautifully written Lisa. Thank you for sharing your insight and inspiration. Some days it does take great courage to live life head-on especially when faced with enormous challenges.

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