All of us need courage in our lives. It takes courage to choose, to innovate, to take yourself in a new direction, to disagree, to stand firm, to admit when you’re wrong. If I want to celebrate courage on International Women’s Day what images of courage could I use? Our images of courage tend to be masculine; courage is depicted as strength. In our stories of courage men are the muscular superheroes. Women are the damsel’s in distress. Who are our female role models for courage?
Whilst the superhero images of courage are popular they are inaccurate. Being courageous isn’t about being invulnerable. It’s not about being the strongest person in the room. Instead the essential ingredient for courage is vulnerability. If you are able to perform a task without any vulnerability; without any fear of failure or anxiety; then you do not need any courage to do it. Being courageous is choosing to do something with vulnerability. Courage is trying the thing that may fail; trying the thing that feels out of your control; stepping into the unknown and the unpredictable. To be courageous is to be vulnerable. Without any vulnerability there is no need for courage.
The day I met my role models for courage is a moment that’s stayed with me, moved me, and inspired me. I spent that day in the company of a group of women who didn’t look strong. They looked vulnerable. I was interviewing these women for a research project. All of the women had experienced rape or sexual abuse. All of them were telling me their stories of choosing to rebuild their lives. Rebuilding your life after rape or sexual abuse is a courageous choice to make. It’s a choice that exposes you to more vulnerability when your world is already full of vulnerability. It’s a choice to step outside of your comfort zone when your comfort zone is already very small. On that day the women I met were the lived embodiment of courage; they were choosing to sit with their vulnerability despite how difficult that was.
Why would someone make that kind of choice?
These women understood that courage is key to our growth. When we step outside of our comfort zones we push the boundaries of our knowledge, skills, confidence, experience, and ability. This is why we feel vulnerable. But this is also how we grow. It’s how we gain new knowledge, more skills, and greater abilities. The pull to stay within our own comfort zones is strong. We all like to feel safe, in control, competent. People with small comfort zones face a daily challenge of navigating the world whilst staying within their small area of comfort. They may constantly feel challenged to be courageous; they may constantly choose to avoid that challenge. People with larger comfort zones may not feel challenged very often. They are likely to see themselves as competent and confident. It might not occur to them that they have stopped growing; their comfort zone may be large, but are they equally afraid of stepping outside of it? Regardless of our starting place our path to growth is the same. Growth only happens when we have the courage to walk to the edge of our comfort zone and choose to step outside of it. Growth only happens when we are willing to expose ourselves to vulnerability.
When I need to draw on my own courage I don’t think of superheroes, I think of the women I interviewed. I see their vulnerability. I see their willingness to experience it. I smile. I step out.