How to Transform Fear into Courage

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“Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

When was the last time you were scared to do something? Were you able to turn fear into courage or did the fear overwhelm you, preventing action and keeping you stuck?

The definition of courage would have you believe that courage is facing some type of challenge without fear but my experience is that one cannot exist without the other. Fear and courage are two sides of the same coin.

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Understanding Fear and Courage

Step one of transforming your fear into courage is understanding the relationship between the two. And although there are a variety of theories on fear and courage out there, the one which rings most true to me is by Stanley Rachman.

His book Fear and Courage outlines courage as being the ability to overcome a challenge despite the presence of fear. In other words, courage can’t exist without the presence of fear.

Think about it for a minute. What do you consider your most courageous feat in life thus far? Could those feats be considered your most courageous because of how much fear was involved?

In my own life, there have been two feats I consider my most courageous. The first is my college senior recital and the second is finishing graduate school.

Senior Recital

This post describes my decision to pursue a fine arts degree in music despite significant struggles with performance anxiety. As you can imagine, the study of music requires frequent performances for both small and large audiences.

For me, performance anxiety meant sweaty, shaky hands and nausea. I would start imagining the worst case scenario which typically involved making a gigantic mistake and being laughed off stage. A close second was fear of throwing up on stage in front of everyone.

And to make matters worse, my instrument of choice is piano which has a long tradition of performing solo repertoire without music. No music as in completely memorized. Nothing in front of you to help get back in track if you lose your spot.

Although I loved the instrument, I lived in constant dread of each and every upcoming performance.

But I dreaded none of the other performances as much as my senior recital. In music programs, the senior recital is a capstone project or a final display of all you have learned throughout your degree.

It’s typically at least 30 minutes of solo music prepared by the student.

A terrifying proposition for someone with significant performance anxiety. In the months leading up to my recital, fear dominated my thoughts. All I could think about was my upcoming performance and the many ways I could humiliate myself.

The fear was overwhelming.

Finally, the day of my recital came. It was a cold day in early December with all forecasts calling for significant snowfall. And snow it did!

I remember walking across campus in my long dress and winter boots, slipping and sliding on the snow-covered sidewalks which hadn’t yet been plowed.

And I also remember the terror growing by the second as the clock inched towards show time.

In that moment, part of me thought about faking an illness, giving in to fear, and heading back home. But the other part of me knew that I would forever regret throwing away the opportunity to be courageous in the face of intense fear.

And when the clock struck 2, I walked onstage. The old familiar sweaty hands and nausea returned as did the intense fear of messing up. But in the midst of it all was a strange sense of calm in the knowledge that this would all be over very soon. This was the moment of transformation from fear into courage.

You may also enjoy reading this post about how to learn piano as an adult.

Graduate School

My career path has been a long and winding road. Although I started with aspirations to teach piano full-time, life’s curveballs sent me down a completely different path.

Shortly after finishing my fine arts degree, I went back for a two year nursing degree. I had a baby, got divorced, married again, had another baby, and finished up my baccalaureate degree in nursing. It was at this point that I set my sights on a graduate degree in nursing.

I remember mailing in my application to the program and being confident that I could tackle this. My grades had always been good so I knew that academically I could do it. Although I was working full-time, my employer was understanding and flexible. I had two kids but as I shared custody with my ex-husband, really only had one on a full-time basis. This program would be a piece of cake.

Ready for the curveball?

Not even a month after mailing the application, the test was positive. We were expecting baby #3.

And suddenly the confidence I had in being able to complete the program plummeted. Two kids plus an infant, grad school, and work seemed utterly impossible! Almost immediately, a sense of fear and overwhelm took over.

Fear haunted me throughout the program. This time around fear revolved around not finishing the program or failing out. It didn’t present in the same dramatic way it had during my music degree but was rather a constant dull ache in the pit of my stomach.

Despite the constant presence of fear, I somehow inched through the program, eventually emerging triumphant on graduation day.

Transforming Fear into Courage

Whether fear surrounds a specific event in your life or whether it’s generalized, courage can’t exist without its presence. We need fear in order to show up courageously. And the greater the fear, the more courage is required to overcome it.

Whether you’re considering a career change, launching a new venture, or going after a hobby you’ve sidelined for a few years, fear can quickly extinguish the flame before it even ignites. It all starts with an idea to try something entirely new and different which suddenly pops into your head one day and you decide to entertain it for a few minutes. Excitement courses through and your mind races with possibility. The “what-ifs” are positive and exhilarating!

But then the “what-ifs” take a different turn. “What if this doesn’t work?” “Will I look stupid?” “What if I fail?” Suddenly, fear takes over and what seemed entirely possible one minute is utterly impossible the next. Your mind races with negativity. All the reasons why it not only couldn’t but WOULDN’T work. And all of a sudden, you freeze with fear.

I have been in this place so many times. The place where even if the idea is positive and will push me in a fantastic new direction, I shut down and overwhelm takes over. Fear crowds out everything and the clear choice seems to be giving in.

Did you catch that? The clear “choice” implying you have a decision among several options. Fear doesn’t control you … you can flip the coin and instead choose courage. It only seems as if fear is the singular option but this is actually an illusion because courage is always there. The hidden path among the overgrown weeds. The lesser chosen option due to obscurity.

Fact vs. Fiction

One of the funny things about fear is that in many cases, we are our own worst enemies. Our mind takes a turn for the negative and begins fabricating all kinds of stories about why something won’t work. We convince ourselves that it’s impossible and then immediately begin looking for evidence to support this outcome.

Throughout my grad program, I had convinced myself that there was no way I would make it through. After a while, even the tiniest inconvenience became a gigantic roadblock which would undoubtedly derail my progress. I had myself so convinced I wouldn’t succeed that the only evidence I took into consideration was the negative.

And do you know what? 99% of my fear was completely made up and not based on any reality. It was a figment of my imagination.

When transforming fear into courage, stop paying attention to the negative. Look for the positive and ground yourself in reality.

Start asking whether what you fear is actually happening or whether your mind is playing games with you. Challenge the negative thoughts and begin actively looking for the positive.

You may also enjoy reading this post about how to achieve a positive mindset.

Embrace Fear

In many cases, our fear of fear is worse than the fear itself. We do everything possible to avoid feeling fear and in so doing, make our situation even worse.

I routinely considered switching majors to avoid performance situations required in the music degree. But I love music and knew that if I switched out, I would forever live with the regret of not trying. And although music does not provide a steady income stream at this point, I will always look back on the degree with pride and accomplishment.

We have to learn to not only live with but to also embrace fear. It is a normal part of our lives and everyone experiences this emotion at one time or another.

And in certain situations, fear may actually save our lives. Fear can be a mechanism of protection or warning that something is wrong.

It can also be our subconscious trying to protect us from something which doesn’t even exist. Remember all that stuff about our tendency to dwell on worst case scenarios even when there’s no fact behind it? Our subconscious can’t tell the difference between true and false. In other words, if you are consistently focusing on the negative, your subconscious thinks it’s reality.

Fear is the immediate response because your subconscious is trying to protect you by keeping you away from danger.

But in most cases, fear is only serving to hold you back from trying something new or accomplishing your goals. Fear leads directly to self-sabotage when you try to avoid it rather than face it.

And even though fear is scary, you have a secret weapon.

Choice Turns Fear into Courage

The secret weapon is choice. Every time you choose courage, you get stronger and the fear gets just a bit less scary. One courageous choice leads to another and another and another and pretty soon, courage is the only option.

Your consistent choice to turn fear into courage makes you stronger.

Choose courage over fear because at the end of the day, there’s very little we have control over in this life. We can’t control the weather, other people, or even the stability of our jobs.

But we can control our own actions. We can choose to live in the shadows of fear, constantly stewing over any and all possible negative outcomes. Or we can choose to step into the light, be courageous, and become a stronger person for it.

Choose courage.

It’s Your Turn

The next time you find yourself staring down a fear-provoking situation, carefully weigh out your options but use fear as a compass to instead find your inner courage. Embrace fear and take time to sort through where the fear comes from. And then make the choice to refuse to allow fear to control your life and prevent personal growth. Embrace courage and hang on tight because big changes are headed your way!

And if you’re looking for a little extra inspiration, check out one of my favorite reads!

Leave a comment below about the last time you chose courage over fear and the impact it had on your life!

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