Category Archives: Blog

Courage means asking ourselves 3 difficult questions

Today I am considering courage as a process of alignment, and specifically of aligning action with intent, in other words aligning what we do with who we are.

This might seem foolishly self-evident since we always act on our intent – we can’t lift a cup of tea to our lips without intending to do so and this has little to do with courage.  No, courage enters the scene when we decide to undertake this process with rigour and consistency and ask ourselves some very challenging questions.

What Am I For?

When my elder son was 4 years old he went through a phase of asking me, loudly and within earshot of the poor fellows, ‘mummy, what is that man for?’ It has been a long-standing family joke, and yet today it seems deeply significant. The question ‘What am I for?’ delivers an existential punch, that is often avoided or occasionally tackled only if one is feeling courageous enough.

Finding one’s meaning, ethics or values in life can be a process of adopting a ready-made religious or philosophical doctrine.  It can also be a process of questioning one’s own being to find what is good and right. The existential philosophers believe it is our responsibility to develop a personally constructed moral code in order to avoid living inauthentically.  Contrary to the opinion of dogmatic people the world over, there is no common, right answer.  Committing to the question is of far greater significance than the answer itself.

What Am I Doing About It?

I have always struggled with the phrase, ‘it’s the thought that counts’.  To me, a considered intention is vital but it’s the act that counts.  Courage means aligning our actions, our behaviour with our intent.  So the next challenging question is ‘What am I doing about it?’

This means showing up, speaking up, protecting what is good, and taking the risk to implement change in the hope of something better.

How Am I Doing?

Finally, courage means always monitoring oneself.  The last challenging question is ‘How am I doing?’  This means both in the sense of aligning actions with intent, and also assessing the impact of our actions in the world, and adjusting our actions according to our learning.

We need to clear our vision and rid ourselves of self-protective distortions to face the reality of who we are and what we do.  We need to use feedback to regulate how we meet the world without diminishing who we are.

This process of orienting towards our life with a commitment to inquiry, action and improvement demands courage, provides a foundation for courage and is courage

The Reality Check

In my studies of psychology literature there is a constant theme.  The path to psychological well-being is a process of increasing self-awareness, whether that is a private journey or assisted by a therapist or coach.

As we start to reflect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, we start to see patterns that come automatically to us, that we haven’t noticed before.  We start to see the impact of these patterns on ourselves, our lives and on others.  They may be helpful or detrimental but as long as we remain unaware, they are always limiting.  Raising awareness means that we have to make choices.

If we continue this process of increasing awareness and choice, we will see more and more of our patterns, bring them into question, and choose to keep or discard them.  This ongoing process removes our biases, and allows us to see the world with greater and greater clarity.  When we remove our blinkers and distortions we are better able to see the world as it really is, and see ourselves as we really are.

As we face ourselves we gradually let go of our rigid thinking and defenses, and so we have more of our intelligence available to us.  We raise our ability to think critically and creatively about the situations we find ourselves in.  We become more flexible and appropriate in our responses.

The process of self-reflection releases us towards a healthier, more satisfying life.

Working with a therapist or psychologically trained coach speeds up the process considerably, as they can see our blind spots more clearly and lead us towards awareness, and support us through change.

The Alchemy of Courage

I have been studying courage for over a year, both academically and introspectively from my own experience.  As much I have tried to wriggle out of facing this fact, it does seem to be unavoidable that courage is always accompanied by fear.  We might call it anxiety or stress but underneath it is fear.

The seminal work on courage is by Paul Tillich ‘The Courage to Be’ written in 1952 where he wrote “Courage resists despair by taking anxiety into itself”.  He is saying that, to be courageous we have to accept our anxiety and take it with us.  We can’t avoid, skirt around or destroy anxiety.  The existentialist philosophers embraced the idea that anxiety is an unavoidable part of human life and Olson said “The only life worth living is one in which this fact is squarely faced”.  The only way that we can live fully, wholeheartedly and courageously is by accepting anxiety and not letting it hold us back.

Mandela, a symbol of courage the world over, knew this “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

The trouble with stress, anxiety and fear is it feels horrible.  So we do what we can to avoid the feeling, and avoid whatever it is that we believe causes us to feel bad.  We avoid the anxiety that is evoked by risk, by uncertainty, by conflict, by putting ourselves in the spotlight.  But what if we viewed anxiety differently?  What if we believed that even though it feels bad, we won’t come to any harm, that it will pass, that it is a sign of being alive and even, that it is an energy that comes to our aid when we need it?  By viewing anxiety in this way we transform it from a force that limits our lives into an energy that we can use to achieve our goals.  If we believe it and keep our focus we can, in a form of psychological alchemy, turn fear into courage.

I was delighted to see this Ted Talks video by Kelly McGonigal whose research on stress (aka anxiety aka fear) has shown that when we change our belief about stress, we change the harmful effects of stress.  In her own words what she has found is the biology of courage.

Letting Winston Churchill have the final word, “All we have to fear is fear itself.

In Praise of the Long Fix

I don’t suppose this is going to be a popular idea but I am writing today in support of the long fix.  We live in a world that promises quick fixes, crash diets, self-help books that will change your life, management training courses and so on.  Now I am not arguing against the principle of ‘least pain, most gain’.  I am questioning whether much of this actually works at all.

To put this into context, I am talking about improvement, which is by definition making a change for the better.  Something has to change and stay changed.  And I am talking about changes we make to our lives rather than, say, our plumbing system.

We surely know by now that if we go on the latest diet, and then afterwards return to our normal way of eating, the weight will sure enough pile back on.  Nothing will change.  And so it is with the rest of our life.  If we read the book, go on the course, make the promise, but don’t permanently change the way we think and act we will stay just the same.  We have to attend to and maintain this attention on whatever it is we want to change.  It will eventually become a habit but until it does we have to make an effort to maintain a new discipline.

Let’s consider an example.

I have struggled with poor self-belief for a very long time.  I gradually became aware of a number of thoughts that would rush in whenever I was faced with a challenge, and were actually running in the background most of the time.  They were vicious thoughts such as ‘you always were lazy’ and ‘you are doomed to failure’. It was hard to take any kind of risk while this was going on in my head.  So, I paid attention to my own thinking, and when I started to feel wobbly, scared, when my excuses started rearing up, I listened out for those bullying negative thoughts, and told them to go away.  I turned my attention away.  And I did it again, and again and again.  It took about 6 months.  At last I now seem to have retrained my mind.  I haven’t heard them for months, and I can get on with the life I want, with the work that I believe will make a difference.

If you really want to make a lasting change, resist the lure of the quick fix and knuckle down, be determined and head for the long fix.  It will change your life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – A Man of Courage

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of exceptional moral courage. Image

He was born in 1906 in Germany into a comfortable professional family, and surprised his family by deciding at the age of fourteen to train for the clergy. 

As Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power it was Bonhoeffer’s view that the Church had a duty to stand against the injustice of anti-semitism.  The day after Hitler assumed office in 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast directly challenging him.  His Church failed to support him.  He argued that that the Church had responsibilities to the state but in the case of gross misrule, as with the Third Reich, the Church had a duty to act – to ‘jam a spoke in the wheel’.

Support amongst fellow churchmen was weak or absent and he ended up having to work alone.  He had excellent prospects in the Church but not only risked all such prospects but also censure from his profession, friends and society.  His actions put him in personal danger. 

He was not a zealot.  He didn’t have the comfort of single minded conviction, but questioned how he alone could be right when highly esteemed clergy did not support him.

He believed that action was needed and finding no support within the Church, he joined the Abwehr, a military intelligence unit, acting as a double agent trying to get allied support for a coup to bring down Hitler. 

In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested and spent the rest of the war in prison.  He was hanged just a few days before the end of the war.   One of his parishioners, Ernest Cromwell wrote of Bonhoeffer

“Life was not a question of safety first and making ourselves comfortable.  It was a question of adventure and risk for things that are worthwhile, because his whole philosophy of life, religion and belief was that life was a period of development, it wasn’t static;  it was something that you had to create, in your context, with other people.”

What would you do if you had more courage?

What would you do differently if you had more courage?

What difference would it make to the way you live your life, to the choices you make, to the way you feel?

I put this question out on my social media and here are some of the answers I received:

I would confront my boss about his micromanagement

I would have taken up an extreme sport

I would speak the truth

I would take up ballroom dancing

I would worry less and enjoy life more

I would have set up my own business

So people are saying that they would take up new activities, speak up, manage their state of mind and maybe even make a more radical change to their lifestyle … if they had more courage.

I feel that I have lived a timid life.  I have worked in one team in the corporate sector for 15 years with my head down, raising children, paying the bills.  It has been a life that has conformed to the norms and expectations of society and those around me.  Until now.

There is a quote I came across in my early exploration of this topic by Sydney Smith, a clergyman in the 19th century

“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.”

This fettered potential of human life and joy, this holding back of what we want, what we are and what we could be, the regret that is waiting for us is something that I feel very passionately about.  I am going to do my best to give you the tools to unlock your courage.

Time to Celebrate

It was Saturday evening.  I was just switching off mentally, cooking whilst chatting with a friend, and flicking through my emails and there it was … “We are delighted to inform you that you have been awarded a pass in your masters dissertation”.

Two years of the hardest work that I have ever done have come to an end.  It felt like a loss.  I put not just my mind, but my heart and soul into my study to learn as much as I could about psychology, human nature and also myself, and how to help people (and myself) flourish.

I am no longer working towards a defined goal and instead I have to define my own goals.  That freedom brings its own responsibility and challenge.  How can I make it work?  How can I put my new skills and knowledge, my passion, to their best use?

I am making a classic mistake.  I have not given myself time to drink it in.  To deeply appreciate the reward for the work I have done and congratulate myself.  If we don’t take time to appreciate ourselves we are not putting any deposits in our emotional bank balance.  We draw on our self-esteem without putting anything back and it will become eroded.  I have coached several people who have steadily grown career-wise but who have no corresponding increase in self-esteem because they have not taken the time to appreciate their accomplishments.

So I will make an appointment with myself, spoil myself with a treat, reminisce about the highs and lows of my studies, congratulate my fellow students, and linger with the feeling of a job well done, for a little while, before shouting ‘Next!.