Is Fear Necessary for Courage?
I have a friend who is extremely level-headed. When an inter-personal conflict arises (like when we disagreed about how to handle a situation with a friend), he is able to calmly discuss.
When unexpected situations arise (like the time I accidentally hit his car), he quietly assesses, reassures, and makes a plan.
When dangerous situations arise (like the time he broke up a physical fight), he swiftly acts in a controlled way.
I want more of what he has. The calmness WITH the ability to act courageously.
So I inquired about his courageousness. He didn’t think of himself as courageous. He felt he just did what he had to do. I asked if fear came up for him in those moments, and he said he seldom experiences fear.
First, that’s wonderful for him. A life with little fear.
As a woman, that is certainly not my experience of the world. Fear is an important internal message that I must heed to maintain my safety (such as when someone is following me home at night).
I’ve also had times when fear was present and my physical safety was not in jeopardy. For example, when I decided to confront my boss about calling me “baby girl.”
I was so stunned when it happened that I didn’t say anything. I decided that the next day I would discuss it with him. I was so scared of what could happen. Scared he might treat me differently. Scared it might impact my job in some capacity. Scared he might dismiss it as no big deal.
But I had the conversation. It took an immense amount of courage. (Side note: While I’d like to report a heroic story of me confronting my fear and it all going fine - it didn’t. He assured me that he referred to all women that way and that he didn’t mean anything inappropriate by it. He said I shouldn’t feel offended, but that he would never use the term again with me. For the remainder of my time there, he barely interacted with me and remained cold and distant. That’s how confronting our fear goes sometimes).
Back to the point. I acted courageously in the face of fear.
My friend would not have been afraid of having that conversation. This made me wonder, if someone isn’t feeling any fear, are they actually courageous?
I’ve posed this question to many different people. We’ve debated different scenarios. For example, If two people have to give a class presentation, and one has crippling anxiety of public speaking and one does not, is the individual with anxiety more courageous for giving the speech?
What if it’s a war scenario? If one soldier is deeply afraid and runs into battle to save someone, is he more courageous than someone without fear who saves someone?
I’ve continuously tossed questions like this around without a satisfactory answer.
Until I read Brene Brown’s new book, “Atlas of the Heart.” In it, Brown ties courage to vulnerability. She says, “There is no courage without vulnerability. Courage requires the willingness to lean into uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
I read those sentences and everything clicked. It’s not about fear. It’s about vulnerability.
My friend is courageous for stepping into uncertain, risky situations.
I was also courageous by confronting my boss when I was uncertain what the outcome would be on my job and professional relationship. I was in a vulnerable situation.
Tying courage to vulnerability enables us to see courage differently. It can help us to understand why we choose certain actions and provide a lens of compassion. We can see the level of external or internal vulnerability that was present and better understand how that may have influenced our actions.
For example, when I was being followed home at night, I was extremely vulnerable and did not confront the individual. Given the situation and my self defense skill level, that would have been dangerous and reckless. I acted swiftly to protect myself, which meant removing myself from the situation as quickly as possible.
I previously thought courage meant having to do something brave - like confronting the aggressor. But when we consider vulnerability, we can see that protecting ourselves is also courageous. Just as my friend is courageous for acting without fear.
I provide therapy for individuals with overwhelming emotions and thoughts.