We assume that courage requires being fearless. And you’re certainly not fearless. No, you’re 100 percent anxious. Maybe more days than not, you are figuratively or literally shaking in your shoes. So you stay quiet. Or you say yes. Or you needlessly apologize. Or you don’t pursue your dreams and desires.

But courage doesn’t require fearlessness. (And thinking that it does holds us back.) As Laura McKowen said, “You’re brave because you do it afraid.”

There are many myths about what courage looks like, and how we can be more courageous. Which is why I wanted to talk with the wonderful Kate Swoboda. Kate is the author of the Courageous Living Program, founder of the Courageous Living Coach Certification, and creator of YourCourageousLife.com, where she defines courage as feeling afraid, diving in anyway, and transforming. Her first book with New Harbinger will be on shelves in 2018 (and I can’t wait!). Below, Kate talks about what courageous living is really about, along with how we can start believing in ourselves—and a whole lot more. 

Q: How do you define courageous living? 

A: Courageous living is about living in such a way that who you really are on the inside, matches how you actually live, on the outside. It’s about making the (sometimes tough) choices that will prioritize your truest desires for how you live your life. People often think of “courageous living” as being about doing big, impressive things, but I encourage people to think of it more as a “way of being.”

When you internally feel a pull to live in a certain way, such as to start speaking up for yourself or to leave a career that isn’t fulfilling, do you follow that internal pull? If you do follow that impulse, and you start examining who you are and what changes need to be made, you’re practicing courageous living, even if you encounter obstacles and setbacks along the way.

Q: On your website, you write that you’re into being “courageous,” not “fearless.” What’s the difference? 

A: Well, first: no one is actually “fearless”! Everyone feels fear, and the most courageous among us will admit to that.  The difference between the two is that practicing courage involves understanding fear and taking action even when fear or self-doubt come up, whereas striving to become “fearless” is about trying to deny or push away fear.

Q: Why is cultivating courage so important?

A: Cultivating more courage is important because as a species, our happiness is important—it’s really that straightforward. Part of being happier means developing resilience strategies for facing the challenges and stress that everyone encounters, and so we need courageous habits to cultivate that resilience.

When we create more courageous habits and start integrating courage into our lives regularly, we become more psychologically resilient against stress, more connected within our social groups, and that individual work can even be helpful when we do more collective work—the more individuals feel empowered to create change in their own lives, the more they’ll be able to translate that to finding solutions to the problems that our collective world faces.

Q: On your website, you write, “My greatest wish for all of us is that we completely and totally love and accept ourselves, and that our basic sense of safety and security in the world arises from knowing, trusting, and believing in exactly who we are.” I love this! Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s quite a journey. But how can readers start to trust and believe in who they are? 

A: We tend not to believe in ourselves because we feel fear in our bodies or the voice of internal self-doubt is really strong. To shift that will entail looking at both what we feel as well as what we think. I’ve identified four research-backed behaviors that, when practiced together and with consistency, build a “courage habit” that people can draw on to feel that greater acceptance and trust in who they are: Accessing the body, listening without attachment, reframing limiting stories, and creating community. Instead of responding to fear in the old, habitual way, you consciously choose to respond to fear with new, courageous habits.

Accessing the body is where you start, and it can be as simple as a mindfulness-based breathing practice that slows down the fear sensations and allows you to recognize fear cues before you get stuck in self-doubt. Listening without attachment is about confronting fear, head-on, by listening to what the internal Critic is saying rather than going the “trying to be fearless” route and shutting the Critic down. What are these voices of self-doubt actually saying, if you stop to listen?

But you don’t just listen without attachment and do nothing, of course! You do something pro-active, what I call “reframing limiting Stories,” which is a form of cognitive restructuring and reframing the fear-based Stories into something that’s more supportive of the changes you want to make.

And finally, you reach out and create community. Fear and self-doubt thrive in isolation. The research clearly shows that social groups have massive influence over behavior. If you want to believe in yourself and trust yourself more, you need to form more connections with others who are also doing this work and who will support the changes you’re trying to create.

Q: What’s one or two ways readers can start to cultivate their courage right now?

A: Since we feel fear or self-doubt in the body, we need to deal with it in the body. I like to say that fear isn’t logical; it’s primal. Anything that someone can do to slow down, breathe, and access the body will be the most helpful first step. From there, you can think more clearly. Your nervous system isn’t as stimulated. You can bring presence to your choices and consciously choose which habits to cultivate.

Psychological courage and the mindset that underlies it is about resilience, and when fear or self-doubt hijacks your nervous system, it’s very difficult to stay in a courageous mindset. But if you’re willing to slow down and breathe and be for just a moment, despite the fear, then you’re more likely to see solutions or find your motivation to take the next step in the direction of your desires.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about courageous living? 

A: I always encourage people to “believe in the power of five minutes.” People think that changing their lives will involve big, dramatic, sweeping changes. But feeling like you’re completely capable of going after your dreams or changing the world for the better—living with courage—is built on the small micro-movements that you integrate into your day until they become habits.

Feel fear? Slow down, breathe. Critical inner voices are loud? Listen without attachment, and briefly reframe what they say. Facing challenges as you go after your dreams? Reach out to your community. These are small, easeful, do-able behaviors that anyone can practice until they become courageous habits.

Photo by Annie Spratt.