Who would’ve thought that the key to a better life was simply practicing emotional courage?
When I was a high school educator, I saw my colleagues struggle to understand their students. These were excellent teachers, smart teachers, but they’re students never got a chance to see them be human. And to get to know these young adults, which I would argue is one of the most rewarding aspects of the profession, we couldn’t be life-less androids who did nothing but grade papers and read books all day. I knew that if I was going to make an impact on education, I needed to be myself. That meant taking the risk, being vulnerable, and displaying emotional courage.
So before asking my students to open up, I let my students know about my life. My engagement, my failures, and most definitely, my new puppy. And if some students weren’t ready yet, they just wrote in their journals.
Displaying emotional courage improved the relationship with my wife, helped process emotions honestly, and made me a better leader. There’s no excuse. If you want to take the next step in your relationships or at work, you might want to take a risk and practice emotional courage.
What is emotional courage?
Emotional courage is the strength to express your honest emotions, even though you are scared. Tony Robbins likes to say, “Courage does not mean that you’re not afraid. It means that you’re afraid and you do it anyway.” It’s about not just allowing yourself to be vulnerable, but emotional courage requires you to go deep with your thoughts and feelings.
Rachel and I sat out on the deck of my old one-bedroom apartment. We had been dating for only a few months, but I knew I loved her. For some reason, at this moment, I needed Rachel to understand how I felt about her. You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach, the one that pops up right before any meaningful conversation. Every negative experience of expressing my emotions slithered their way back into my memory. But to find love, and to be in love, you need to take risks. You can’t be afraid. So I mustered up all of my emotional courage, looked Rachel in the eyes, and told her, “I love you.”
Rachel’s response was, let’s say, less than ideal: “I love you, sometimes.” I never clarified when sometimes was, if it was an hourly thing or something that occurred a couple of times a month, but nonetheless, I felt okay with that answer because I did the courageous thing. Telling someone you love them, whether it’s your partner, your friends, or sometimes even your parents can be a risk. You might be scared shitless, but few people regret saying something.
To fully embrace the benefits of emotional courage, you need to learn to take risks. You need to learn to fully embrace the full emotional spectrum: from happiness to sadness to anger—all of it.
Why practice emotional courage?
Now that we know what emotional courage is, it’s also essential to understand the science behind why we should practice emotional courage in our everyday lives. Outside of personal experiences, there is data that explains the benefits of emotional courage and proves that living a life experiencing the full emotional spectrum is worth it.
Improve Leadership Skills
Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage, has a challenge for you: the next time you’re at work, try and go three minutes without an emotion. Is it impossible, right? Humans are emotional beings, and those emotions impact how we think and behave. There’s no such thing as a life without emotions, but there is evidence that those who embrace their feelings are more successful.
Bregman spoke with Forbes about why leaders who practice emotional courage are successful. He describes three elements for powerful leadership: “Great leaders are confident in themselves, connected with others, and committed to a larger purpose – all at the same time.” And of course, you cannot utilize all of those great leadership qualities without also developing emotional courage.
Bregman continues, “That’s where emotional courage comes in. There’s something you don’t want to feel. Maybe it’s the possibility of conflict. Or the other person’s defensiveness. Or their anger. Or your own anger or defensiveness. I’m not sure what it is that you might have to feel – but the risk of feeling it stops you. It stops all of us. That’s why emotional courage is so important to follow through on what we care most about.” Practicing emotional courage allows you to act on your emotions while you’re feeling them rather than holding onto them and expressing them passive-aggressively. And the sooner you can confront those emotions, the less likely you are to be beholden to them over a workweek.
Leadership speaker Dov Baron sums it up, “lack of emotional courage leads to lack of action.” Baron reiterates that the more emotions attached to a situation, the more likely we are to procrastinate or avoid having that conversation. If you practice emotional courage as a leader, though, that doesn’t mean the talks won’t be hard.
Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is 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.” True leaders are those who aren’t afraid to have challenging, emotional conversations because they’ve spent years practicing their emotional courage.
More effective and Happy Relationships
One of the biggest revelations I’ve had in the past year was how the inability to communicate my needs and boundaries were self-sabotaging all of my relationships. I struggled to tell my parents when they were crossing boundaries. I couldn’t muster the emotional courage to say to my friends that I was depressed and longing for a deeper emotional connection. And most obviously, by not speaking up about my desires to any romantic partners, we were left playing a game of mind reading and passive-aggressive bingo. Needless to say, I was unhappy with my relationships, and my parents, friends, and girlfriends were unhappy with me.
Before I could build healthy relationships, I needed to learn how to push past my fears and display emotional courage. But how does a lack of emotional courage negatively affect your relationships? Think about a meaningful conversation you’ve needed to have with your partner. What happened when you avoided telling them your feelings? They often call this avoidant behavior.
According to Very Well Mind, “Avoidant behaviors are any action that a person takes to escape from difficult thoughts or feelings.” I spent a lot of my life escaping and trying to avoid it. Yet whenever I took the chance and practiced emotional courage, good things happened. I managed to leave one job for a better one; I have a stronger relationship with my wife. It’s understandable, though, why some people are avoidant.
Leon Seltzer in an article for Psychology Today writes, “Specifically, what’s involved here is the willingness to stick your neck out and express a need or desire—when the outcome, because it’s uncertain and might end up making you feel uncared for, dismissed, or even humiliated, might substantially raise your anxiety level … or catapult you into a depressive funk.” And that fear can be paralyzing if you’re not used to practicing emotional courage. You often worry about the worst-case scenario, the one where you feel like a fool. I get it, I’ve been there many times before. When I think about regrets, though, I don’t think about the things I did say, it’s always about the things I didn’t say.
Relationships are collaborative and can only work when both sides understand common goals. And how do we do that? Improving communication in your relationship. The more open and honest you communicate, the more likely you are to see the benefits in your relationship. No more wondering how your partner is feeling, and way less resentment. Couples who communicate well are always more durable than those who don’t.
It’s really that simple: a couple who is willing and able to have the hard conversations, to practice emotional courage, are more likely to live happier lives together. And the people you will spend the rest of your life with, whether it’s a friend or a partner, will appreciate your vulnerability and return the favor.
Take the first step in practicing emotional courage today, and improve your relationships forever.
How can I practice emotional courage?
It’s easy for me to sit here and list the reasons why you should practice emotional courage, but it’s far more critical for me to give you ways to implement the process in your everyday life. That’s why I’ve made this shortlist of ways anyone can practice being vulnerable.
Emotional courage is like a muscle, it’s crucial to practice and build up over time. When I was struggling with practicing emotional courage, my therapist suggested that I start with someone safe instead of a riskier option than my girlfriend at the time. So I chose a male friend, I told them that they were important in my life and that I loved them. Just saying those words to him felt like an accomplishment.
Maybe you’re not 100% ready to tell your boss that you’re unhappy, or your partner that you need more emotional connection, and that’s okay. But you do need to be willing to take the small steps necessary to get you to the point where practicing emotional courage isn’t something that holds you back.
Start with close friends, family members even, and work out that emotional courage muscle. As you realize, there’s less to be afraid or anxious about, everything will become easier. You’ll procrastinate less, and you’ll start saying the important things you need to say.
Connect to others
Like any excellent communicator, practicing emotional courage also requires you to be an active listener. The next time you’re in a conversation about something that you have strong feelings about, maybe just ask questions instead of saying the first thing that comes to your mind. Learn where the other person is coming from.
Kripalu, a center for Yoga and Health, suggests, “Another way to develop emotional courage is simply to admit when we don’t know something. Ironically, the willingness to admit ignorance reads as strength.” When in a conversation with your partner, admitting you don’t have all of the answers requires a level of vulnerability.
Building connections through active listening and displaying vulnerability are two of the easiest ways to practice emotional courage. You will find that the more experience you have, the more often you’ll recognize that the people who deserve your trust, friendship, and love, will respect you even more for admitting your truth.
Imagine the benefits
The worst part of practicing emotional courage is buildup. Think of it like riding a roller-coaster, you know you’re going to have an incredible time going upside down and corkscrewing, but that first hill is a real SOB. You spend the entire hill ride with your eyes closed, then the ride car stops at the top, and you’re forced to look down. What happens next? You have an incredible time.
But what if you were so scared in the buildup that you never tried the roller-coaster, to begin with? Same thing with practicing emotional courage. You can absolutely psych yourself out of having a real conversation with someone you love by overthinking it all day and night. You’ll get those butterflies in your stomach, it’ll be hard to eat. Instead of focusing on the negative, take some time to think of the positives.
You just asked your boss for a raise? Think about what you’re going to do with that money. You told your partner that you loved them? Incredible, and imagine how great love feels and envelopes you. I like to think about the weight that will be lifted off of my shoulders and how much better I’ll feel once everything I need to say if off of my chest.
Peter Bregman says, “If you’re willing to feel everything, then you can do anything.” That’s what practicing emotional courage is all about: being honest and vulnerable with yourself so you can achieve anything you want in life. Avoiding hard conversations will only leave you feeling empty.
By practicing emotional courage, you can finally take charge of your own life.