The Force of Courage

We think of fear as negative; exploiting fear for personal gain sounds even more so. But reframe the way you think about your own fears, and they become opportunities to be courageous, point out goop’s resident, brilliantly action-oriented psychotherapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. Below, they expand on one of their best-ever podcasts (it’s amazing), giving us five paradigm-shifting steps for harnessing our own fear—and leveraging it—for good.

Five Steps for Overcoming Fear

Most people don’t realize it, but whenever you’re afraid, there’s an opportunity to develop an inner force that can expand your life in ways you never imagined. That force is courage. Courage is the force that enables you to act in the face of fear. When you activate courage again and again, you can take advantage of everything life has to offer you.

But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most people never develop the courage they need, and their lives are limited because of it. Here are five steps that will help you tap into this life-giving force. If you follow them, fear will no longer be the thing that stops you from living the life you want—it will become the thing that makes your life worth living.

1. Accept It: Fear is Part of Life

PHIL: Fear never goes away. It doesn’t matter how strong you feel or are—if you can lift 350 pounds, if you have 350 million dollars in the bank, if you can boss around your spouse—you are still going to be afraid. To a large degree what you accomplish in life, what you are capable of, is going to depend on how you deal with fear.

BARRY: The first step is to accept that fear is a normal part of life—everyone feels it. Our culture really works against us accepting this, though. For example, some of our most iconic figures are comic book heroes who don’t ever feel afraid. If there’s no fear, then there’s no courage. In a weird way, these cultural icons teach us the wrong lesson: that there’s a way of getting rid of fear, rather than developing the courage to overcome it.

PHIL: At the same time, therapists haven’t done a good job of defining courage. If we don’t know what courage is, then we have no way of dealing with (or even admitting) our fears. Courage, for me, is the ability to act in the face of fear. But we’re not trained to do that. It’s not natural for most of us. As a result, most people feel helpless about becoming courageous or changing their reaction to fear. It’s better now than what it was thirty years ago, but much of psychotherapy still won’t touch this topic. Even alluding to the fact that someone is terrified and that he or she has to work through it is a taboo subject.

This issue always fascinated me, because as an athlete growing up, I had become familiar with fear at a young age. I played basketball, and one of the scariest things for me was shooting a foul shot, especially when it was a close game. When you’re shooting a foul shot, you’re isolated—everyone in the stands and on the court is looking at you—and you’re fully responsible for the outcome. Even when I was a kid I developed a procedural way to deal with that fear. It was a tool. I would bounce the ball four times, spin it, bounce it again four times, spin it, bend my knees, exhale, and look at the front of the rim. It was one of the first tools I developed and it worked really well for me.

2. Identify It: Every Fear is an Opportunity

BARRY: To leverage fear into courage, you’re going to have to be honest with yourself every time you’re afraid. Most of us hide our fears, keeping them secret even from ourselves. For instance, I know a lot of fathers who are afraid to be alone with their kids—not because they aren’t good fathers, but because they’re afraid of making a mistake. You may be afraid to ask for a promotion, or confront someone about something he or she did that hurt you. If you don’t admit these fears to yourself, you can’t leverage them into courage. Look for the points in your life where you’re afraid, and see them as opportunities to learn to deal with fear.

PHIL: If you hide your fears, you’ll never develop a way of dealing with them. Your fears will trigger the most primitive, irrational part of you—the fight or flight response. It’s a system that’s good in a situation that threatens your physical survival, but one that causes terrible overactions when it comes to dealing with most of the fears we have to confront.

3. Feel It: When You’re Afraid, Don’t Think About or Analyze the Fear

BARRY: The greatest mistake people make when dealing with fear is to think about it. They analyze what triggered it, or start “playing chess,” projecting out what might happen next and how they’ll deal with it. This doesn’t diminish fear, it actually increases it. That’s because there’s no way to outsmart the universe.

PHIL: There are two levels of human consciousness: The first level is the thought level, where you try to reassure yourself by thinking this or that will happen, and then you scare the shit out of yourself by realizing, “Yeah, but what if that and this happens instead?” The second and deeper level is called the work level. At the work level you’re not thinking; you’re using a tool.

BARRY: The tool that helps people deal with fear is called the Reversal of Desire. But to use the tool, you first have to let yourself be afraid—take the emotion and feel it, intensely, inside you.

4. Face It: When You Move Through Fear, It Diminishes

BARRY: Have you ever had one of those dreams where a dark, scary figure is chasing you? If you run away, it always gets much more terrifying. If you turn around and face it, something good almost always happens. It’s the same with fears in your waking life. That’s what the Reversal of Desire tool is designed to do. It’s called the Reversal of Desire because our normal desire is to run away from fear; the tool reverses that desire and gets you to face fear and move through it.

Here’s how the tool works in the moment: Take your feelings of fear and push them out in front of you in the form of a big, black cloud. Now that the feelings are separated from you, say to yourself: “I see how these feelings have held me back in many situations, not just this one, and I’m determined to move through them, instead of letting them stop me.” Then yell silently to yourself: “Bring it on!” Move into the cloud. Once you’re in the middle of it, scream silently again: “I love fear”—meaning you are one with the fear, fully inside it. You can only let go of your fear after you’ve become one with it. Then the cloud spits you out, and you’ll find yourself soaring into a realm of pure light. Say to yourself: “Fear sets me free.”

5. Practice It Every Chance You Get

PHIL: As you use the Reversal of Desire tool more, you start to feel like you can actually move through fear. As a consequence, fear, in general, has less power over you. Fear simply becomes an obstacle you can get through.

Try to think about confronting fear as a skill—something you can practice and get good at, like ping-pong, or knitting, or anything else. This will make your fear seem less dramatic, and you’ll feel more in control of it. You can also gain a lot of satisfaction in the process.

BARRY: In 2012, when we were doing publicity for our first book, we both had to do a lot of things we were afraid of—things we’d never done before, like going on live TV. It was terrifying, but I came out of that year with a feeling of expansion and possibility—like if I could do that, I can do anything! It was amazing.

PHIL: In the book we talk about higher forces, which are based on the nature of the universe. The universe itself is constantly moving forward. When you develop courage and the ability to act in the face of your fears, you can move forward as well. This kind of syncs you up with the universe. It may sound hokey, but when you try it, you’ll see it’s absolutely true. It’s what we call creating serendipity. When you’re moving forward, in sync with the universe, you tend to come across valuable opportunities.

BARRY: I’m a good example of that. I was a lawyer before I became a therapist, and one of the scariest things I ever did was quit law. It was scary because practicing law was a prestigious, high-paying job, and I had no idea what to do next. Yet, with every passing year, I got this feeling that something greater than me was guiding me to people, places, and opportunities I never would have found on my own. In the first year after I quit, I discovered I wanted to become a psychotherapist, and I knew immediately it was what I was meant to do. In the second year, I met my wife at a psychotherapy conference (which I never would have attended as an attorney). We’ve been married thirty years and have two amazing kids. In the third year, I met Phil, who has been an incredibly wise, supportive person in my life. None of these things would have ever come to me if I hadn’t somehow mustered the courage to make that move. Courage mobilizes the universe to give you things that wouldn’t otherwise have come to you.

PHIL: To me that’s real power. It’s the power to take fear–something that threatens to stop you from living fully–and transform it into the very thing that makes your life worth living. It’s the kind of power anyone can have if they use the tools.