I was walking today through the woods when I started to think about fear and courage. I was wondering why some people are more courageous than others, why something that seems totally neutral to one person might raise enormous anxiety in someone else, why we rise above our fear and take action in one circumstance, but not in another. Of course, I find the answer is in our thinking.

When we are feeling tremendous fear around some upcoming event or possibility, it’s because we are imagining what it might be like, the ways it could go wrong, and the impact of those failures. The more creative and intelligent we are, the more able we are to catastrophize and make up stories around what it might be like. And the more we see the downside, the less likely we are to take the necessary action.

We can tell ourselves defeating stories about the unlikelihood of success, along with the possibility that even if we do succeed, things might not turn out well. We can literally make success almost as bad as failure. Then we can decide that, given the many possible negative outcomes, and the very few positive ones, we should avoid taking action.

But then, sometimes we do. When we see inaction as very obviously a bad thing, we can overcome smaller fears and take action. We can cearly imagine the terrible outcome of inaction, perhaps being evicted from our home, or being unable to pay other bills, or dying of sickness, for instance. Then, no matter how intimidated we are, we can take action. When our children are in danger, even the most cowardly among us can find courage.

So what then is courage? I think courage is a myth. I think that we act based on the balance of our thinking, and if we tell ourselves stories of terrible shame for inaction, and great glory for risking it all and dying, we can march into battle, head up, ready to face any enemy. 

The crazy thing is that we can’t really put these thoughts into our own heads. Our thinking is largely the stories we tell ourselves, but if we don’t believe those stories, they have little power. We weaken these stories by experiencing reality, by being forced into uncomfortable situations, and taking the action required. As we build a new understanding of our world, and ourselves, we become bolder, more courageous, more able to take risks, because those risks feel smaller, our experience has taught us that things can go well, and that we can achieve what we set out to do.

So, what does this mean? It means there are two paths forward. One, you can set yourself up against uncomfortable situations, and push through them, expanding your comfort zone, and growing your reserve of confidence and courage. Or, you can see that all of those feelings are simply thought. Once you reach this level of self awareness, you can become unstoppable. Not from willpower, but because you see that the thoughts, images, stories that you tell yourself are only that, stories. You can’t really know what will happen, and if you’re open to any outcome, what is there to fear? Ultimate confidence comes from knowing that you’ll be ok. That you are comfortable with not knowing. 

It’s ok to feel fear, we all do, but those who move forward realize that the feelings are just that, feelings. They aren’t telling you anything about reality, the future, what you’re capable of, etc. They are only telling you about your thinking in that moment. And your thinking isn’t magic, it’s just stories that you’re telling yourself. Nothing more. Fearlessness comes when you stop believing your thinking. It loses its power, and in time, the thinking becomes like a quiet murmur, easily ignored.