I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
I will start with the question I wrote in a diary early in the morning, soon after waking up.
“How do I manifest the voice of authenticity that springs from the depths of the soul?”
Usually my deep-thoughts hat rests comfortably on my head, carelessly sleeps and rarely wakes up from its pleasant dreams. But not this time. The awakened idea continued in the role of a spokesperson.
It asked, “How many unspoken and unwritten words are waiting for the audience?”
I answered with the question, “Is that the most genuine expression of who I want to be?”
And then quietly, to myself, I murmured that silent presence away from the public may be my wish; communication without words, existence learned from time immemorial for the purpose of surviving or avoiding conflict; “don’t get in the way” ideology. Maybe it was necessary because times were turbulent and dangerous.
The idea was dissatisfied and continued, ” You are honest when you write. You tell as it is.”
I ignored this answer because I was already immersed in the fear-activated tendency of avoidance that I discovered early on but have strived to overcome, with great effort. It is not easy to cope with the adrenaline traversing though my body and signaling danger. When the alarm bell is loud, deafening, pulsating, it does not hear the voice of reason, it shouts, “Run! Save your life! Hide!” And I’m running; looking for a mother, a security base, because everything scares me. I am tearful, inclined to declare a photographer with an antique standing camera and a black cloak an intruder ready for evil deeds, hence running I must do, no matter what. But there is a brother who comforts and calms me. The photo was taken, and now a three-year-old witness is looking at me with a wide-open eyes, a worried expression and barely wiped away tears on his face. There is a brother by my side, who protects me with his closeness and arm stretched over my shoulder as an additional “seat belt”. I listen to stories of a forgotten early life when I avoided any unpleasant situation, and when I couldn’t, I cried for solace from my mother.
My thoughts are now captured by the desire to better understand the method of avoidance, often deployed because fear has “big eyes”. Avoidance is related to associative learning in the emotional parts of the brain (hippocampus / amygdala complex) that operate on the principle of surviving and remembering dangerous situations. The word association is related to this learning because neutral stimuli are associated with a feeling of fear, become “conditioned,” and begin to be avoided because of the irrational need to prevent the activation of an alarm (panic response). When such a fear-bound association takes root, that root branches and involves more and more situations, and avoidance is more and more implemented. The doors of free will action close one after the other and the weight of fear-induced coercion pulls down, prevents, and hinders every step forward.
For me, this association was related to social situations due to fearful thoughts that I will turn out stupid if I say something, blush, sweat under my armpit or when shaking hands, stutter or do not know what to say. This was in particular evident in the encounter with the girls, and especially with those I liked. I remember situation when I was talking with a friend and then we came across girls. A friend was cracking jokes, the girls were laughing, and I was speechless, mute. Afterwards, I was angry with myself. When it was all over, I had a lot to say, but it was too late. Maybe next time? But at the other times it was all the same, even if I was prepared. Somehow, I got tongue tied, so it couldn’t move.
As an adult, a similar fear-induced reaction occurred when I was giving lectures or presentations, a public appearance. I couldn’t sleep, fidgeted all night, and repeated the material over and over. I tried to memorize it, and then, during the presentation, I ended up reading what I had prepared, not daring to look at the listeners, using filler words in abundance (“you know”, “like”, “ah”, “um”, etc.) after each sentence. A real torture because those were situations I could not avoid. I had to deal with the demon of fear, no matter what. And it worked. I have discovered a method of treatment, exposure therapy, a treatment of choice for any phobia or other conditions where avoidance, both behavioral and experiential, is prominent.
As Nelson Mandela says, courage is a necessary ingredient in overcoming fear and reacting (running away) from situations that feed it. Because the more we run, the greater the fear becomes and the less is our self-confidence (courage) to resist it. If we understand fear as a warning signal and not a definite sign that we are exposed to life-threatening situation, then we can approach it much easier with fortitude and curiosity rather than with an act of avoidance, justification, and procrastination. In this way we do not allow fear to build into our existence. The more we avoid instead investigate, the more convinced we are that there is something dangerous to avoid. The circle gradually closes and the inner prison with the locked door and the guard holding the key becomes the only reality we acknowledge.
But not completely. For most of us fearful people, there is a ray of hope, a motivation to experience a different reality and broaden our horizons, get out of house arrest, because the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. The prison guard is not omniscient. He only exists to warn us and not keep us in jail, so if we ask him to unlock the door with the promise that we will be careful, he will gladly do so. This is the first step towards a “brave new world” in which we allow ourselves to feel the discomfort of bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories. We practice courage by starting with baby steps, little by little, like a baby, we learn to walk without fear. To be successful, daily practice is necessary. One step at a time, with a break, rest, relaxation, deep and slow breathing, and then we continue. By practicing courage, we build tolerance towards the feeling of fear, and the ability to walk becomes easier and faster. Some of us are even so emboldened to decide to run a marathon but that is not the goal. The goal is to get out of prison, try new things and not avoid unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and situations. The more we practice being brave, the braver we become.
And so, I became a great lecturer and presenter, after countless hours of practice, mistakes, feelings of embarrassment, and anxiety. But now I can run a marathon and enjoy the process. As for other avoidances, they are still possible, but more as a choice than as a coercion. I still dislike certain social situations and small talks but not out of fear, but out of a desire for authenticity. My introverted nature is not conditioned by fear but by taste. And so I accept myself and respond to the idea from the beginning of this text:
“You are right, I am honest when I write. I narrate what I think and feel without fear, and with the desire to express my authentic voice that springs from the depths of my soul.”