A Coaching Power Tool Created by Lorna Poole
(Health & Business Coach, CANADA)
Are you courageous?
The online free dictionary defines courage as
The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence and resolution; bravery. (www.thefreedictionary.com)
It’s a powerful word filled with images of heroes – firefighters racing into burning buildings with no apparent thought for their own safety; a single student facing down an armed tank in Tiananmen Square; or Aron Ralston bravely sawing off his own, trapped arm to save his very life.
It’s no wonder we link the idea of courage to heroism; the root of the word “courage“ comes from the Latin word “cor” for heart and is thought to have been derived from the ancient English or old French word “corage” – literally “ the act of heart”. In ancient times, all emotion was thought to be derived from the physical heart; no doubt because of the heart’s instant adrenalin-charged activity in the face of fear, love, pleasure or terror! Those who acted swiftly to slay the mighty dragons of ancient times were courageous; less so those who snuck off to the relative safety of the cave.
In modern times, we are still apt to describe courage this way. We associate it with acts of bravery and heroism in times of trouble; with those who take great risks to explore unknown territories like space; with those who perish in order to save others and with those who fight to right the wrongs of our society.
Are you courageous? Using the ideas of courage as expressed above, many of us might shamefacedly stare at our toes and say, “ummm, not really.” We hope we never face the kinds of fear that might require great demands of courage to survive and, in fact, live much of our lives to avoid those situations that might demand it! However, we all have a heart, and we can all act of that heart.
Perspective on Courage:
How do you act of your heart?
Consider Serena who struggles daily with the care of her 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, who has special needs. Serena wasn’t ready to parent Chloe. Now just 19, Serena had left high school when Chloe was born and had been struggling to find her way ever since.
Serena had become obsessed with Chloe’s condition. Desperate to learn more about it, she convinced the librarian of the local university to allow her access to the Medical Science library. She spent many afternoons while Chloe slept in her carriage reading science and medical journals and checking every third word in a dictionary. She watched the “real” students enviously and periodically allowed herself the day dream of being one of them – but, Chloe would stir and Serena would retreat to her impossible stack of reading.
Serena was convinced that Chloe would benefit from specialised treatment but needed her doctor to order the treatment in order for her insurance company to pay for it. Serena scheduled an appointment with her doctor and gathered a large variety of research information about the treatment she wanted him to order.
On the day of the appointment, she stood in the waiting room trembling with fear until her name was called. Despite her rampaging nerves, she walked calmly to the office and asked the doctor to consider the treatment she had read about. The doctor began to dismiss the treatment as experimental and, while he talked over her head, Serena wished for the floor to open and swallow her whole.
Instead, she steadied her voice and produced her research. She asked that the doctor please read what she had discovered and to tell her what harm trying this treatment would have on Chloe. When the doctor reached for the papers and said he’d look at them, Serena stood and excused herself telling him she’d schedule another appointment for the following week to discuss his findings. And she did so with the receptionist on the way out.
Vulnerability is often described as the susceptibity to suffer negative impact from adverse conditions and effects. When people hear the word “vulnerability” they often think of weakness and frailty – no surprise since the root of the word is attributed to the Latin word for wounding! We try to avoid feeling vulnerable at all costs; it’s a dog eat dog world out there! To show your vulnerable side is to reveal your Achilles heel and we’re convinced that no good can come of that.
The truth about vulnerability is that denying ourselves the right to have weakspots means we build must build armour of false toughness in order to survive. Noone is completely strong! Human beings have a lot of soft spots: opinions, ideas, rights, freedoms, choices to name but a tiny few. There are all kinds of things that make us different from each other and thus vulnerable to judgement, dismissal, shame, envy, hate, exclusion etc. Wearing armour seems a reasonable defense against the feelings these things provoke.
Armour is appealing – it reminds us of the kind of heroism we evoke through our ideas of courage; brave men off to war to save the weak left behind. To protect ourselves, we cloak ourselves in a false strength then pretend we’re courageous. But, in fact, we are quivering inside our armour from fear of our vulnerability – constantly looking to see if there is a chink in our armour.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr Brené Brown (2010) uses the phrase “ordinary courage” to describe the kind of courage we everyday people need. She argues that, while heroics are important, courage requires an act of the whole heart and that true courage is the ability to speak of whom we truly are, what we are feeling, what we need and what we experience. Only when we expose our vulnerabilities through speaking authentically about ourselves will we experience true courage.
Thus, while the dragon slayers of yore were heroic, the dragon tamers like Serena who use words and actions to essentially achieve the same result are courageous – speaking and acting with their whole heart. Courage, in Dr. Brown’s world, is an everyday thing that we all may tap into in order to move forward into authentic lives.
Serena demonstrated ordinary courage. By approaching the librarian to ask for help in using the library she exposed her vulnerability as a high school drop out, a single mom who might not be considered to belong in a university library. It took courage to ask for what she wanted.
Taking her child with her to the library where students her own age surrounded her was another kind of vulnerability to which Serena responded with courage. Placing her daughter at the top of her priority list when she felt vulnerable to the siren song of youth and fun was an act of her whole heart; a moment of courage.
Perhaps the greatest vulnerability of all was the exposure of her youth, ignorance and neediness to a powerful figure – the doctor – as she risked rejection, ridicule and humiliation. Yet she faced the situation with courage and received the strength of resolve in exchange. Acting in the best interests of herself and her child took great courage and was ultimately an act of her whole heart overruling vulnerability.
While it’s safe to assume that everyone feels vulnerable in the face of obvious danger to their personal safety, it isn’t necessarily easy to recognize individual beliefs about vulnerability. While one client might relish the idea of speaking to a large crowd, another might find having open-heart surgery more enticing! As with many aspects of life, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Assisting the client to identify underlying beliefs about vulnerability is central to coaching clients towards the courage of their wholehearted life. For example, how far is a client, (whose stated goal is to earn their living through writing), going to get towards achieving that goal if the vulnerability of having their words read and criticised is so overwhelming that they can’t actually put words on paper?
In order to move forward to live their authentic lives, our clients are going to need to create action plans. Many times, these actions require a shot of courage to get them underway. Identifying those clients who have tried to hide their vulnerabilities is key to understanding how to get them to move forward courageously.
When faced with clients who are wearing a mighty fine suit of armour, it is important to understand what they are trying to protect themselves from by listening for resistance to vulnerability. Gently probe by asking about perceived weaknesses:
What would happen if you exposed that side of you?
How are you being held back by yourself?
What keeps you from asking for __________?
What’s the worst thing that could happen in this situation?
Once the perceptions of vulnerability are out in the open, the coach can begin to explore the reason the client tries so hard to keep them protected:
Tell me about a time you asked for __________, what happened?
What is the worst thing that can happen here? How can you prepare for that?
Is this likely to happen again? No? What’s different now? Yes? How are things the same?
Shifting clients from protecting their vulnerabilities to taking the leap into courageous action takes some deft manoeuvering. Ripping the armour off and exposing the naked self beneath is both dangerous and unhelpful. Guiding the client to take baby steps towards courage is like building resistance to sunburn – a few minutes of exposure today means a longer exposure tomorrow.
What would it feel like to be brave enough to ask for __________?
How could you break that into smaller steps?
If you put on your courage hat, what would be the first thing you would do?
Finally, celebrating and enthusing acts of courage with your client is necessary to build commitment to living a courageous life. Asking the client to describe the moment when fear turned into triumph will allow them to remember that place where vulnerability started to fall away and their own heroism stepped in.
- Where do your vulnerabilities lie? What sources of courage do you need to overcome vulnerability?
- What would happen if you lived your life protecting your vulnerabilities and never tapping into the courage needed to step beyond them?
- How can you support your client to trust their courage?
Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010.