Face down your fears and bring more satisfaction into your life by building up your strongest self.

By Gay Norton Edelman

Steps to Courage

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

  • Thinking physical courage is the most important kind.
  • Seeing only the negative.
  • Inventing endless "what if" dramas in your head.
  • Worrying about what other people think.

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.

Get Through the Scariest Times

No matter how tough you are, there'll be times when you just need to make it through the moment. Here's how:

  1. Exhale. Breathing out will immediately signal to your body that it's safe for you to relax. Within 30 seconds, says Neil Fiore, stress hormones subside and you're on your way back to feeling calm and in control again.
  2. Connect with your body. Feel the chair under you, your feet on the floor. "This puts you back to the present where the body must always be," says Fiore. "Anxiety comes when your mind gets stuck in the past or the future."
  3. Tell yourself you're safe. When you start to feel out of control say, "If I miss the exit, I'll just take the next one" or "I've always managed to handle this before. I can this time too."
  4. Evaluate your options. Think of consequences and make a cost/benefit analysis. Is it worth enduring the heart-pounding panic to speak at the town meeting? Keep in mind that you are in control of your decisions and actions.

Our Courageous Readers

Terre Ryan

Reno, NevadaWhat she did: Left a well-paid job so she could go back to school and follow her dream of becoming a writer and an English professor. How she stayed strong: "I recalled other difficult things I've accomplished. When I was younger I moved to France for two years without knowing the language or anyone there. If I could do that, I could do many other things."The payoff: "I quit postponing my goals. Despite my much leaner bank account, I'm much richer for having done this."

Donnalyn Carfi

New York, New YorkWhat she did: Took up horseback riding and stuck with it even though she often felt terrified.How she stayed strong: "I let myself feel the fear and made myself keep moving forward, even when I felt anxious. Every time I went for my lesson I'd tell myself that falling off was a possibility, not a probability."The payoff: "I had no idea taking up riding would change my life in such a big way. I'm much more confident. And my husband fell in love with horses too, which made our marriage stronger."

Amanda Larson

Yardley, PennsylvaniaWhat she did: When she couldn't find a publisher for her book, Healing from a Grandmother's Heart, a collection of life lessons from her father's mother, she spent $10,000 of her own money to have it designed and printed. How she stayed strong: "I decided that nothing was going to stand in the way of getting out my grandmother's important message."The payoff: "The book has sold almost 3,000 copies, and people write me all the time to tell me how it has inspired them. That's the best gift of all."

Jennifer Rodriguez

Land O' Lakes, FloridaWhat she did: Scaled down her life—including giving up a full-time job—so she could spend more time with her husband and kids, even though she'd been raised to believe a woman should never rely solely on a man's income.How she stayed strong: "I talked all the time to people who were supportive of my choice, not with people who didn't understand it."The payoff: "I saw that I don't need other people to tell me what's right for me and my family."

Lynda Ulrich

Fairfield, VermontWhat she did: Took her three kids for a trip to Northern Ireland, to areas once conflict-ridden and not usually visited by tourists. How she stayed strong: "While I'd never take my kids to an unsafe spot, I chose a place where they could meet people with a history of overcoming adversity. I'm preparing them to be citizens of the world." The payoff: "Travel like this gives me peace of mind about my kids' futures, that someday they'll help others based on what they learn now."

Be Strong for Others

Maybe your neighbor gets a bad diagnosis, your husband loses his job, or your kid flunks pre-calc—again. Now it's your turn to help someone else be brave. Remember these simple-but-important basics.

  • Don't minimize. If you say or imply, "It's not that big a deal," you've added insult to injury. Instead, say, "I'm so sorry," or "This must be so hard for you."
  • Don't make it about you. Hold off on the story about how you faced the same thing, only worse, or how helpless you feel to make things better. You don't want the other person to feel she has to comfort you.
  • Do tell the emotional truth. Speak from the place in your gut where you really feel for the person. Your sincerity means more than the exact words.

Originally published in Family Circle magazine, August 2007.