Practical Bravery

Luckily for those of us unmoved by the “just do it” school of courage, there’s a learn-able, practice-able, two-step technique for being brave. I’ve been investigating courage because lately I’ve had a hard time being brave — and by lately I mean “in this particular lifetime.” The problem is that bravery’s scary. By definition.

(People NOT scared of a perceived risk may be reckless, ignorant, or in possession of mad skills and a super-accurate understanding of the possible outcomes and their odds, but they’re not brave. Bravery requires fear.)

My clients, too, have been running into situations that require bravery — it seems to go with the territory when we pursue our dreams:

DJ wanted to ask her boss if she could change her job description and become more of a roving trouble-shooter — choosing a department, talking with folks there, looking at records, identifying problems, eliciting ideas, setting up a solution plan, getting the plan going, then moving on to the another department. But she was scared.

Luckily, DJ has the one thing it takes to be brave: desire.

I’ve found that the only way any sane, scared human EVER overcomes our innate survival instincts and does something that feels physically, psychically, or socially dangerous is by wanting something very, very much. Hence the secret ingredient for… How to Get Braver in Two Pleasurable Steps:

1. Think of THAT RISKY THING — the one making you wish for new, improved cojones/ovaries of steel — and imagine it in detail. Spend some time enjoying the act AND the results. Notice exactly how you want to feel. If it doesn’t feel WONDERFUL, then just forget about the risky thing. Don’t do it. But if your feeling is positive, then:

a) List the emotions  you’ll have.

b) Describe the physical sensations you’ll have in your body. Isn’t it amazing how you can generate such visceral and specific feeling-states?

c) Repeat Step1 every day. Find a place where you can be alone — soaking in the tub, going for a walk, driving around, or whatever — and set the timer on your phone for ten minutes. Imagine you’ve accomplished That Risky Thing. Explore the specific smells, texture, sounds, tastes, and other experiences there. When your mind wanders to less pleasant things, no matter. Just resume fantasizing

DJ began imagining how she’d feel when she was bravely proposing her idea AND when she was implementing her dream job. Both stages induced an exhilarating but calm confidence and freedom that created two sensations:  the inside of her chest felt like it was opening — filled with lightness — and her step felt easy and strong — like she was super fit.

2. Make a list of what else creates the same desired feeling-state. Consider all people, places, activities, seasons, moments, decades, animals, and things in your life,  simultaneously noticing the resulting emotions and physical sensations in your body.

a) Write down everything that re-creates the flavor you experienced in Step 1.

b) Fill your life with the stuff you listed,  particularly those that are not scary. Start with the easiest ones first. Cram in as many things that generate this particular flavor of joy as is humanly possible. Then add a couple more.

The more time she spent imagining, the happier DJ became. As a result, she found it easy to look for other ways to feel like that.   Walking made her feel this way, especially pleasant strolls outside and — quite conversely — intense spurts up stairs.  She also felt that easy, visceral confidence when throwing a ball for her dog or interacting with other animals.

This plan — conjuring up GOBS of your desired feeling-state — works because:

  • These feeling-states are the ultimate goal. Mission accomplished — right here and now! AND it’s also true that…
  • Experiencing your desired feeling-states early and often propels you toward facing That Risky Thing by honing and building your desire. So wallow in it. This is what experts call motivation. Pretty soon you won’t be able to STOP yourself from doing That Risky Thing. But more importantly…
  • It turns out you need some of the very energy you want in order to succeed at That Risky Thing. Because that’s what your goal is made of. And because…
  • As Martha Beck points out, it’s critical that you normalize the way you want to feel as “people have a way of almost ineluctably creating situations that feel normal.” This is a temporary disadvantage for those raised to find pain “normal,” but the good news is that all of us can systematically change our sense of normal to EXACTLY what we want.

The more DJ steeped herself in imagining and doing things that created her desired feeling-states, the more they showed up throughout her regular day, including at work. What she wanted became, in fact, her new “normal.” DJ’s boss noticed, and — funny thing — an energetic, calm but on-the-move, strong, confident ease was just what he wanted… in an in-house trouble-shooter. Most vitally of all, it was just what SHE NEEDED to approach her boss with a proposal in the first place.

It still took that indefinable internal push at the last moment for DJ to do That Risky Thing, but she needed less of a push because she’d already built-up beneficial conditions and MOMENTUM. And her goal — feeling more of that amazing feeling-state — was so appealingly clear, close, and familiar that her motivation was sky high. Apparently “it takes joy to make joy” — kind of like how street performers get better tips when they “salt” the tip jar. Happily, to salt your joy jar:

“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

~ Mary Oliver

Let that be normal. You won’t be fearless — you’ll be brave.

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5 Responses to Practical Bravery

  1. Great explanation, Betsy! Your easy steps make it seem very achievable and not so scary.

  2. Betsy says:

    Thank you Emily! Welcome praise since it’s coming from a true iron woman.X

  3. diane says:

    I love the quote by Mary Oliver and of course the the “fear” requirement for bravery is right on. I am recalling past fears and how I navigated them and wish I had these practical steps then, but at least I have them for encounters with my future fears. 🙂

  4. Betsy says:

    Thanks brave Diana the huntress!

  5. Renee says:

    So concise yet so bloody powerful and doable. I can totally do this, thank you!

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