What is Emotional Courage?

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

This is the fifth in the “Six Types of Courage” that we will explore in-depth here on Lion’s Whiskers. We hope you’ve already had the chance to read over our page called “The Six Types of Courage” for a brief overview of our definitions.  The examples we give for each type of courage may apply to your children and/or to you —  when you are reading this post please keep in mind that some of these examples may involve taking “baby steps” on your way to emotional courage!  Every step towards courage is both worthwhile and important. 

Emotional Courage

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”—  Elie Wiesel

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  Thornton Wilder

Emotional courage is being open to feeling the full spectrum of emotional experience, both positive and negative.  Oftentimes, the terms “emotions” and “feelings” are used interchangeably, but it’s worthwhile to be more precise. A simplistic, but helpful distinction between emotion and feeling is as follows:
·    Emotion is the complex psychophysiological experience combining our internal (biological) response to external (environmental) stimuli.
·    As that emotion crosses the threshold between unconscious to conscious awareness, the verbal and non-verbal language of “feelings” comes into play as we engage higher, prefrontal cortical processes to seek to understand, label, express, suppress, and/or make choices based on the lower and middle brain regions’ generation of core emotions.  All emotions evoke feelings, but not all feelings evolve from core emotions.  Some feelings are subtle variations like ecstasy which is related to joy, or melancholy which relates to sadness.  Other feelings are associated with the states between core emotions and are not directly traced to one core emotion as opposed to another.
For example: let’s say there is a loud crashing sound, a stimulus which triggers an emotion.  Immediately, the pulse accelerates, the breathing quickens, and a number of other physiological things happen in a cascade without our conscious participation.  Then the mind creates a feeling based on thoughts about that stimulus: “Hooray, the fireworks are starting!” or “Oh no, the scaffolding collapsed!” 

Researchers such as Paul Ekman  and Antonio Damasio  posit approximately ten core emotions: anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, disgust, surprise, contempt, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and awe.  Some are genetically-driven.  Others (like compassion, admiration, pride which may also share some of the same core emotion attributes) are social adaptations based on genome potentiality.  The most universal are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust.  All are associated with biological intelligence and a drive to survive
Our emotions are an evolutionary adaptation to help support our survival.  At a highly unconscious level, the limbic system generates the physical arousal associated with each emotion. Once an emotion intensifies, thoughts begin to form about the emotion, cognition is engaged, and behaviors are generated to deal with the emotion and the needs that must be met.
Feelings can help guide us back to the core emotion we are experiencing; they can help answer our need for connection, wellness, and ultimately survival.  Emotional intelligence is, in essence, a study and practice devoted to supporting human insight and evolution based on emotional awareness.  We start at birth: babies are born with the capacity for fear, anger, sadness, and joy! Then we begin to learn the over 4,000 words  devoted to the feelings that flow from our core emotions and experiences in life!
Here are some helpful resources with feelings broken down into positive and negative emotion.
We can teach our children to become emotionally intelligent by giving them the language of feelings, modeling healthy emotional expression, pointing out the various thoughts/facial expressions/body reactions associated with core emotions, and honoring their feelings as signposts of underlying emotion linked with core needs.  We can observe what is happening in our body, our facial expressions (or those of others) for example, as signposts of core emotions and secondary feelings. 
What we are suggesting by emotional courage, is being willing to be vulnerable, truthful, and aware of your conscious experience of core emotions, which you think about and express often in language as feelings.  When we choose to ignore, suppress, or deny our emotion, we risk a reduction of insight, leading to faulty decision-making, inaccurate mental representation of our experience, and/or even failure to ensure or restore homeostasis and thus ensure our survival. 
Unfortunately, we can’t have only positive emotions — it’s a package deal. But, we can choose where to place our attentional focus.  According to Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000) pioneers in the field of Positive Psychology, when we shift our attentional focus from fear, for example, to experiences that are associated joy or “flow” (an intrinsically rewarding, completely focused, motivation in performance or learning that evokes joy, rapture, and renewed energy for the task at hand) the happier we become.  For example, shifting your focus to gratitude may be one of the easiest ways to diminish irrational fear that results in feelings we label “worry.” 
Emotional courage also means loving yourself, being proud of yourself, and believing that you are worthy of love and happiness.   Essentially, it is related to self-acceptance, coupled with a willingness to move outside our comfort zone, to explore new ways of being that may not be familiar.  It also seems related to the quest for self-realization and fulfillment.  Emotional courage requires digging around and uprooting the tangible and mostly intangible sources of fear resulting in anxiety, worry, sorrow, and depression that can poison the proverbial wellspring of joy. Happiness is the buzz word most associated with emotional courage—having the courage to be unconditionally happy. 
Emotional courage means being willing to give your heart without expecting anything in return.   Remember Princess Di visiting with AIDS patients in early years of the epidemic, listening to their stories, holding their hands, meeting their gaze without turning away?  If your daughter dreams of princesses, tell her what a real princess did.
Here’s a fantastic video from the TED.com site that speaks to emotional courage in a thoughtful and often funny way.  It’s about 20 minutes long.  If you don’t have time for it now, please come back to it later.  You’ll be glad you did.

  • helping friends grieve a loss
  • confronting a family member about abuse or addiction
  • crying in a therapist’s office
  • making friends at sleep away camp, even when you know you might never see them again
  • taking in an injured animal
  • forgiving someone you love
  • laughing so hard the tears come
  • expressing gratitude
  • crying without embarrassment
  • helping a stranger who is in distress
  • public displays of affection
  • maintaining eye contact and smiling
  • working as a social worker, counselor or emergency medical personnel
  • Lack of emotional courage looks like:

    • looking away, avoiding eye contact
    • walking away from an “emotional” situation
    • covering up or suppressing an emotional response, such as crying
    • laughing off, mocking, or otherwise dismissing someone else’s emotional response
    • begrudging someone else’s success or happiness
    • embracing the victim role
    • numbing feelings through overuse of drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, etc.
    • losing your temper and lashing out at others
    • blaming others for faults or failures that you are covering up in yourself
    • avoiding self-reflection, even after a loved one expresses heartfelt concern
    • kicking the dog
    • never being willing to be alone
    • checking out of your life through obsessive behaviors like excessive t.v. watching, shopping,

     Emotional courage sounds like:

    • “I can do it!”
    • “I can’t do it — yet!”
    • “Congratulations!  I am so happy for your success!”
    • “I love _______ about you.”
    • “Thank you!”
    • “I’m angry right now but I know it won’t last forever!”
    • “I can see you’re angry at me right now and that’s okay.”
    • “I’m good at ___________.”
    • “Let me help you.”
    • “I feel___________.”
    • “You are amazing/awesome/special.”
    • “I’m worthy of love.”
    • “I love you.”
    • “Are you okay?  Would you like to talk?”

    Lack of emotional courage sounds like:

    • “I don’t like talking about my feelings.”
    • “Boys don’t cry.”
    • “You’re too big to cry.”
    • “I never get angry!”
    • “I’m bored.”
    • “Don’t be sad, I hate it when you’re sad!”
    • “Get over it!”
    • “It’ll just make me feel worse if I talk about it, and I don’t want to feel that.”
    • “You’re fine.”
    • “Oh, grow up!” 
    • “I can’t.”
    • “I won’t talk until you control yourself.”
    • “You’re getting carried away as usual!”
    • “Why do good things always happen to other people?”

    Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers!
    Here are some tips for developing emotional courage for you and your kids:

    • set goals
    • try acting!  Acting out feelings can help you get used to feeling your feelings.   Role play scenarios your kids may be currently facing
    • learn from your mistakes without punishing yourself or making yourself “bad” or feeling guilty
    • practice gratitude by saying blessings at meals (religious or secular), sending thank you notes, making thank-you phone calls, etc.
    • find a service project that has meaning for your family
    • give your kids meaningful jobs to do at home so they can feel they can make an important contribution to the family
    • acknowledge your own power to choose happiness
    • tell a friend what particular quality makes their friendship special to you
    • develop healthy habits: exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, minimize the use of alcohol and/or other stimulants/depressants that are often used to numb feelings, and cause psychological, social, or occupational distress and stress
    • tell stories that call upon a wide range of emotions
    • decide on some emotional courage challenges and support each other in their pursuit

    Here is a quick “Emotional IQ” test on Discovery Health.
    You can also find a number of useful questionnaires on the Authentic Happiness page.

    What are your ideas about emotional courage, your parenting tips to promote it with kids, or your favorite emotional courage story (fiction or non-fiction)?  We’d love to hear from you!

    Here are some posts on the blog that are related to emotional courage: Getting to the Heart of Courage, Chapter One: Jennifer and the Lovely K., Defining Courage for Yourself, Two Parables from Rumi, Courage as an Antidote to Fear, Healthy Attachment Between Parent and Child, Sharing Family Stories, Let’s Start at the Beginning…Childbirth, The Chemical Soup called LOVE,
    My Hansel and Gretel Moment,   10 Tips for Talking About the Tough Stuff With Kids
    Bonding with Baby, The Way We Hold Our Babies, Raising a Leader, I HEART Snuggling, Never Can Say “Good-Bye”?,   I Can’t Do It.  Yet.   ,   The Flyaway Lake,   , Quitters, Campers, and Climbers: Which One are You?, The Black Belt Wall, My Year of Living Fearlessly, Running Plan B

    Here’s more on the types of courage:
    What is Physical Courage?
    What is Social Courage?
    What is Intellectual Courage?
    What is Moral Courage?
    What is Spiritual Courage?


    Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes Error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain.  NY: A Grossman/Putnam Book.
    Lane, R. & Nadel, L. (Eds.). (2000). Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
    Prinz, J. (2004). Gut reactions: A perceptual theory of emotion. NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
    Seligman, M. (2000). Positive psychology. In Gillham, J. (Ed.). The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E.P. Seligman. (pp. 415-430). Radnor, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.


    One thought on “What is Emotional Courage?

    1. Anonymous

      Just had an opportunity to be emotionally courageous as a parent when my 10YO did not achieve something he wanted REALLY badly in a sport he is passionate about (while watching two of his buddies get to where he wanted to be). So hard to let him deal with the frustration and disappointment without trying to soften the experience!

    2. Lisa Dungate

      Thanks anonymous for a poignant example of how hard it can be to disappointed, and how much bravery it can take to really feel it–and not fix it.My parenting/professional experience has shown me time and again, that through acceptance we are free to move through the experience more quickly and gain wisdom.When we are brave and wise enough like you, to not insulate our children from the experiences or consequences of their lives, they really get to learn and own their life lessons. By adopting the attitude "All is well"…it is amazing how a disappointment can transform into opportunity.

    3. Anonymous

      My model for emotional courage is a generous hearted friend of mine who holds me even though we are miles and miles apart.When we speak on the phone, I feel her compassion because she is willing to hear and love me unconditionally.She is willing and brave enough to support me through difficult times.Her act of kindness gives me the courage and strength to carry on.

    4. Lisa Dungate

      Thanks Anonymous for sharing such a sweet example of emotional courage.None of us can travel this journey alone, without any support, but it often requires the most courage to reach out, truly listen without needing to be heard in return, and share your generous heart…thank you for sharing yours!


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