When I started blogging in 2009, one of my biggest fears was being perceived as imperfect. Growing up, I was the ‘goody two-shoes’ who made straight As, didn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs, and was saving myself for marriage. As a doctor, I felt a great deal of pressure to be perfect in the hospital; otherwise, innocent people might die. I had started withholding the truth about who I really was or even telling little white lies to paint a picture of myself that was more ‘perfect‘ than I really was, and it left me feeling isolated, lonely, and hypocritical, as people tended to believe the picture. I lived in constant fear of being ‘found out,’ and the shame of the lie I was living paralyzed me and damaged my relationships.
My intention with my blog was to be what I called ‘unapologetically ME’ and to do so publicly. I used my blog as an opportunity to share with strangers how I was struggling with my own imperfections in my quest to be the most authentically Lissa I could be. I wanted to avoid my past tendency to gloss over the truth, take off the masks that protected me, practice being more vulnerable, and learn to deal with criticism. Public accountability helped me stay true to my mission.
I blogged very candidly about my fear of quitting my job, my failure to publish my first book, my painful realizations about how my ego operates, my marital struggles, my heartbreak in other relationships, my financial challenges, the mystical experiences that were unfolding as I walked my spiritual path, and other vulnerabilities I might have kept to myself in the past. In addition to desensitizing myself to my fear of being perceived as imperfect, I learned that most people didn’t judge me or criticize me when I shared with them what was true for me. In fact, it was just the opposite. It’s almost as if my blog community made a group agreement not to use my vulnerability against me.
Brené Brown teaches that vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy and connection, and in my personal experience, this has proved to be true. My willingness to go public with my imperfections actually helped people trust me. Instead of positioning myself as a perfect doctor on a pedestal, buttoned up in a starched white coat, I allowed myself to be perceived as human, and instead of damaging my reputation or leaving people judging me, this seemed to grant people a portal to greater connection with me that engendered even more trust. From this place of trust, I’ve been able to take people along on my own journey so that those of us cultivating courage together all feel less alone, including me. This sense of safe, soulful community fuelled me to make difficult decisions some people might consider brave.
My Prescription for Courage
Over time, my Prescription for Courage shifted from publicly airing my dirty laundry on the internet, to diving into my own deepest shadows; either privately or in the discerning company of my therapists, spiritual advisors, and most trusted friends. This is where the real cultivation of courage arose. Publicly sharing my imperfections was scary enough, but it also became a crutch that fed my Small Self. Telling my story publicly fed my desire for approval, since I attracted many cheerleaders who praised me and helped externally validate the sometimes painful decisions I was making. But my Inner Pilot Light didn’t want me to be either dependent on anyone else’s approval or at risk of influence from anyone else’s criticism. I needed to find peace within myself when I was diving into the real truth of my own self-deception, and this peace needed to come from deep inside the scary silence of me.
The real stretch came when I pushed myself to simply sit still in meditation with my truth, which was scarier for me than any public confession of imperfection, more terrifying than winding up $200,000 in debt, and more destabilizing to my psyche than quitting my job as a doctor. Facing the demons inside my own mind pushed me further beyond my comfort zone than anything else I had ever done. Digging deep into the shadow parts of my Small Self got easier when I met my future husband, Dennis, who was also bravely diving into the depths of his own self-deception on the road to his true self. While cultivating courage is ultimately an inside job, if even one other person travels beside you on your journey as an accountability partner, it’s not quite so scary.
Your Prescription for Courage may not include rollercoasters, ropes courses, rejection therapy, silent meditation, or baring your soul on the internet. Your journey will be your own, guided by the wisdom of your Inner Pilot Light. Cultivating courage is not necessarily about forcing yourself to do things that terrify you–this process is not meant to traumatize you. It’s meant to sink you into peace, which is where you’ll find your courage. You’ll have your own way of letting fear nudge you into soul growth as you surrender into peace, and that’s what this chapter can help you figure out.
How to Get Started
Cultivating courage doesn’t lend itself to a simple step-by-step process the way making Jell-O does. Every journey is as individual as a fingerprint. However, some aspects of the process are similar for almost everyone and some practices are predictably helpful, such as finding the support of a professional who can guide you and finding your stillness through some form of daily practice. If you read my book Mind Over Medicine, the Six Steps to Cultivating Courage might look familiar, because the steps are parallel to the Six Steps to Healing Yourself that I laid out in that book. Because the process of cultivating courage is a journey of healing and transformation, the same six steps that work for healing the body can guide you as you cultivate courage.
That said, unlike the processes taught in many self-help books, this is not a one-size-fits-all cure. I’ll be offering you tools and helping you brainstorm ideas, but many of these have been filtered through my own biases, beliefs, and personal preferences. Yours may be radically different, which is why nobody can write this prescription for you. As you read on, take ownership of this process. Borrow what resonates. Leave what doesn’t. Get inspired. Let yourself imagine a life characterized by peace. What will it take for you to free yourself?
Six Steps to Cultivating Courage
Step 1: BELIEVE. Replace fear-inducing beliefs with courage-enhancing trust.
The body’s stress responses can harm us—and it’s not just the responses to present, urgent stressors; it’s the thoughts, beliefs, and stories we make up in our minds that trigger one stress response after another, which can harm us even more than the original stressors themselves. Stress is just fear in disguise, so what’s the solution? We must cultivate beliefs that limit our stress responses and allow the mind to relax.
While fear can be a vehicle for growth, shifting your beliefs so you feel less fear only makes your transformation easier. Therefore, the first step in the Six Steps to Cultivating Courage is to replace fear-inducing beliefs with courage-enhancing ones. We have to be careful about the beliefs we put into our minds about our relationship to life’s stressors and the fears that can accompany them. Our nervous systems calm down when we have the right relationship with uncertainty, make peace with loss, trust that we live in a purposeful universe, and remember that we are never alone.
Step 2: SUPPORT. Seek out support from people around you—and offer your support to others.
The journey from fear to courage is ultimately an intimate hero’s journey, but every hero needs mentors, sidekicks, accountability partners, and cheerleaders. When you’re trying to alchemize fear into growth, it’s common to encounter well-meaning family, friends, and loved ones who are projecting their own fears onto you, rather than supporting your courageous choices. Not only does this make it hard to feel supported in those choices, it can also amplify your own fear. Fear begets fear, and when you’re in the vulnerable beginning stages of this kind of transformation, you may need to work at creating a cocoon that nurtures and nourishes your courage instead.
One study tracked approximately 1,000 adults in the United States who ranged in age from 34 to 93. Study participants were asked how much stress they experienced in the last year. They were also asked how much time they spent helping out friends, neighbors, and people in their community. Then researchers used public records over the next five years to find out who among them died during that time.
What they found is that for every stressful life experience, such as a death in the family or a financial crisis, the risk of dying increased by 30 percent. But this scary number didn’t apply to all the study participants. People who spent time caring for others demonstrated no stress-related increase in dying. Caring for others—and being cared for—created resilience.
Step 3: INTUITION. Learn to trust your intuition in order to discern true fear from false fear.
Once you can differentiate between true fear and false fear, you can trust that your instincts will alert you to the true fears that need immediate action, so you can question and examine your false fears and let them fuel your growth, without letting them guide your decisions. The more you can do this, the more you can cultivate courage. As long as the amygdala is on high alert, triggering stress responses an average of 50 times per day, making courageous choices can be challenging. When the nervous system calms down, it’s easier to access your brave.
In order to distinguish between true fear and false fear, it’s essential to tap into and trust your Inner Pilot Light, which speaks in the voice of your intuition and sends you valuable guidance signals via your body.
Step 4: DIAGNOSE. Identify what lies at the root of your false fear.
The crux of The Fear Cure lies in letting fear illuminate the obstacles between you and inner peace. What still needs to be healed within you? What predisposes you to fearful thoughts? What influences from your childhood trigger false fears that may still be operating you? How might your unconscious be driving you to be unnecessarily afraid? What people amplify your false fear? Your answers to these questions can help you make your ‘Fear Diagnosis.’ Diagnosing the root causes of your fear raises your awareness so fear can no longer hide out in the shadows of your consciousness and run your life without your permission.
For most of us, if we dig deep enough down to those roots, we find one or more (or all) of the Four Fearful Assumptions:
- Uncertainty is unsafe.
- I can’t handle losing what I cherish.
- It’s a dangerous world.
- I am all alone.
Being able to recognize that you’re unnecessarily afraid because you’re making one or more of these assumptions can help you abort the false fear downward spiral.
Step 5: PRESCRIBE. Write The Prescription for Courage for yourself.
Your Prescription for Courage isn’t so much an action plan as an opportunity to set intentions and make decisions that might command action. That’s why every Prescription for Courage begins the same way, by getting very clear with yourself about your intentions and your readiness. When your intentions are clear and you’re really ready to transform your life, you will.
Step 6: SURRENDER. Release attachment to outcomes and accept what is.
We live in a culture that teaches us that if you want something, you have to go get it. Push. Strive. Put your ass on the chair until it’s done. Make it happen. Go for it. Put your nose to the grindstone. No pain, no gain.
Surrendering requires setting goals but releasing attachment to outcomes. It’s about surrendering to what wants to become, rather than pushing for what your ego wants to make happen. It’s to put your desires out there, to turn them over to Universal Intelligence, and to trust that whatever happens is in the highest good. We must surrender to courage.
In spite of what you may think, you are not in control of your life. This is not meant to frighten you. It’s meant to liberate you. You are not at the mercy of a random, chaotic universe flouncing you around like a yo-yo on a string. This is not a dangerous world always threatening to hurt you. It’s a purposeful universe that offers you opportunities for soul growth that may arise in the form of both delight and adversity. Rather than resisting adversity when it appears, you can lean in and know that you are learning and you are not only safe; you are loved. You may not understand what your soul is learning right away. You may feel victimized. Life might seem unfair. It’s only natural to feel this way. But when you look back, you will see that it all makes sense, that even times of tragedy were filled with purpose, and that your soul grew even as you grieved.
This is an edited excerpt from Lissa Rankin’s book, The Fear Cure, republished here with permission from Hay House.