Courage | Being Brave
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courageous people do feel fear, but they are able to manage and overcome their fear so that it does not stop them taking action.
They often use the fear to ensure that they are not overly-confident and that they take the appropriate actions.
How do they manage this? They have trained themselves to manage their emotional response to fear, so that they manage it rather than it managing them. This page sets out how you can learn to do this.
What is Courage?
Courage is a highly-prized virtue, and many famous and respected people have spoken or written about it over the years. We probably all have an idea of what we mean by courage, or bravery as it is sometimes known.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
Courageous people stand up against things that threaten them or the things or people that they care about. They take action in a way that is consistent with their values. Sometimes, however, the action required is not necessarily loud, but quiet and thoughtful.
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
The other view that is often taken of courage is that it requires the taking of genuine risk, but with thought.
Courage and being brave is not about blindly rushing in, but thinking about it and then doing it anyway if it is necessary.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
T. S. Eliot
The Benefits of Courage
Acting courageously generally makes us feel good, because it involves mastering emotions.
The very fact that we celebrate courage so much tells us that it is a very human activity. Courage, in the sense of acting in a way that responds to risk appropriately, not over-confidently or in a cowardly way, will also help us to accomplish ‘good’ things.
Courage also helps us to act against those who threaten, or who act in a bad way. The Western world has traditionally revered bravery for itself; success is not necessary if courage is shown.
An Example of Courage
The celebration of bravery as an end in itself is seen in the celebration in the UK of Robert Falcon Scott, a man who not only failed in his mission to get to the South Pole first, but died on the way back, along with three of his team.
Spectacular failure, but unmistakeable courage: he (and they) knew the risks, yet chose to go ahead with their expedition anyway.
Courage Governs and Overcomes Fear and Overconfidence
Fear and overconfidence are generally viewed as undesirable emotions. They make us feel bad, either at the time or afterwards.
Fear, like many emotions, is closely linked to survival.
We are afraid of things that threaten our survival, and our reaction is governed by an adrenaline response (which usually means that we are driven to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’). The physical effects of adrenaline include cold, clammy skin, as the blood is withdrawn to the vital organs to enable you to run away fast, the sensation of ‘butterflies’ in the stomach, shivering or trembling, and even chattering teeth.
Being afraid tells you when you are concerned that you may not survive something. However, as our page on Managing Emotions points out, your emotional response may not be rational. It is almost certainly linked to memory, perhaps a past experience, or something you may have read.
Questions to ask yourself to bring courage into play include:
- What am I actually afraid of? Is it the right thing to be afraid of? Should I be this afraid of it – or rationally, should I be less or more afraid?
- What harm can this thing actually do to me or others?
- What are the things that could happen as a result of my actions and/or inactions?
- What is the worst that could happen has a result of my actions and/or inactions?
- What are the risks to me and to others?
Courage gives us the strength to evaluate an emotional response (fear) and act rationally and rightly.
Confidence is good.
Confidence gives us the power to act on our convictions, have faith in ourselves or in others, and take action. Over-confidence however, means that we may be too ready to take action, and take unnecessary risks.
Over-confidence is harder to identify than fear, because it’s a very positive feeling. Confidence feels good, and so does over-confidence. We don’t feel afraid, because we have not properly evaluated the risks.
To help to identify and overcome over-confidence, questions to ask yourself include:
- What do I believe I can achieve?
- How will what I do make a difference?
- How do I know that my actions will have an effect? How can I be sure that they will not do any harm?
Answering these questions rationally, and not with bravado, will help you to evaluate whether you are feeling rightly confident, or over-confident.
Fear and Over-Confidence are Two Sides of the Same Coin.
It is important to know whether you tend to suffer from fear or over-confidence, so that you can work on how to overcome that weakness, ensuring that you act courageously, and not either be overcome by your fears or take unnecessary risks because of over-confidence.
Developing Courage, According to Aristotle
Aristotle suggested that those who tend towards fear should think through how they can practise greater confidence, and those who tend towards risky behaviour should consider how they can learn greater respect for the real risks and dangers of a situation.
“The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and with the right aim, and in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave.”
Aristotle, (1115b15-19) NE III.7
Finding a Balance
Showing courage, as opposed to either cowardice or cockiness/over-confidence, is all about finding the right balance, which means that you need to think it through beforehand.
Ultimately, perhaps the question to ask yourself is:
How will I feel when I look back on this? Will I feel that I have acted in accordance with my values?
If the answer to the question is that you will be comfortable that you have done what is right, and is consistent with your values, then that is a good way to act.
On the other hand, if you’re concerned that you will feel that you ‘ran away’ or ‘were a bit reckless’, then you might want to think about alternative actions.
Crucially, try not to let your emotions, whether fear or over-confidence, get the better of you, but think rationally about what you want to do, and what is the right thing to do in the situation.
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