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Unleashing Your Courage to Overcome Fear

by Mary Ann Bailey, MC
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For many years Ann had dreamed about starting her own catering business. She had a name picked out, she had saved money for the start-up costs and she had taken several classes on how to start and run a successful business. Her plan was to wait until her last child left home and then it was her turn to pursue her dream.

Yet, as she watched her youngest son leave for college, she felt a small tingle of fear start creeping into her body. This was it. This was what she had been waiting for, but now that she actually had the time and freedom to develop her business, doubts started to arise. Would she really be able to do this? Was she smart enough? Did she really want to take the risk? Maybe it would be wise to put this off for just a little longer until the economy settled down, until she was more secure in her ability to run a business, until she was more certain that this was what she really wanted to do, until . . . .

The idea of starting a catering business was not a fly-by-night idea for Ann. She had thought about it for years and had taken concrete steps to ensure the success of the idea. So, why now was she getting cold feet?

Ann was getting cold feet because she has decided to make a change in her life and that change was going to upset the status quo of her body. Our bodies are systems; and as with all systems, they do everything they can to maintain homeostasis, or equilibrium. When a change occurs, or even when there is a perceived change on the horizon, our bodies respond by sending out little red alerts. Our heart speed up, our breath gets shallow and our stomach tighten. We recognize these feelings as fear, as something to avoid.

Our natural tendency when experiencing fear is to retreat, to give up on our dream and return to the safety of our comfort zone -- that place where we feel protected and secure. And although we feel relief by retreating, the relief is only temporary. Soon there will be something else that comes along and tempts us to take the risk of stepping over that magic line. Will this be the time we follow our hearts or we will once again give into our fear of fear?

As we become more aware of this push-pull of wanting to make changes, yet being afraid to try new things, the question becomes: "How can we diminish the power that fear has in our lives so that we can pursue our dreams and achieve our goals?

One way to address the issue of fear is first to understand that fear is a label we have given to a group of physical sensations. When our body perceives a threat to the system, it automatically responds by sending out alerts. However, what we need to realize is that what the body, or more specifically our limbic brain, sees as a threat is usually nothing more than just a small change in our way of being. The limbic brain is the flight or fight center. It's job is to send out danger alerts and these alerts cause physical sensations in our bodies.

As these sensations are not pleasant, we immediately go into our head and create a story to help us make sense of them. And because we don't like the sensations, we interpret them as being "bad". We then add our own commentary to the whole experience.

Statements such as "If I feel this way, it must mean that I shouldn't do this", or "This feels way too scary, what was I thinking!", or "I don't think making this change is such a good idea", start floating through our heads, and before we know it we have talked ourselves out of doing something we wanted to do, basically because of some relatively innocuous body sensations. Once the dialogue and story begin, the experience, which may have started with just a quickening of the breath, now takes on a life of its own.

If we want to short circuit this process so that we can keep moving forward toward our goal, we need to shift our focus from the limbic system of automatic responses to the more intellectual and practical response of our neo-cortex; and it is in this part of the brain where you will find your courage. Courage can be defined as the ability to keep moving forward in spite of all the fears and doubts that your limbic system is throwing at you. Courage comes from the rational and intellectual part of your brain and it has the ability dismantle the stories and beliefs that your emotional part of the brain has created to keep you stuck. It gives you the power to break down your fears and doubts one step at a time; and with every piece of fear you break down you increase your strength, confidence and courage.

Courage is not a mystical force that only belongs to a select few. Although we all may not possess the heroic kind of courage that allows us to save people from burning buildings or fight wars, each of us does have the quiet inner courage which allows us to tackle the fears and doubts of making life changes and moving forward toward our dreams.

But many of us have lost touch with our inner courage. We have listened so long to the voices of fear and doubt telling is that we are not good enough, smart enough, deserving enough or kind enough to achieve what we want, that we have started to integrate those fantasies as truth. It's time that we reconnect with our inner courage and use the power of that courage to break through these stories and begin living the life we truly want to live.

Building up our courage is much like building up our muscles. We need to start slowly and be consistent in our training. The following exercise is a great place to start.

EXERCISE: Strengthening Your Courage

Step One Think of something that you want to do but haven't because of fear/doubt. You might want to start with something small.

Step Two One a sheet of paper, write down all the fears/doubts that come up when you think about tackling this project. Be specific.

Step Three Now prioritize your list of fears from the least scary to the most scary and starting with the #1 -- the least scary -- ask yourself: By itself, is this fear still a fear? If not, you can move on to the next. If yes, ask yourself:

1. What am I afraid of? Be as specific as you can.

2. What do I need to do to overcome this fear? Options could be: Information, resources, talking with a friend or just jumping in and doing it. As you work through this step, notice the sensations in your body and remind yourself that they are just sensations and by themselves they have no meaning.

Also, notice what the voices are telling you. If you start to lose your confidence, take a moment to sit quietly and get back in touch with the rational and courageous part of you. Ask for support. Write yourself little pep notes -- do whatever it takes to stay centered in your courage.

3. Continue through your list, viewing each of these fears from the rational part of your brain. Remember the courageous part of you knows you are perfectly capable of making this happen and will give you the support and strength to make it happen. As you work through your list you will notice how much easier it becomes to draw upon your courage and how less often you will get tripped up by the stories of your fear.

The secret to building up courage is to take it one step at a time. We are a society of instant gratification junkies, so our tendency is to look ahead to the final goal and then get completely overwhelmed at all we have to achieve. This feeling of overwhelm puts our limbic brain on instant alert and then the fear cycle starts. If we work on our goals one step at a time, our body is less stressed. This lessens our fear, increases our courage and allows us to achieve our dreams.

There will be bumps in the road. There will be days that you might falter, when things seem a little too hard, when you think you won't be suc

Mary Ann Bailey, MC is the Catalyst for Courage for women going through life and career transitions. She helps her clients reconnect with their inner courage and then shows them how to unleash the power of that courage to make the changes they want to make in their lives. She is also the author of “Gentle Warrior, Awakening the Courage to Live a Bold and Brilliant Life.” For more information visit,

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Mary Ann Bailey, MC
Life Transitions
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