By Michael H. LeBlond, PhD, MBA
How often have you heard “just feel the fear and do it anyway.” This actually is not far from the definition of courage. What courage is not is the absence of fear.
When most people think of courage they think of it in one dimension as the war hero, or fireman rescuing an individual from a burning building, or someone standing up to authority like Dr. Martin Luther King. Courage is part of the fabric of our society, yet until recently it had not been a topic of much scientific research. That is, until 2007 at the Courage Summit, sponsored jointly by the American Psychological Association and Gallup, when courage became a serious topic of research. This conference resulted in an excellent book called The Psychology of Courage by Cynthia L.S. Pury, PhD, and Shane J. Lopez, PhD who consolidated significant research by numerous authors and courage topics into one book.
One of these contributing authors, Daniel Putman, PhD, asked the obvious question - what is courage? In researching, he found not one, but three types of courage – who knew? The three types are physical courage – “overcoming a fear of death or physical harm for the sake of a noble goal” (pg. 9); moral courage – “overcoming fear of social ostracism or rejection in order to maintain integrity” like Gandhi or Dr. King; and psychological courage – overcoming the fear of psychological death, for example, an addict overcoming an addiction or an abused child overcoming psychological scars. Interestingly, Dr. Putman says that courage is one of the virtues essential to happiness. Good thought for consideration. He also states there is a difference between a courageous act and a courageous person. The courageous person is one who has learned to overcome (not eliminate) her or his fears, and to “maximize one’s chance to grow and develop throughout one’s life.” (p 12).
It’s as important to know what the opposite of courage is, and what it is not, to have a full understanding of it. Dr. Putman states the opposite of courage is cowardice, and in a following chapter Dr. Lopez et al states that what courage is not is “hiding, backing down, or giving up.” (pg. 27). Courage can also be closely tied to resilience, such as not giving up and the ability to bounce back.
So, is courage something you are either born with or not, or something you’ve been lucky enough to acquire throughout your life? In their chapter on the “Courageous Mind-Set,” contributors Hanna, Sweeney, and Lester note that in a situation where we can clearly see that our resources appear inadequate to face a threat, if we allow negative emotions to overcome us then these negative emotions (like fear) actually limit our ability to think and pay attention. The result is lessened ability to process potential solutions. On the other hand, if we can experience positive emotions, we can increase our ability to find solutions. Have you ever heard someone say, “I know it seems unusual, but the more stressful a situation is, the more focused, thoughtful, and calm I become.” This is an example of what I’m referring to. Fortunately, you can build personal resources to help you evolve from a negative emotional response to a positive emotional response in a difficult situation.
There are both positive states and positive traits that can improve one’s courage according to Hannah, Sweeney, and Lester.
Positive States include:
- Self-Efficacy: which simply put means that you believe in your ability to meet the demands of a situation. There are some tests you can take to help measure your level of self-efficacy. In many situations, the higher your self-efficacy the less fear and anxiety you experience.
- Hope: the author’s state that “hope provides the courageous actor with goal-directed energy as well as promotes envisioning alternative paths to success.” (pg. 136).
- Resilience: defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity and/or failure. So, challenges may get easier for you as you go through life, because it’s likely that when you face a difficult or fearful situation, you will be able to draw on previous life experiences where you have overcome something similar. This previous success can give you greater confidence and courage to face the present situation. And if, for some reason, in this specific situation you are not successful, you have the ability to bounce back to try again (and again, and again, if necessary).
Positive Traits include:
- Openness to Experience: the logic here is that the more open you are to new experiences, the less fearful you may be in general, and instead of a new situation causing you anxiety and/or fear, it may instead generate a sense of adventure in you.
- Conscientiousness: someone who is conscientious can be persistent, reliable, responsible, does not avoid difficult tasks, has a sense of duty, and can be determined in his or her efforts. So, for example, your sense of duty may drive you to be determined to overcome a fearful situation.
- Core Self-Evaluation Traits: these include the traits of self-esteem, generalized self-efficacy (discussed previously in Positive States), emotional stability and locus of control. This seems like a lot so let’s unpack this a little.
- Self Esteem: This is the level of confidence or self-respect you have for yourself and your abilities. Why is this important? It appears those with higher self-esteem have more optimistic thoughts and behaviors, and therefore may express courage in a difficult situation to maintain consistency with their concept of themselves.
- Generalized Self-Efficacy: the authors state that an individual with generalized self-efficacy has better coping and stress management abilities, and confidence in her or his ability to overcome specific threats.
- Emotional Stability: this one speaks for itself. The more emotional stable an individual is, the less reactive she or he is in the face of perceived adversity.
- Locus of Control: this one is not necessarily intuitive. When faced with a challenge do you believe you have control over the outcome? If you do, this is referred to as an internal locus of control. So, if you have a strong internal locus of control, when faced with a difficult situation, you may behave courageously because you believe or have confidence that you can control the outcome.
Courage is not an always or never status (meaning “I always have courage” or “I never have courage”). If you observe those around you, you may find a friend or coworker who is courageous in one area but has doubts or difficulties in another. For example, this individual may have no fear of public speaking but does have an extreme fear of heights. So, please don’t read this and conclude I have to have great courage in all areas or no courage at all. People may not be courageous in all areas, yet still have an overall “courageous mindset.”
Overcoming fear and growing into courage can be a gradual process. A key for you might be to evaluate the areas of your greatest fears and work to develop more courage in these areas. You may already have some good personal examples. I suspect you can think of a time in your life where something was initially fearful, and that each time you “jumped in” you systematically gained more and more confidence to the point that one day you discovered all your fear was gone and you were actually enjoying yourself. This is also where resilience can help you to keep on trying.
The good news is that all of the states and traits mentioned above are characteristics that you can develop over time. Be patient with yourself, and know it is not a perfect process. I wish you well on your journey to incorporate more courage in your life to “maximize your chance to grow and develop throughout your life.”