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Courage: Choosing to Acknowledge Fear

Many of us think of courage as the opposite of fear. When we have courage we don’t have fear, and vice versa. The two do not, and cannot, coexist. The problem with that line of thinking comes with real-life experience. When you try to reconcile the ideas of courage and fear in the real world, something becomes apparent very quickly: courage doesn’t mean ignoring or eliminating fear. Courage means choosing to acknowledge fear.

Courage and fear coexist

Let’s look at a real-world example that demonstrates this. Let’s say you’re afraid of heights, but you get invited on a trip to hike the Grand Canyon. You don’t want to miss out on the trip, so you go. Does finding the courage to hike along the steep drop offs mean that you’re no longer afraid of heights? No. You’re still afraid, but you’re doing it anyway. You have fear, but you’re being courageous. Courage and fear are coexisting inside you. 

Any time we take action in spite of a fear, we’re showing courage. We’re choosing, consciously or not, to acknowledge the fear, without giving in to it or letting it control us. 

The problem with refusing to acknowledge fear

Sometimes, acknowledging and facing your fear is scarier than the fear itself. Many of us don’t like to admit we’re afraid of something, especially if it’s a deep emotional issue. 

(What I mean by that: heights, enclosed spaces, spiders, and the like are all rather common fears. But when we’re trying to address how fear negatively impacts your creative life, the fears we need to address are more abstract than concrete.)

For example, many people are afraid of loneliness or abandonment, but might be unaware of that fear because they’re not willing or ready to face it. Rather than own up to it so they can work on overcoming it in a healthy way, they deny its very existence.

The problem is: just because you deny something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And because it’s there, you’re going to respond to it—for better or (more often) for worse.

For example, let’s say you are one of those people who is afraid of loneliness and abandonment. If you refuse to admit you are afraid of those things, you won’t be able to work through them in a healthy way. In fact, you might respond to those fears by clinging even tighter to the people you care about. Taken to the extreme, this could lead to you becoming controlling or manipulative, maybe to the point where those people don’t really want to be in your life anymore. And if that’s the case, how do you end up feeling? Lonely and abandoned.

By denying the existence of your fear, you’ve made that fear your reality. 

Why acknowledging fear is courageous

Even if we know that denying our emotional or abstract fears isn’t helpful or healthy, it can still be scary to face them. Acknowledging this type of fear is courageous because:

You admit that your fear is real.

We’d all like to believe that what we’re afraid of isn’t real, that it will never happen, that we’re being unreasonable, and so on. But when we choose to acknowledge our fear, we’re admitting that it might be real, that it could happen, and that our brains are actually trying to protect us from something that would be extraordinarily painful. Essentially, we have to let ourselves imagine the pain we would feel, should that fear come to pass. 

You own up to a “weakness.”

I’m hesitant to call fear “weakness,” because everyone is afraid of something. Being afraid is part of human existence. But because our fears tend to hold us back, you can definitely make the argument that they make you “weaker” in some way. When you face your fears, you’re admitting that there is something inside of you that’s holding you down—and let’s face it, that’s a hard thing to admit. Owning up to the fear takes courage.

You make yourself vulnerable.

Acknowledging your fears opens the door to scary possibilities. What if I, as someone who’s afraid of loneliness, acknowledge that fear and share it with my spouse? Now, my spouse has a powerful weapon to use against me whenever they want to. Being open about our fears is a double-edged sword: it’s the only way we’ll ever be able to really overcome them, but it also means that we’re more susceptible to being hurt by them. Vulnerability takes courage.

Acknowledging fear is a choice

There is a fear response that we have little to no control over: your heart races, your palms get sweaty, and you feel that “fight or flight” urge. These responses are hard to ignore; that is, you don’t really have a choice but to notice them (or at least feel them).

But when it comes to acknowledging fear, you are more in control. You can choose to acknowledge or deny the fear. And if you do choose to acknowledge the fear, you can choose if you’re going to let it take over, or if you’re going to reject it in an attempt to overcome it. 

You have this choice because you have power over your thoughts. You may not be able to choose how your body responds to fear, but you can choose what thoughts you think about it. Your thoughts have power, and you can harness that power to help yourself have the courage to acknowledge your fears, putting you on the road to overcoming them.  

How to acknowledge fear

Acknowledging fear is hard, but it’s not impossible. Here are some tricks that might help you have the courage to acknowledge your fears.

Stop making excuses

For me, it’s pretty common to cover up my fear with an excuse:

“I’m too busy to take on that passion project” really means “I’m afraid to step out of my comfort zone.”

“My partner would never let me do that” really means “I’m afraid they would leave me if I tried.”

“I want to do that someday…but not right now” really means “I’m afraid to prioritize myself and what I really want.”

If you find yourself making excuses, it’s time for an honesty check. Is there a fear underneath the excuse that you aren’t acknowledging? See the excuses as a warning signal that invites you to choose courage and acknowledge the fear.

Become more aware

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the day-to-day hustle of life that we don’t even recognize how our fears are controlling us. Give yourself time to slow down, step back, and acknowledge the role that fear plays into your life. 

One way to become more aware is making a habit of practicing meditation. Meditation can bring you into the present so you can be more in tune with your physical body, your mental and emotional state, and your surroundings.  

Give it a name

Deliberately state your fear. Give it a name. Write it down. Share it with someone you trust. Make the fear a real entity in your life—because that’s exactly what it is. Don’t trick yourself into thinking the fear isn’t real or isn’t affecting you. Don’t allow it to be a nebulous “something” that holds you back, even if you don’t know why. Acknowledge it. Claim it. Name it. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

Let go of control

Many times, when we’re denying our fears, we’re trying to control them. We’re essentially saying, “If I can just ignore this fear long enough, or pretend it isn’t there, maybe I can make it go away.” Recognize that there are some things that are out of your control. Once you accept that, you’ll be more willing and able to recognize and acknowledge your fears. 

Don’t beat yourself up

It’s easy to shame yourself for your fears. After all, we’ve been socially trained to think that fears are embarrassing flaws. But if you beat yourself up for feeling fear, you’ll be less likely to want to acknowledge your fears in the future…because you’re afraid you’ll get beat up over it. Ultimately, your brain wants to protect you, and if that means ignoring the fear you feel in order to protect you from experiencing shame, it will do that.

Acknowledging fear is, in and of itself, scary. It’s hard to identify the fears that are holding us back, and it can be terrifying to take a close look at them and how they’re affecting our lives. But it’s only when we do that that we can start to conquer them. Only by displaying courage, by choosing to acknowledge fear, can we start to pull apart the lies that fear tells us. And only by doing that can we start to create happier, more creative, more fulfilled lives. 

Fears slip away with positive thinking

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