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I love the study, cultivation and simple appreciation of character strengths.
I have seen how cultivating them makes us happy, effective and successful. I have seen how ignoring strengths leaves us frustrated and unfulfilled. I have seen how practicing the art of spotting them can be fun, but also and effective for teams, families and other groups looking for ways to improve understanding and communication.
As I peruse the list, most of them seem to lend themselves to feeling good. I love feeling gratitude, or enjoying a laugh or being kind. Who does not feel good when they feel love or loved? For those like me, who love learning or are curious, doesn’t it feel good to satisfy that yearning for new facts and information?
But what about bravery and courage?
“I wish I had more bravery,” a friend said to me over the phone. “Of all the strengths, that is the one I feel I lack and should work on.”
It is probably a widespread thought.
Typical images of bravery or courage are of the firefighter rushing into a burning building to save a child, or of a soldier fighting for our safety, or of someone battling disease. The fact is that we ALL use most of the character strengths to a greater or lesser extent and that includes courage. Sometimes we may just not recognise it. I think my friend is brave.
For example, she has taken a chance on a career change. She knew she needed the change, but she had no certainty it would be successful, no clear path for the future beyond taking the first step. That seems pretty brave to me.
As I discuss strengths, and in particular bravery with more people, I wonder if we all have a tendency to mix up being brave and courageous with being fearless? I know I have said things like “it did not feel brave to me, I was terrified!” And yet when considering courage – a blend of strengths including bravery – quotes abound that tell us that this virtue goes hand in hand with fear.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”.
Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear”, to name but two.
The VIA Strengths Classification defines the virtue of courage as “Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal” and comprises the strengths of bravery, honesty, perseverance and zest.
The strength of bravery is described as “Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it.”
As I read those words they are not exactly synonymous with happiness or feeling good. Who wants to feel pain, threat or difficulty? Who likes to face opposition? Who chooses to feel uncertain, insecure or vulnerable? I know I don’t, and yet one of my signature strengths is bravery.
Unlike the other strengths that feel good in the moment, bravery is a character strength that may be easier to appreciate in retrospect.
Looking back on that scary presentation, or performance, the one that made you feel you would forget to breathe, the one you dreamt of for days or may even weeks beforehand, it feels good to know you went ahead despite the nerves and got through it. Maybe you got through a tough time resulting from loss or illness, and look back now and see how you have grown, or just how you kept putting one foot in front of the other despite your distress.
As you appreciate your accomplishment, THAT is when you get to appreciate bravery. If you still struggle to see your bravery, ask a friend or close family member whether they see bravery in you. Maybe through their eyes you can come to appreciate this strength.
So take a moment and look back now.
Think about a time when you were scared but did it anyway, a time when one of your inner voices was saying “this is too hard” but you took on the challenge. Look kindly at yourself, or ask someone close to do it for you, because you were your best self in that moment. If it was hard but you acted anyway, that was you showing bravery! If you took on the challenge not only bravely, but also honestly, determinedly and with energy and vigor, that was you displaying courage.
And maybe if you just cannot recognise your bravery, that is your humility coming to the fore!