It should have been an exciting moment. Instead, I was terrified—and having a major meltdown. What was I doing here in the middle of a rain forest, picking my way through rocky, mud-slick creek beds? Looking for a gutsy side of me that was an apparent no-show, that's what. I'd gone to Belize, a tiny tropical paradise in Central America, to see whether I could push myself to be bolder and braver. And now I'd hit a wall.
It took awhile, but eventually I decided it was okay to sit on a rock while the others went on for the cave swim that was the hike's ultimate destination. It didn't mean I was a wimp, just that I'd chosen to say "enough." But I still really, really wished I could have found the inner toughness to go the whole distance. So when I got home, I dug in to find where courage comes from and how I can keep pushing mine forward. Take a look at what I've learned.
Make a decision to be brave. We don't have to succumb to the unhelpful negative chatter in our minds. "Being courageous doesn't mean not having fear," says Judith Orloff, M.D., author of Positive Energy (Three Rivers Press). "It's just that the feeling doesn't control you. Establish a basic personal philosophy that fear is an opportunity to grow, not something you run from."
Accept your limitations. Nobody can do all things, all the time. If, like me, you want to be more physically adventurous, take steps to make your body stronger and come up with some healthy physical challenges—walk a little farther, try a new regimen. But tell yourself, "It's okay I can't do it all. I'm human."
Be grateful for your fear. People tend to try to push the feeling away, which doesn't work, at least for long. Instead, embrace and feel it. "Fear is a healthy survival response," says Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of Awaken Your Strongest Self (McGraw-Hill). "You can't shut it off, but you can bring it under control." When you get the jolt telling you something's dangerous, that's your cue to evaluate the situation. Are you really in trouble or is your head playing tricks on you? Then you can decide where to go from there.
Build your mental strength. Think often about your important traits, goals, and values. "The neuropathways in the brain that are used the most are the most likely to fire," says Peter Ubel, M.D., author of You're Stronger Than You Think (McGraw-Hill). "If you remind yourself of your good traits, they're more likely to kick in when you need them." Make a list of your strengths and goals, in your mind or on paper.
Lean on other people. As I settled onto my boulder in the rain forest to wait for the others to come back down the trail, one of the guides offered to keep me company. Usually fiercely independent, I did the smart thing—I said yes. "Accepting help is not a sign of failure," says Ken Schuman, coauthor of The Michelangelo Method (McGraw-Hill). "We all could use help most of the time."
Soak up your power moments. Try to notice those times when you're feeling strong and competent. Pause and take a few slow, deep breaths and tell yourself, "This is who I am." The more you recognize when you're being strong, the more fearless you'll become.
Be aware of your trigger points. List your top five fears. Do you dread being abandoned? Worry you'll never find another good job? Get sick? "When you're aware of what sets you off, you can tell yourself, 'There it is again,'" says Dr. Orloff. "Then you can approach it as something to learn from." Or, knowing what people and situations press your buttons, you can avoid them.
Rely on your deepest beliefs. Do you have a specific religion? Your own private faith? Either way, keep it strong and use it all the time. "Awareness of a loving force that's greater than yourself can help you do what seems impossible," says Dr. Orloff. When trouble looms, she says, "send up a little flare prayer."Avoid These Mistakes
As soon as I got home from Belize the first thing I did was download my pictures. There I am, paddling a canoe on the lagoon at dawn. Climbing up the side of a Mayan temple. Dancing to the beat of the local drumming group. Snorkeling—briefly!—off a sailboat. Sitting up front in the tiny prop plane we used to island-hop. Balancing (with a little help) on an airboat, holding the 3-foot crocodile I helped capture and band.
"Not too shabby," I said to myself. Which prompted me to list some of the other brave things I've done in my life—from having three kids (all boys!), to taking a 500-mile bicycle trip, to speaking out at school board meetings, to learning to drive on crazy New Jersey highways. Courage, I decided, has more to do with acknowledging your strengths than stressing over your limitations.
I may not swim in caves, but, hey, I do have my moments.