As a business owner and the mom of two kids, one with severe special needs, I love the word courage. It means I have to make the decision every day to do something that I know will be difficult, and might even be dangerous. And I need all of the mental and moral strength I can muster to persevere.
Not too long ago I found myself suffering from a raging headache as I prepared to give a speech. So I found a chair massage place at the airport and paid an exorbitant amount of money for some relief. The massage therapist was incredible; she shared with me that she had a special needs child, too, and we had an instant connection. While massaging my neck, she pointed out a lump behind my right ear. That lump turned out to be a tumor in my salivary gland.
I underwent six hours of surgery, and it left the right side of my face completely paralyzed. No one was sure for how long or if it would be permanent. I couldn’t smile, blink or close my right eye, and I had a speech impediment. Half of my face was smiling and the other half looked mad.
To make matters worse, I had to have a second surgery to repair a scratch on my cornea (because I couldn’t close my eye) before I could have radiation therapy to make sure the tumor didn’t come back! I had to wear an eye patch and I closely resembled a pirate.
I cringed every time I looked in the mirror. Everywhere I went, I was so focused on how people looked at me; that’s all I saw.
That summer, I was scheduled to go to India for a five-day speaking engagement, but my doctor told me to cancel the trip because radiation would take its toll, and I wouldn’t be able to work. For me as a professional speaker, I saw my career nosedive.
But one day a meeting planner at a conference called and asked me to speak about overcoming adversity. Ironically, she had no idea that any of this had happened. When I explained everything with the tumor and facial paralysis, she said, “That’s an even better message!”
It occurred to me in that moment that having courage didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid—I was petrified. Courage meant I did it anyway.
My initial instinct was to say no. I was about to start radiation and I was still recovering from surgery. I certainly wasn’t up for travel. I didn’t even want pictures taken of me with my face looking like it did, let alone show it to an audience of a few thousand people.
As I started to write the email declining the engagement, though, I was overtaken by sadness. I just sat there and cried. In part because of everything that had happened, but also out of pure fear. After I wiped my tears away, I decided that I couldn’t tell other people to find their courage if I wasn’t willing to find my own. It occurred to me in that moment that having courage didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid—I was petrified. Courage meant I did it anyway.
So I picked up the phone and called the event planner. I explained that physically, I really wasn’t able to travel yet, so I asked if she would be willing to let me make a video. She was thrilled at the idea and told me she thought I was brave.
Being courageous isn’t hard when you’re happy and everything is hunky-dory. It’s when you’re exhausted, emotional, angry and life is far away from what you had planned, that finding your courage gets hard. Courage is how we choose to act during these times.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned to help you choose to think and act courageously:
- Courage makes the difference. The main difference between those who courageously act and those who stay stuck amounts to how we view fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is being afraid and working through the discomfort. Courage means you allow challenge and adversity to be a catalyst to help you grow strong enough to face whatever life throws at you.
- Courage is unique to each of us. Courage is highly individual to each person. So is suffering. Don’t compare your pain and fear to the experiences of others. What is scary to one person may be exhilarating to the next. We see things differently and we experience different types of courage. Neither is better or worse than any other. I know people who are fearless when it comes to travel or sports, but they refuse to fall in love because they may get hurt. There is no one size fits all when it comes to courage.
- There are many different ways to practice courage. To care for a disabled family member requires you to be courageous to face an unending series of daily challenges. To be a successful business owner, you must be bold and have courage to take calculated risks. To be a loving friend, parent or spouse, you must be courageous to forgive.
I’ve identified at least seven distinct kinds of courage. Chances are you are already practicing many of these without even thinking of it as courageous:
- Intuitive Courage, such as reaching out to help others or challenge injustice.
- Creative Courage, including transforming bold ideas into reality.
- Physical Courage, such as committing to discipline and training to build your strength and fitness.
- Moral Courage, including doing the right thing despite the consequences, making sure your words and actions match your principles, and standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
- Emotional Courage, such as asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, being open to your emotions both positive and negative, and seeking help, feedback, guidance, coaching or therapy.
- Intellectual Courage includes questioning your thinking, risking making mistakes, discerning and telling the truth, and thoughtfully dealing with difficult situations.
- Social Courage such as expressing your opinions respectfully, even when it is not popular to do so, and being comfortable in your own skin even at the risk of social disapproval.
What types of courage come easily for you? Which ones are more difficult? And what blocks you from behaving courageously in the circumstances you face? Take a few minutes and write down the answers to these questions. When you identify how you are courageous and where you struggle, you’ll be able to take the steps you need to think and behave boldly.