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Be en-courage-d to walk on…

 

By Shannon Gostelow

Provisional Psychologist

supervised by Julie Crabree, Lyn Worsley and Sylvia Ruocco

 

‘Courage doesn’t always roar.

Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying

“I will try again tomorrow”

 

The above quote stopped me in my tracks.

It was printed up on a local notice board. I pass that notice board most days. But this day I stopped. Momentarily caught by the words and the idea that came from them. A tumble of thoughts fell out. (Possibly even audibly…;))

I instantly considered the word’ courage’ in a different light. It was being metaphorically described using opposite words e.g. ‘quiet voice’ and ‘roar’! And it gave emphasis to the importance and validity of the ‘quiet voice’. Not the ‘roar’. It suggested that it is just as courageous to quietly persevere day by day as it is to brandish your sword and dive ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’ (Shakespeare:)).

Is this true? Is it just as courageous to get up and try again as it is to act heroically with great physical valor? Is it an act of great courage to keep persisting despite the difficulty? What does psychology say about it?

Well psychology tends to agree.

Key researchers and academics Seligman and Peterson (2004) explain courage as:

the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal.

 (Or in the colloquial words of John Wayne “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”)

The researchers add that courage is a character strength happily situated amid the lofty heights of the strengths of wisdom, justice and humanity. Not bad. Furthermore, these researchers suggest courage is made up of several parts, i.e. bravery, persistence, integrity and vitality.

Pausing there a moment… bravery…yes that’s commonly associated with courage. Integrity and vitality are the reasons for, and strength of, the brave act…but persistence…? There it is again. The concept of persistence is also inherent in well trotted out sayings like ‘‘get back up on the horse’ and ‘if at first you don’t succeed try, try again.’ These age old proverbs aptly describe persistence but do not necessarily advocate it as courage. However, in the above researched description persistence is a completely valid form of courage. So…the ‘quiet voice’ that whispers to try again tomorrow? Officially validated.

What we have is that bravery ‘roars’ and perseverance is the ‘quiet voice.’

However BOTH display courage.

Another psychology researcher (Putnam, 1997) considers courage to be of a physical, moral or psychological nature with:

i)physical courage characterised by overcoming fear of physical harm,

ii) moral courage characterised by overcoming fear of social disapproval or rejection of one’s moral integrity and

iii) psychological courage characterised as overcoming fear of the pain in confronting fears, anxieties and mood instabilities.

Lets look at these in terms of some examples.

The western social and cultural emphasis on physical acts of bravery constituting courage is fairly entrenched. It seems that our society doesn’t often equate quiet perseverance with noisy brave feats, nor does it usually consider both to be courageous. For example, one rather more readily thinks of the heroic actions of a surf life saver swimming out to save a child caught in a rip when one thinks of a courageous person. Right?

Somehow the person persistently working with the homeless each day and fighting for some dignity for them doesn’t conjure ‘a courageous person’. A selfless, kind, humanitarian person perhaps…but not a courageous one…The perception of society clouds the view because, in essence, both surf lifesaver and aid worker are people acting courageously. They are simply different sides of the same coin. One is a more physical bravery, the other a more moral persistence. Both display courage.

There are many mental health concerns that require great perseverance in addressing psychological symptoms until they become manageable for example eating disorders, some personality disorders and chronic depression or anxiety.

*So HOW can one persevere and be courageous?

  1. With simply an awareness that by persisting you are courageously helping the situation. For example, if you are being guided by a therapist and you are persevering in addressing your mental health symptoms, then you are making a difference in your own journey to better health and your actions are psychologically courageous.
  2. Work on choosing optimism more often. Optimism assists perseverance because it is associated with positive mood and more effective problem solving. Optimism involves explaining ‘bad’ circumstances as external (it is due to other factors not me), unstable (it can change and get better) and specific (there is a reason which can be learnt from).
  3. If you have children start them learning persistence early on. It gives them their best chance. We live in a society where we constantly try to shield and perhaps ‘protect’ ourselves and others from hardship-there are positives about this of course, however, it also has the capacity to make it difficult to learn perseverance and apply it when it is necessary. How much or little perseverance one has is significantly shaped and honed through childhood. So teach and encourage children to ‘try again’ and applaud the attempt regardless of the result. They will build up a bank of perseverance and courage and may more successfully push through adversity where others struggle.

Our society squarely places emphasis on courage as being physical acts of great bravery, relegating ‘trying again’ to the side of the road and labeling it as ‘not succeeding.’

This could not be further from the truth.

Armed with the information about the true psychological nature of courage which recognises the inherent value of ‘trying again’, I say be en-couraged to persist in the face of obstacles and listen to the courageous whisper to ‘try again tomorrow’ 🙂

In her recent blog, Clinical Psychologist Christina Ott exhorted compassion and courage be adopted in equal measure in life…

…which includes that quiet voice, the ‘unnoticed’ tasks, the attitude to persevere and face fears, and the decisions to choose integrity.

They all have value and, without roaring, exhibit great courage.

References

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55(1), 44-55.

Putman, D. (1997). Psychological courage. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 4(1), 1-11.

 

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