Is courage the answer to conquering our fears?

A friend of mine recently shared an interesting TED talk by Reshma Saujani called ‘teach girls bravery not perfection’. This got me thinking about courage, a topic we didn’t hear much about in 2016 but was ‘en vogue’ a couple of years back when everyone was writing about courageous leadership and getting out of our comfort zones. Despite being a victim of fashion, courage in work and life is not at all a recent concept, Dr Susan Jeffers (1938-2012) first published the classic self-help book ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ in 1987.

So, what do we actually mean when we talk about courage? Is it always useful? Is more courage really what we need to help us achieve our potential?

Courage: ‘the ability to disregard fear’ – Pocket Oxford Dictionary

I found this definition surprising because for me, ignoring fear isn’t what courage is about, or why being courageous can be so empowering for people. Fundamentally, courage is about doing something that isn’t easy, where we need to overcome, not ignore, fear to act. Courage without insight and judgement is simply recklessness.

Is courage always useful?

OK, so I’m going to stick my neck out here and say no, actually it’s not, sometimes it’s more useful to be a scaredy cat. Fear is an ancient emotion and plays a very useful role in keeping us alive; occasionally keeping our heads down, physically or metaphorically, keeps us safe. But most of the time is it useful? Well with so many positive connotations associated with the word (e.g. heroism, gallantry, nerve, endurance, tenacity), how can it not be?

“..the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is a powerful, empowering and often quoted extract from Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural address. But what I think is even more powerful are the words that complete his sentence: “ ..the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” Franklin Roosevelt

We ignore fear at our peril, but we also don’t have to be afraid of it. If we take time to understand and to question our fears they can cease to exist, ironically making the need for courage redundant.

So if courage isn’t the answer to taking risks and achieving our potential, what is?

Thinking. Yup, ok I’m being a bit simplistic here but yes, the power is in our minds. And while I don’t think courage is ‘the’ answer, I do acknowledge that it can play a part, because being a bit brave and taking a risk can yield positive results, forcing us to challenge our preconceptions and helping to shift our thinking patterns.

I’m going to highlight the work of two psychologists in particular who focus on how shifting the way we think can free us to achieve our potential. They are Professors Carol Dweck and Martin Seligman.

Building a Growth Mindset

Why is it that some people seem to thrive on challenge and failure and others retreat to a place of comfort? Professor Carol Dweck’s research suggests that this is down to mindset, specifically whether we believe that talents and abilities are innate and can’t be changed (fixed mindset), or that our talents and abilities can be developed (growth mindset). Each of us can hold different mindsets about different things (e.g. sporting talent is innate, but leadership can be learnt) and it’s only when we come up against an obstacle, either real or constructed, (including stereotypes like introverts can’t be great leaders) that we are limited by a fixed mindset.

So how do we move away from a fixed mindset and build a growth mindset?

  • Know your science. MRI studies have shown that we build way more neural connections and new pathways when we find something difficult rather than easy. The brain is incredibly plastic and capable of learning new things so next time you find something challenging, think ‘wow, here’s an opportunity to grow my brain!’
  • Value your mistakes and failures. Instead of beating yourself up or ignoring failures, take the opportunity to learn and refine what you do.
  • Use language that reinforces a growth mindset:
    • Your power to develop ‘In the past I haven’t been good at presentations, but I know I can change that’,
    • The value of trying ‘I know this might feel tough but the more I work at it the better I’ll get’
    • Failure as an opportunity ‘That’s really interesting that my code didn’t work, I wonder way? I’m going to try something different’
  • Catch yourself if you’re using limiting language / thinking. Try and avoid words which suggest permanence and negativity like ‘I can’t’, ‘I’m not good at’, ‘I’m never’, ‘X just isn’t my thing’.

Limiting language / thinking brings me nicely onto Professor Martin Seligman’s work around learned helplessness, optimism and resilience.

Learned helplessness and learned optimism

Martin Seligman first rose to prominence in the late 1960s when he and his colleagues Steve Maier and Bruce Overmier observed and defined a new concept called ‘learned helplessness’. They found that dogs given electric shocks in a caged box initially tried to escape, but quickly learnt that this was futile, sadly accepting the shocks, even when the test conditions were changed so that they could have escaped. They had learnt to become helpless; passively accepting whatever pain was inflicted on them. This work led on to studies around the relationship between learned helplessness and depression. What is less well known is that in his experiments Seligman observed significant variability in how animals reacted to inescapable shocks, and how humans reacted to insolvable problems. As Seligman describes in his book ‘Authentic Happiness’, “one out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up”.   This led him to move away from a simplistic and fatalist interpretation of learned helplessness, and instead explore what it was that buffered some people against becoming helpless in the face of adversity.

Permanence and Pervasiveness – the beliefs which shape our thinking and actions

The ‘optimist’ mindset: Seligman found that people who believe negative events have temporary and specific causes (e.g. I was having a bad day; my boss was in a bad mood), and conversely that positive events have permanent and universal explanations (I’m always lucky; I’m confident), tend to recognise and capitalise on their successes, and recover more quickly from setbacks.

The ‘pessimist’ mindset: In contrast, people who believe negative events have permanent and universal causes (e.g. My memory isn’t good; all managers are horrible), and that positive events have temporary and specific explanations (I was lucky today; I’m confident at presenting), tend to dismiss their successes as flukes, and find setbacks and failures much harder to deal with, and that these setbacks can encroach into other areas of their lives.

So how do we shift our mindset to one which is more optimistic and resilient, and in the process overcome our rational and irrational fears? To be able to overcome our fears, and avoid feelings of helplessness, we need to be able to recognise and then challenge limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world. As Seligman put it, we can develop ‘learned optimism’ by arguing against our own negative limiting beliefs. Next time you feel fearful or are struggling after a failure, try using the ABCDE model to help you move forward:

  • Adversity – what is the situation that triggered your negative emotion?
  • Belief – what beliefs automatically came to mind in reaction to the situation?
  • Consequences – how did your beliefs make you feel and react?
  • Disputation – what evidence do you have that your belief is right? What alternative explanations might there be? Are the likely implications really as terrible as you imagine them to be? Is your automatic belief useful?
  • Energisation – pay attention to how disputing your negative beliefs leaves you feeling more optimistic, energised and empowered to take action

“To err is human, to forgive is divine” Alexander Pope

As humans we can be incredibly critical of others and ourselves and it can be hard to see some failures as ‘learning opportunities’, but what the ABCDE model does is provide a structured approach to recognising that failures and negative events are normal, that there are specific and temporary reasons why they happen, and that it’s irrational and of no use to hold a grunge against yourself. Being compassionate to yourself, and to others, allows us to let go of our fears and negative emotions and take control of future events.

So in summary, while it can feel good and yield results when we physically or metaphorically punch the air and roar to make ourselves more courageous, doing so isn’t really where the power lies. Our potential to do more than we perhaps imagine lies in understanding and challenging our irrational and negative thoughts. If we can challenge ourselves to stop seeing failure as something negative then we can stop fearing it and stop needing to tell ourselves to be brave all the time.

Bianca Ioannides (CPsychol) 


Carol Dweck’s website

Jeffers, S. (2007). Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: How to Turn Your Fear and Indecision into Confidence and Action. Vermillion.

Seligman, M.E.P (2013). Authentic Happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfilment, Nicolas Brealey Publishing.

Ted talk by Reshma Saujani:





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