What Is Courage?

What is Courage? The main definition is the ability to conquer fear or despair. Often “courage” is what someone else tells us we are exhibiting. We may say, “Really?” in a quizzical voice. But after thinking about it for a bit, we might get to, “I guess I was courageous.” Both these responses involve being courageous and vulnerable at the same time. Vulnerability and courage go together. We usually think that being courageous equals being strong. And it is. It means connecting to our inner-strength that is greater than our fears. It allows us to take “risks” even when we’re feeling fear. But when we’re feeling vulnerable, we typically feel anything but strong. It takes inner strength to confront these fears.

“Brave” is often thought of as being the same as courage, but it isn’t. Bravery can be an outward manifestation of courage. What makes them different is the absence or presence of a feeling of vulnerability. Doing or saying something that we’ve been afraid of—and doing it anyway even when we’re feeling fearful—takes courage.

One can be brave without being courageous. “Brave” is not about the inner experience of vulnerability, as in conquering fear or despair. It is about being outwardly strong, as in being valiant. There may be no clear place for being vulnerable when you’re being “brave.” Being brave requires uncommon action. It is not a time for introspection.

I am reminded of a client, a submarine commander during WWII, who was walled off from his feelings. For this, his wife divorced him. When I worked with him to help him get in touch with his body, he unexpectedly re-experienced being at the periscope with depth charges dropping around his submarine. By the time he was in therapy, he could feel the fear that he had not felt, and could not have allowed himself to feel, in battle. It would have gotten in the way of his bravery. In war, he needed to save his men and his submarine. Once he understood this, he came in to his next therapy session in touch with all kinds of new feelings and looking twenty years younger. He definitely was a courageous man in having lain on my bodywork table and allowing me to help him become more in touch with his body and his hidden feelings. Facing himself in the present was all the more courageous considering how out of touch with his emotions he had been prior to his coming for therapy.

So, being courageous is not about being without fear. On the contrary, it is about not letting our fears rule the day even if, and especially if, we have been allowing that to happen for a long time. Any shame in associating fear with “weakness” only adds to the courage it will take to conquer our fears. When we perform the act of self-liberation by acknowledging our fears, there can be instant relief and exhilaration, as there was for this former submarine commander.

Life presents us with abundant opportunities for courage, both large and small. And living life as a transformational journey means finding our courage to heal.

I look forward to your sharing your stories and wisdom about courage.

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